In Sabang, Strategist Mukul Roy Is the Reluctant Face of the BJP

Sabang, in West Bengal, goes to polls on 21 December. This will be Mukul Roy’s first election after joining the BJP.

5 min read
Mukul Roy has become the reluctant face of the BJP for the Sabang by-polls.

Ask Mukul Roy if his electoral expertise is going to win BJP the Sabang bypoll, and his answer has always been, “I don’t have a magic wand.”

But in West Medinipur’s Sabang, he is indeed trying to weave magic to recreate what he has earlier done for the Trinamool, in BJP colours this time. Political observers say that the 63-year-old does not have the same spark that his younger, TMC version used to. The BJP leadership has not formally accorded the responsibility of Sabang to Roy, but in the minds of party workers (both in the Trinamool and BJP), this bypoll on 21 December is going to be his first test. A test of how much damage he has actually done to his former party. The Quint spoke to district level workers across party lines, to try and understand Mukul Roy’s strategy and the extent of his involvement in this election.

When the Betrayer Played the Betrayal Card

The first point of attack for all parties in Sabang is Manas Bhunia, an MLA for 35 years, who won the 2016 assembly election on a Congress ticket. Later in the year, he defected to the TMC and was given a Rajya Sabha ticket leaving the Sabang seat vacant.

Manas Bhunia, former Congress MLA from Sabang, now a Rajya Sabha MP for the Trinamool.
Manas Bhunia, former Congress MLA from Sabang, now a Rajya Sabha MP for the Trinamool.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

His wife, Gita Rani Bhunia, is now the Trinamool’s candidate for the bypoll. Quite unsurprisingly, Mukul, in his roadshows and public meetings, has hailed Manas as a betrayer, who defected after the people reposed faith in him. But with the Trinamool leveling exactly the same allegations against him, how far is this strategy going to work? Especially since the BJP candidate too was an erstwhile CPI(M) leader.

Well, for one, Mukul seems to believe that it kills two birds with one stone. It discredits the Bhunia family (and therefore the Trinamool) and also exposes the vulnerabilities of the Congress in a constituency that has been its bastion for years. There have been many defections from the Congress to the Trinamool, especially since the 2016 assembly elections and the BJP seems to be highlighting that in all its campaigns.

“Mukul Da went for door-to-doors with me and tried to convince people with a two point agenda – one is the BJP’s national development agenda. The other is Bhunia’s incompetence as MLA and his betrayal”, Antara Bhattacharya, BJP candidate from Sabang, told The Quint.

The erstwhile coalition between the Left and the Congress is also being used to discredit both parties – another strategic decision by Roy. He, like most others, has got a whiff of the disagreement in the district leadership of both parties, which wanted a coalition this time around as well.


Adjusting to the BJP Structure

According to district-level workers in the BJP, one of Roy’s first tasks this election was to understand and get the best out of the BJP’s existing organisational structure in the districts. The strategy, given the paucity of time, seems to have been designed to work within the structure and use the existing resources to strategically counter both the TMC and the Congress. This means that all the top leaders of the BJP were called on to camp in Sabang to counter the TMC’s campaign led by Mamata’s nephew and his Man Friday Abhishek Banerjee.

 Mukul Roy addresses a BJP rally in Kolkata.
Mukul Roy addresses a BJP rally in Kolkata.
(Photo: IANS)
Mukul and the BJP understand that their cadre probably does not have as much reach in the grass-root level as the TMC or the Congress. Hence, as a counter strategy, the BJP’s signature war-room was set up to win the battle, at least on social media. In his campaign visits to Sabang, Roy regularly visited the war room, say party workers and kept a close eye on the party’s social media reach. The national credentials of the party was invoked and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh were given as examples of the party’s strength.

However, the BJP’s lack of effort to expand at the grass-root level will also be their downfall feels the Trinamool. “They can spread falsities on social media but the BJP does not have the man power to go for door-to-door campaigns in the villages,” said Ajit Maity, district president of the TMC. This also highlights a situation that political observers had predicted for Roy when he joined the BJP. He will have to adapt to the BJP machinery and to expect him to do that in less than a month and a half is a little unfair, they say. More importantly, with Roy not enjoying the same position in the BJP as he did in the Trinamool, he does not have a free hand in the party’s electoral management.


The Mukul Roy Phenomenon

It is important to remember that last time around, neither the Trinamool nor the BJP won the mandate in Sabang. It was the Congress. The TMC had then bagged 36 percent of the votes while the saffron party secured only 2.6 percent. With Bhunia now a part of the TMC, the party says its vote share will increase phenomenally as all the Congress votes will now swing towards the Trinamool.

An earlier picture of Mukul and Mamata.
An earlier picture of Mukul and Mamata.
(Photo: The Quint)
BJP president Amit Shah welcoming Mukul Roy to the BJP on 3 November, 2017.
BJP president Amit Shah welcoming Mukul Roy to the BJP on 3 November, 2017.
(Photo: PTI)
Mukul Roy has become famous because of Mamata Banerjee. He will not have any role to play in Sabang because people understand that he’s nothing now.
A confident Manas Bhunia to The Quint

But workers concede that even top leaders were scared of what Mukul throws up in the course of the campaign.

Roy has shown in the past that he is not afraid to sing like a canary when it comes to exposing Trinamool leaders with his brazen attack on Abhishek Banerjee in his very first rally for the BJP. His Sabang campaign, many thus feared, would bring out more skeletons.

“We can see Trinamool votes converting to us because of Mukul Roy’s campaign. Everyone knows he’s a master strategist so there is a fear in the Trinamool cadre”, said Dhiman Koley, a BJP worker in Sabang.

While his credentials as a strategist cannot be questioned, Mukul Roy has quite reluctantly become the face of an election he’s not in charge of and has had very little time to prepare for. But politics is all about perception, and winning this perception battle will be Mukul’s first and real test for the BJP.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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