As Twitter and the media went on a fastest-finger-first contest guessing who will make it to or be removed from the Union Cabinet, a separate sub-discussion ensued in Bengal’s political circles on the potential new ministers from the state.
Two names that always were always speculated (and were the first to be confirmed) were that of Cooch Behar MP, Nisith Pramanik and MP from Bongaon, Shantanu Thakur. Both Thakur and Pramanik are from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
However, the two names that came as a surprise to many are that of Bankura MP, Subhash Sarkar and Alipurduar MP John Barla, also from the BJP.
Probably the most surprised, though, was Saumitra Khan, BJP MP from Bengal’s Bishnupur and president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in the state.
As confirmed reports of the 4 Bengal MPs made the rounds, Khan, in a Facebook live, announced his decision to quit as BJYM president, hitting out at the BJP’s Bengal president Dilip Ghosh and its leader of opposition (LoP) in the West Bengal Assembly, Suvendu Adhikari.
Khan’s outburst is symptomatic of a problem that the Bengal BJP has been facing since the state elections- that of keeping their flock together. And the Cabinet reshuffle may cause problems in an already factionalised organization.
Consolidating North Bengal, Junglemahal & Making Inroads In South Bengal
While the Trinamool Congress (TMC) won the Assembly elections with an overwhelming majority, in this election too, North Bengal remained it Achilles’ heel. The BJP won most of the area, winning the district of Alipurduar entirely.
Soon after the election, MP John Barla, now appointed as MoS Minority Affairs, made a demand, apart from being criticized by the TMC, was also criticized by the BJP state unit.
Barla proposed that North Bengal be carved out into a separate Union Territory (UT), due to the “neglect” that it has faced from successive state governments.
His demand was backed by Nisith Pramanik, who is now MoS in the Home Ministry.
At the time, Dilip Ghosh had distanced himself from the comment saying that it is Barla’s “personal opinion”.
This “opinion”, however, gave fodder to the TMC types who accused the BJP of trying to “divide Bengal”.
Now that Barla and Pramanik have both been made ministers, the TMC is pushing this narrative even more.
However, sources in the BJP say that their internal survey has shown that Barla’s proposal found resonance in North Bengal, especially amongst the BJP’s consolidated voter base.
“The Delhi high command has asked Barla to not comment on division of the state until approved by them”, said senior leader of the BJP.
The leader, however, conceded that it was strategically important for the party to also peddle the narrative that a separate state is not completely off the table – especially because of historic regional movements in the region like Gorkhaland movement, which are still highly emotive.
"That apart, Barla has risen the ranks from the community of tea workers, the largest vote bank up North. He has considerable sway over the community who see him as their representative", said the leader.
Similarly, Subhash Sarkar’s inclusion in the cabinet was to represent the people of Junglemahal, another area where the BJP did well, compared to other regions of the state. While the TMC managed to win back a lot of ground from the saffron party in this area in the 2021 elections, the BJP believes that strategic expansion can help them in the 2024 Lok Sabha and 2026 state elections.
The induction of Shantanu Thakur is the party’s attempt at making some inroads in North Bengal, which the TMC won almost entirely. Thakur, who is from the principle family of the Matua Mahasangh, has always vocalized the need for more recognition of the Matua community, who identify as Hindu refugees from Bangladesh.
Subhash Sarkar has been appointed as MoS in the Ministry of Education, while Shantanu Thakur has been assigned the MoS Port, Shipping and Waterways portfolio.
Reigning In The “Dissenters”
The resignation of “high profile” ministers from the Modi cabinet like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Dr Harsh Vardhan has many saying that non-performers were ousted to make way for new faces. In the context of Bengal too, a similar pattern seems to have been followed.
The two Bengal BJP MPs who took oath as ministers in 2019 were both removed, ostensibly because of their poor performance in the state during the 2021 elections.
