"I am the president of the West Bengal BJP. Not him".
That's what the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) leader in Bengal, Dilip Ghosh, had said to The Quint in January 2020, after his infamous "shoot them like dogs" comment. Ghosh, President of BJP's Bengal unit at the time, was referring to then Union minister and current Member of Parliament (MP) Babul Supriyo. Supriyo, then a BJP member and the first BJP MP from Bengal to get a central ministerial position, had criticised Ghosh's comment, calling it "irresponsible", as the latter received a slew of backlash.
As of today, Babul Supriyo is no longer in the BJP and Dilip Ghosh is no longer the president of its Bengal unit. On 17 September, Supriyo joined Bengal's ruling party - the Trinamool Congress (TMC) - after having resigned from the BJP in August. Ghosh, on the other hand, was relieved of his duties as Bengal BJP chief and instead given a central position in the party - that of national vice president on 20 September.
Both these developments, coming within days of each other, surmise the nuanced dynamics of the Bengal BJP.
When Dilu Da Reigned Supreme
The rift between Ghosh and Supriyo was often out in the open for the world to see. The two have taken public (and social media) jibes at each other multiple times since this altercation. The last of which, was a nasty exchange which saw Supriyo making multiple posts on Facebook.
Over the years, since Ghosh took over as BJP Bengal President in 2015, multiple state leaders in the party have had public spats with him. Sources say many others have also had differences but expressed them internally.
Many of these spats have often been with TMC leaders who joined the BJP after 2014 - starting with Mukul Roy and Saumitra Khan - and then a slew of new inductees from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's camp, right before the 2021 state elections.
The Quint has reported in the past that Ghosh, a staunch RSS disciple who made a lateral entry into the BJP, did not like these "opportunists" who did not fall in place with the party's ideology and style of functioning.
Over the years, as some senior party leaders continued to be at loggerheads with Ghosh, others (often those less senior to him, or less popular) stood strongly by him. A pro-Dilip and anti-Dilip faction soon emerged in the state BJP.
However, what Ghosh had working for him is what many top BJP leaders in Bengal still don't have - loyal and faithful public support. While Ghosh's, abrasive, and often bigoted, misogynistic and unscientific comments came under harsh criticism from certain political quarters, his devil-may-care attitude after the controversy broke was what appealed to many, especially outside of Kolkata.
'Dilu Da', as he's referred to out of love (and jest) made his mark in Bengal - one meme at a time. During the elections, he earned another moniker - 'Bangla Maa'er daamaal chhele'. Daamaal, a Bengali word, means naughty but indomitable. To the ordinary BJP supporter, Ghosh represented just that - the spunky, unapologetic (boy) leader that Bangla Maa (Mother Bengal) needed.
Ghosh was the most popular leader in the Bengal BJP across the state - ahead of others in the party by many miles.
This appeal strengthened as Ghosh became MP for the first time in 2019, and the BJP, under his leadership, won 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal. Its highest tally ever in the state.
This growing popularity of Ghosh saw many veteran Bengal BJP leaders sidelined. Rahul Sinha, being one strong example. Babul Supriyo, however, continued to be in the Delhi headquarters' good books and was given a second term as minister after he too won his Asansol seat in 2019.
However, on the ground and in the Bengal headspace, Ghosh continued to dominate the narrative. Others like Babul and Roopa Ganguly were seen as leaders who'd be "more interested in sitting in Delhi".
This years-long battle between Supriyo and Ghosh, many would say, ended in a win for Ghosh as Supriyo was first removed from ministership post the Bengal elections earlier this year, and resigned from the BJP thereafter. He'd been fielded for a MLA seat in the elections, while he was MP, which he lost by a margin of over 50,000 votes to the TMC.
"Not a big loss", said Ghosh after Babul's resignation.
However, for the BJP, their first Bengal minister, and a bonafide Mamata critic, switching over the TMC has not been good optics. Perceptionally, it has done as much damage as Suvendu Adhikari, a former minister in Mamata's cabinet, switching over to the BJP in December 2020. What this perceptional loss means (or doesn't mean) electorally, remains to be seen.
Delhi BJP's Dilip Dilemma
This internal battle between the BJP, while giving the party a strong leader in Dilip, also became a cause of headache for the party's central leadership in Delhi.
