The mood in the saffron camp in Pingla was upbeat. Chants of Jai Shri Ram rent the air amid fluttering Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flags in this nondescript town under Kharagpur subdivision of West Midnapore district of West Bengal.
A group of staunch BJP supporters, many wearing saffron headbands, were braving the scorching March sun to greet the party candidate.
Until now, it was a flawless script. But what followed next was perhaps the most defining moment of the 2019 general elections in Bengal.
As Bharati Ghosh, the BJP candidate from Ghatal Parliamentary constituency of which Pingla is a part of, stepped out of her white SUV, the group shouted out: “Bharati Ghosh…tomay janai lal, lal, lal salam”(Bharati Ghosh we offer you red salute).
The popular Communist greeting was a dead giveaway that left both the BJP and the Left Front red-faced.
Shift from left to right
Haripada Jana, a middle-aged trader, who was part of the sloganeering group, sheepishly admitted that it was his maiden attendance at a BJP event. Jana on his own admission is a supporter of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
He shifted his allegiance to the BJP this election to teach a lesson to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) for not allowing him to vote in the last year’s panchayat poll.
For him, it was virtually a tactical alliance against a sworn enemy. Only the BJP now had resources to take on the TMC’s might in the area, he explained.
Jana was not just a one-off case. The entire district unit of the BJP is crowded with former Left Front (LF) cadres.
The trend is not limited to West Midnapore alone. A similar drift has also been witnessed in many pockets across the state, particularly in neighbouring East Midnapore, Jhargram, Purulia, Bankura, Malda and Nadia districts of the state, where the RSS — the BJP’s ideological fountainhead — has spread its influence through Ekal Vidyalays and shakhas.
The tacit understanding at grassroots level between the two parties, which have diametrically opposite ideologies, first came to light in the 2018 panchayat elections in Nadia district. But, at that time, it was downplayed as an isolated occurrence. However, the hypothesis was proven wrong in this election.
Much to the chagrin of LF leaders, not just foot soldiers, but many life-long Communists and trade union leaders too have made the switchover.
One such prominent leader is former three-time CPI (M) MLA from Habibpur in Malda district, Khagen Murmu. He moved to the BJP in March and went on to become the BJP candidate from the Malda North parliamentary constituency in the current election.
Mafuja Khatun, a former two-time CPI (M) legislator from Kumarganj, was another defector who got the BJP nomination from Jangipur in Murshidabad district this time.
- Red to Saffron
- The shift from red to saffron is most prominent in formerly Maoist-dominated areas of Purulia, West Midnapore, Jhargram and parts of Bankura and Birbhum districts.
- The RSS-run Ekal Vidyalays mushroomed in these areas after Maoists’ guns fell silent.
- Khagen Murmu, 58, from Malda North seat and Mafuja Khatun, 48, from Jangipur are the two former CPI(M) legislators contesting under BJP’s banner.
Growing influence of BMS
The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the workers’ wing of the RSS, which had hardly any presence in West Bengal even a year ago, is a formidable force today.
Two to three years ago, the BMS had only five to seven units in the state, which were restricted among non-Bengali workers of jute mills and Indian Railways, Pradip Kumar Bijoli told The Federal.
Bijoli is the general secretary (organization) of the BMS’s East Midnapore unit. Before joining the RSS-affiliated trade union, he served the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for three decades.
The BMS has now its presence in 70 per cent factories and government institutions in the state.
Left supporters and leaders by-and-large cite three main reasons for their new-found love for the BJP.
They say the LF has nothing new to offer and so no there is point fighting for a lost cause. In the BJP, they see a new force that can match the TMC’s muscle power.
The second reason is the Hindutva narrative of the BJP. “Like it or not, as a Hindu I consider it as my duty to be with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),” Bijoli said.
The third factor is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Not only Communists impressed with the performance of Modi government, but even many Muslim women will vote for the BJP this time,” Khagen Murmu told The Federal.
He claimed the NDA government’s move to make instant triple talaq a criminal offence had found favour with female Muslim voters and the BJP was likely to get its benefit in a state like West Bengal which has a large Muslim population.
Money is another big factor, though no one would like to admit it openly. Elections in India are costly affairs, and it is an open secret that the coffers of Communist parties are almost empty. Even sitting CPI(M) MP Mohammed Selim had to seek crowdfunding to finance his campaign in Raiganj.
The BJP on the other hand is the richest party in India.
Overlapping political ideology
On the question of ideological shift, Murmu, who had been associated with the Communist movement in Bengal since his student days, said at times pragmatism was needed to be given preference over ideology.
“Moreover, where was the Left ideology when it joined hands with the Congress, a force we had grown up fighting?” he said.
According to him, the CPI(M) had drove the proverbial last nail in the party’s coffin by allying with the Congress in the 2016 Assembly elections.
He said this time too, party cadres were apprehensive about the LF’s post-poll stand and that was another reason for their migration to the BJP.
Officially, the Left Front denies that its supporters are switching loyalty to the BJP. But its nervousness was evident when ailing Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the last Communist Chief Minister of the state, had recently come out of his political hibernation to warn his party cadres that “there is no use in leaping from the TMC frying pan into the BJP’s fireplace.”
Former Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar at an election rally in West Bengal gave a similar warning. Many Communists believe their warnings were merely an attempt to close the stable door after the horses had bolted.
C P John, the general secretary of the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) of Kerala, believes the CPM in Bengal has lost its plot in going after Mamata Banerjee instead of focusing on the BJP.
John, who had toured the state earlier this month, in an interview with Kolkata-based daily The Telegraph said, “CPI(M) leaders on the ground level are equating the TMC and the BJP as two sides of one coin. The leaders are pitching this idea to cadres and supporters who are going ahead and voting for the BJP to defeat Trinamool.”
“This looks like a suicidal move by the CPM and I think this will be the second-historic blunder,” he added.
How much BJP tends to gain?
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC won 34 seats by polling 39% of the votes. The CPI(M) secured just two seats with 23% votes while the BJP got two seats with just 17% vote share. The Congress got four seats with just 10% votes.
BJP insiders admit that eroding the LF vote base alone may not be enough to get a substantial number of seats as long as the TMC’s vote share remains intact.
“Our target is to get 28% of the votes which will fetch us at least 15 seats,” said a BJP leader. (In public, the party claims its target is 20-25 seats)
To get that figure, it will have to enlarge its cast net. That explains why the BJP has given so many tickets to outsiders this time, ignoring protests from its old guards.
At least 12 of the BJP’s 42 candidates in the state are disgruntled members of the CPI(M), TMC and even the Congress.