Two-time minister Babul Supriyo, who was MoS Environment till the reshuffle, took to Facebook to say that he’d been “asked to resign”. Supriyo, MP from Asansol, was also fielded as a MLA candidate during the state election. He lost his Tollygunge seat to the TMC’s Arup Biswas by more than a lakh.
Similarly, Raiganj MP, Debasree Chaudhuri, who was MoS in the Women and Child Development Ministry, was dropped after the party trailed in the constituency in the state elections.
On the other hand, Nisith Pramanik, a TMC import to the BJP, stayed as the party’s strongman in his region. The MP who is seen as a muscleman with tremendous influence, made sure that the party held on to its base in North Bengal.
The other problem that the Delhi leadership of the BJP wanted to fix was the pro-Delhi and anti-Delhi camp that had formed in the Bengal unit.
As a slew of TMC leaders joined the saffron brigade before the state elections, allegedly orchestrated by its Delhi leaders, many state leaders registered their protest. Some of them publicly.
Supriyo, for example, publicly spoke out when former Asansol mayor, Jitendra Tiwary, was being inducted into the BJP.
By rewarding those who’ve stood by the Delhi high command’s rules, the central leadership wanted to send out a message that dissenters will not be looked upon kindly.
“When the TMC exodus started, many older BJP leaders had problems, yes, but the slightly “older” TMC leaders who joined before this mass migration began, also became insecure”, said a source in the Bengal BJP.
Among these older turncoats, were Khan and Mukul Roy. The latter has since come back to the TMC.
In his Facebook address where he quit as BJYM President, Khan said that he was “being punished for questioning the Delhi high command”. Like many BJP leaders from across states, he too had been camping in Delhi for the last couple of days with the hope of a ministerial berth. Since it was clear that a Junglemahal MP was going to be inducted into the cabinet, Khan, MP from Bankura’s Bishnupur, fancied his chances.
In his address, Khan said that Dilip Ghosh “doesn’t understand most things he says”. But while Ghosh was mentioned, BJP leaders say that Khan’s main beef was with Suvendu Adhikari. Adhikari, the BJP’s most high-profile acquisition from the TMC before the state elections, beat incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to win his Nandigram seat. He was also one of the BJP’s main faces during the election campaign and even now continues to be its blue-eyed boy, given special attention by the Delhi high command.
Khan alleged that Adhikari wanted to take credit for all the achievements of the party in Bengal.
"When I was given the responsibility of Yuva Morcha, I fought. I did what the party gave me. But the Leader of Opposition has said it is him without giving credit to the party”, said Khan.
"We all fought together, but the leader is putting the focus on himself. I entered BJP after seeing Narendra Modi and the ideals of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, I did not come with any greed. I still have no greed. But the manner in which he (Suvendu Adhikari) is going to Delhi frequently and misleading the leaders, he is showing he is the tallest leader of BJP”, he added.
The day after these fiery allegations, however, Khan wrote another Facebook post to say that he’s taking back his resignation from BJYM out of “respect” for BL Santosh, Amit Shah and Tejasvi Surya, who apparently spoke to him and said that his grievances will be resolved.
Over the last couple of years, factionalism in the Bengal BJP has taken many forms. At one point there was a Dilip Ghosh camp vs a Mukul Roy camp, divided along the lines of “traditional leaders” and “new leaders”. As the influx of TMC leaders started, Roy was slowly side-lined but a new camp formed. That of the “Delhi-adhering” leaders and those who wanted to run the party’s Bengal unit on its own terms.
More than anything else, the Delhi high command of the BJP wanted to use the cabinet reshuffle to stop this factionalism from persisting further, and more factions being created. This was an especially crucial problem to solve as many local leaders openly spoke out against Delhi leaders after the party’s embarrassing show in the state elections.
A reverse migration of sorts, of turncoat TMC leaders going back to the TMC, seems to be on the cards for the BJP. Once its done, the party hopes that reigning in its state unit will not be a problem it has to deal with.
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