This tension became more pronounced during the state elections as a slew of union ministers, national leaders, and leaders from different states camped in Bengal during the election. All of them identified as "star campaigners" in an election, the party made clear, was fought in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's name.
The Quint had reported during the elections that these national "star campaigners", however, could not hold much interest in rallies outside of Kolkata where they were unknown, and their language of communication - Hindi - was never understood.
After the results, many analysed that the lack of a local Chief Ministerial face hurt the BJP vis-a-vis the TMC which also made clear that Mamata "was contesting from all 294 seats".
Sources said at the time that Ghosh was unhappy as being seen as one among the many BJP contenders for CM-ship, as names of leaders like Babul Supriyo, Swapan Dasgupta and even former Tripura governor, Tathagata Roy, started doing the rounds. The grapevine also said that cricketer Sourav Ganguly was being approached to be the party's Bengal face during the campaign.
"Dilip Da believed that he was more popular and had given much more to the party than the others who were named. In his mind, he was sure that if the cadres were asked, he'd be the undisputed choice for the post", said a source close to Ghosh.
The source also confirmed that Ghosh had informed the Delhi leadership of the negative perception created by "outside leaders" camping in Bengal and giving speeches in Hindi. At the time, however, the central command did not budge from their strategy.
"His organisational contributions to the elections after that were half-hearted", the source added.
After the party's massive loss in the elections, began the saga of post-poll violence in the state. BJP workers from across the state wrote on social media and otherwise that they were being attacked by TMC workers. Many of these posts were also extremely angry, and this anger was not just directed at the TMC. Hundreds of workers complained that Delhi leaders who'd camped in Bengal had "abandoned" them and "left them to die at the hands of the TMC'". They also complained that the state leadership were watching on as mere bystanders as they were being targetted.
This, followed by the subsequent exit of Mukul Roy and then Supriyo from the party, seems to be one of the reasons why Delhi thought it prudent to replace Ghosh as Bengal president. While Roy and Supriyo were just the most high-profile turncoats, the post-election period also saw many BJP leaders at the district and bloc level shifting to the TMC.
In such a scenario, some action against Ghosh seemed inevitable.
The New Leadership
Replacing Ghosh is BJP MP from Balurghat in North Bengal, Dr Sukanta Majumdar. Majumdar is seen as an apolitical man who joined the BJP during the 2019 elections and was given additional responsibilities after he was elected as MP.
He is also the party's minder for the state of Sikkim and was a part of its election strategy committee. Like Ghosh, he too has a RSS background.
Professionally, he's a professor of botany and his MP profile says that he's published more than 15 academic papers.
Choosing a relatively less-known Majumdar, to replace Ghosh, many say is to continue the BJP's attempts at holding on to North Bengal, probably the only area in the state where the TMC did badly in the polls.
Of the 54 assembly seats in North Bengal, 30 were won by the BJP, accounting for almost half of its total tally of 77 (now 71) in the West Bengal assembly.
During the reshuffle of PM Modi's cabinet last month, two North Bengal MPs - Nishith Pramanik and John Barla - were made ministers, also, possibly, for the same reason.
However, the more important reason is that Majumdar, at 41, is the Bengal BJP's youngest president, and also the complete opposite of Ghosh in terms of temperament. He's known to be a more reserved politician vis-a-vis Ghosh, and is expected to handle its leadership crisis with more tact.
Moreover, the replacement was also necessary to send a message to those leaders who may be on the fence that the party is considering a serious organisational overhaul, said party insiders.
If Majumdar continues as the party's state chief till 2024, then the next Lok Sabha elections will be a direct face-off between him and Mamata's nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. Banerjee, who is 33, has been given immense organisational responsibility in the TMC after the elections and is presently second-in-command after Mamata. The 2024 elections may therefore see a much-awaited battle of youngsters in the state - one that many in Bengal have been hoping to see for years.
As for Dilip Da, a man known for his punctuality, arriving late for his daily morning walk the day after the announcement was probably a sign of changing times. However, quite characteristically, Ghosh remained defiant and the devil in the devil-may-care attitude showed through, as always.
"As an MP, I will work as a common worker of the party. People who have made me vice president will decide what my responsibilities will be", was all that he had to say.
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