Having already established itself as the main Opposition party in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP expected its upswing to continue and unseat the Trinamool Congress (TMC) from power as the Mamata Banerjee-led party was hit by a series of defections.
But, the TMC returned to power with a resounding mandate, riding on a wave of popular support for the chief minister, and the BJP’s progress in the state stalled. Factional feuds spilled out into the open, several leaders switched over to the TMC, and it lost a series of by-polls and local-body elections.
When Union Home Minister Amit Shah begins his three-day visit to the state on Wednesday — his first since the state elections last year — he will be faced with the task of rejuvenating a state unit that is in disarray. Despite having 70 MLAs, the saffron party is facing a stiff challenge for the second position from the Left that has no representatives in the House.
Sources in the BJP said Shah would “discuss strategies and give much-awaited moral support to the cadre” in West Bengal, where panchayat elections will be held next year in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. The home minister is expected to hold detailed discussions with leaders from different regions of the state and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionaries.
Chief among Shah’s tasks will be infusing confidence into the party’s rank-and-file, which has been on the back foot since the post-election violence last year, and putting an end to internecine battles in the state unit. “As the party has already begun its preparations for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the central leadership cannot ignore West Bengal, a state that sent 18 MPs to the Lok Sabha. His visit has been long overdue. The state unit desperately needs a morale boost and Shah is expected to infuse some confidence into the cadre,” said a senior BJP leader.
The West Bengal BJP expressed its “deep frustration” with the central leadership over its “refusal to lend support to the cadre against the ruling Trinamool Congress’s strong-arm tactics”. Sources in the state BJP accused the national leadership of “ignoring and neglecting multiple voices from the West Bengal unit” seeking its “intervention and support” to protect and retain the cadre base the party has built since 2015.
Unhappy leaders and workers
At least three party functionaries said the central leadership did not “pay much attention” to the West Bengal unit “after the unexpected defeat the party faced” and “the exodus of leaders who had joined the party, post-Assembly elections”.
“For the BJP, the Bengal unit has become a prayogshala (laboratory),” said a leader. “First, Dilip Ghosh, a hardliner and an ideological man, was tried. Then, they appointed a professor (current state BJP president Dr Sukanta Majumdar). The experiments are continuing. The main issue for the party is we still have not found a promising leader. We cannot forget that this is happening in a state where our main rival has a well-established leader.”
The tenure of Sukanta Majumdar, who took over the helm of the state BJP less than six months ago, has been marked by electoral and organisational reverses. Last December, Union minister Shantanu Thakur and several district leaders were among at least 10 BJP leaders who quit the party’s WhatsApp groups in protest against their exclusion from the state committee. In response, Majumdar dissolved all departments and cells of the state unit.
As more leaders met the dissidents and expressed their displeasure about the new state committee, the party temporarily expelled senior leaders Ritesh Tiwari and Joy Prakash Majumdar for publicly criticising it. In March, Majumdar joined the TMC.
Thakur’s protest is significant as he is from the Matua community, a Scheduled Caste (SC) group with whose support the BJP increased its Lok Sabha tally to 18. The party had a lead in 26 SC-reserved Assembly segments in the 2019 elections and won 14 such seats in the state polls last year. The community has been unhappy with the BJP-led Centre for delaying the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as a sizeable number of its members have yet to receive Indian citizenship.
In January, Thakur and other Matua legislators in the BJP renewed their demand for the immediate implementation of the law. At a meeting in Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas district (the community’s headquarters) that was chaired by Thakur and attended by nearly 40 Matua leaders, a decision was taken to hit the streets in protest against the delay by the Centre.
Recently, the BJP has also had to contend with its Barrackpore MP Arjun Singh’s repeated criticism of the Centre and the Jute Commissioner over the alleged neglect of the state’s jute industry. In an interview to The Indian Express on April 28, Singh said the BJP lost the elections last year because of poor candidate selection and claimed “many workers felt abandoned” by the party during post-poll violence. “As far as I am concerned, I will win in 2024, the party does not matter,” the MP added.
Last Friday, Singh wrote to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seeking her intervention in the issue of a price cap on raw jute and was summoned to Delhi the following day.
The lack of organisational cohesion has been reflected in the saffron party’s recent electoral performance. It has suffered a string of losses, the recent being the ones in the Asansol Lok Sabha by-election and the Ballygunge Assembly by-poll. In Ballygunge, the BJP finished third behind the Left, which increased its vote share from five per cent in the 2021 polls to more than 30 per cent.
Earlier in the year, the BJP failed to win any of the 108 municipalities in the state while the CPI(M) bagged the Taherpur civic body in Nadia district and the newly launched Hamro Party won Darjeeling. Of the 2,171 wards in these municipalities, the saffron party BJP won only 63, compared to the 1,870 the TMC bagged. The saffron party’s vote share stood at 13 per cent, behind the Left’s 14 per cent. Last year, the Opposition party also suffered setbacks in several by-polls and lost the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) election.
A section in the state leadership feels that the Centre’s “soft approach” towards the Mamata government has “encouraged the TMC goons to unleash attacks on the BJP cadre”. Said a leader, “There is a general feeling in West Bengal that the top leadership of the BJP, especially the prime minister, is soft towards Mamata Banerjee. This encourages the TMC to go against the BJP.”
The state unit’s frustration with the central leadership has also been conveyed by senior leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, the party general secretary in charge of Bengal who was instrumental in the BJP’s success in the state in 2019. Vijayvargiya has sought proactive initiatives from the national leadership to address state leaders’ complaints, but he has not visited the state since the Assembly poll debacle.
“There are a number of issues to be addressed. Only Amit Shah can give confidence to the cadre, which is frustrated, angry, and disillusioned,” said a leader.
After arriving in Kolkata on the evening of May 4, Shah will travel to Hingalganj in North 24 Parganas district the following day to attend a Border Security Force (BSF) programme. He will then visit Siliguri in north Bengal to address a public rally at the Railway Institute Ground. He is also likely to hold a meeting with representatives of different political and non-political organisations in Darjeeling. On May 6, the home minister will attend a government programme in Cooch Behar’s Tinbigha. He will return to Kolkata the same afternoon and chair meetings with the state BJP leadership before returning to Delhi.
“The BJP is struggling to maintain a balance between party old-timers and newcomers,” said TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh. “Shah is aware of his party’s internal fighting and its defeat in Asansol by over three lakh votes. In Ballygunge, their candidate lost her deposit. Now, there is a competition among the state BJP leaders over who will meet him. His visit will have no impact.”