(This story was first published on 14 May and has been updated and re-published in light of recent political developments in West Bengal.)
After suffering a loss in the West Bengal Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Bengal unit is handling more than just the electoral failure. The BJP’s campaign for the elections saw the party putting all its resources – capital and human – into the fight. The Prime Minister, the Home Minister, multiple Union Ministers, and party leaders from across the country, were roped in for the campaign, even as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the country.
A big part of this campaign was also the BJP’s consistent (and successful) efforts of poaching MLAs, MPs and other big leaders from its opponent, the Trinamool Congress. Of these turncoats, 19 of whom were given BJP tickets, 13 lost their seats. Some of them were sitting MLAs from their constituencies. All of them joined with the conviction that the BJP will form the next government.
In the run up to the elections, handled by the party’s central leadership in Delhi, a lot of adjustments, additions and changes were hastily made to the state organisation of the party, a lot of which would have fallen in place had the BJP won the election. Now that it hasn’t, a looming organisational crisis looks BJP in the face.
Former TMC leaders like Dipendu Biswas and Sonali Guha have already publicly said that they want to go back to the party because "they didn't get a place in the BJP". However, the most amount of speculation right now is about that of former TMC no. 2 and now BJP's national vice-president Mukul Roy. Roy's wife, who has been hospitalised, was visited by Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhishek Banerjee. Almost right after that Roy received a phone call from Prime Minister Modi himself. This while his son Subhrangshu Roy, a candidate in the election who lost his seat, has been posting cryptic messages against the saffron brigade on Facebook. The public dissent and now evident cracks in the party, is something the BJP will have to solve with immediate effect.
Holding On To Cadre
The post-poll violence in West Bengal, if nothing else, has sent a message to the BJP cadre at the lowest level that they are at risk. Observers of Bengal politics say that post-poll violence in the state is probably as old as the elections itself. Since ages, the strength of a party on the ground has depended on the muscle power that it can exercise at the lowest levels. After the fall of the Left government in 2011, cadres of the party gradually shifted to the TMC and then the BJP. It was a clear sign of their realisation that their parent party was no longer powerful enough to protect them.
In Bankura district of West Bengal, Kartik Bauri, a former Left cadre had voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“There is nothing left of the Left. We were beaten and our leaders couldn’t protect us. The BJP looks like it can take on the TMC”, Bauri had told The Quint during the Bengal elections.
Since the violence, many BJP workers’ groups on social media and offline have complained about tall leaders being absent from the scene as party cadres were allegedly beaten up by the Trinamool.
If the party cannot assure its workers of protection, then there is a chance of a workers’ exodus to the TMC or other parties, reminiscent of what happened with the Left.
However, unlike the Left, the BJP is in power at the Centre and can, if only for optics, assure central protection to its workers. Whether the cadre at the lowest level will be convinced is for time to tell.
As of now, TMC leaders in various places have started inducting BJP cadres into the party.
The State Leadership Vs The Central Leadership
What was evident throughout the BJP campaign was that all the shots with regard to the elections were being called by Delhi. State leaders of the BJP were restricted to following the central plan and were very often relegated to second position at rallies where “national star campaigners” were projected as the main attraction.
This was true even for someone like Dilip Ghosh, by far one of the most popular faces of the BJP in the state, with massive mass connect.
Sources in the BJP have told The Quint that Ghosh, who is the President of the party’s state unit, had expressed disagreements with how certain election strategies were being planned. The unit had also, sources say, pointed out that Hindi speeches and messaging is failing to work with the rural masses.
During the campaign period, the central leadership also kept many of the state leaders in anticipation of being possible Chief Ministerial contenders. This sidelining of the state leadership has not gone down well with local leaders, repercussions of which may show in the coming days.
In an interview to The Print, after the elections, Ghosh said that he didn’t agree with the “policies of the central BJP”.
Even party leaders like Tathagata Roy took to Twitter call out members of the central leadership, blaming them for the party’s astounding loss.
Even before the election campaign started, there were reports of internal feuds between senior state leaders. How these feuds play out in the time to come will be interesting to see.
The TMC Baggage
Probably the most difficult problem faced by the state BJP now is the baggage that it has taken from the TMC. The massive defections from the TMC into the saffron party had caused tensions amongst the party cadres even at the time of induction. When these TMC defectors were given tickets for the elections, older party cadre revolted as well.
These leaders, who were expected to bring their support in the TMC to the BJP have now clearly failed. Keeping them in the party and further elevating them can cause further dissent in the cadre. Additionally, the older BJP leaders who were sidelined to make way for the TMC recruits will also have to be pacified.
In the midst of this lies the problem of accommodating the “big” and more powerful of the turncoats.
Suvendu Adhikari, who was the BJP’s star acquisition from the TMC, and also at the forefront of their campaign, kept his end of the bargain by narrowly defeating Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram. He was rewarded by being appointed the Leader of Opposition (LOP) in the West Bengal Assembly. From the looks of it, Suvendu may be given a bigger organizational role in party – a fact that may not be palatable to many older state leaders.
The other big turncoat that the BJP has to deal with is Mukul Roy. Though Roy, unlike Suvendu and the rest, joined the BJP before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and is therefore older in the party now, he is still seen as an “outsider” by the state BJP veterans. In early 2020 there were reports that Roy was in touch with the TMC in order to pressurize the BJP central leadership to given him a position in the central cabinet or in the party’s central committee. Subsequently Roy was made national general secretary. However, in the 2021 state elections, where he contested polls for the first time in two decades, Roy and his organizational skills were sidelined.
After the BJP’s loss, reports of Roy being in touch with TMC have surfaced again. But he’s clarified that he will remain with the BJP.
Whether him and other state leaders will be key players in resolving this organizational challenge for the BJP, or whether that too will be “sorted” by the central leadership is something that may decide the future of the party in Bengal.
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