How Modi’s Cabinet reshuffle has deepened BJP’s worry in Bengal

While rejig has widened the rift within the state BJP, the appointment of John Barla, who supports the demand for a separate UT from Bengal, into the Cabinet has left the party to answer uncomfortable questions about its separatist intent

Ministerial accommodation to Nitish Pramanik and John Barla in particular has put the state BJP in an uncomfortable situation.

Instead of rejoicing over the ministerial berth given to four of its MPs, the Bengal BJP is busy controlling the fallout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest move.

The rejig has not only accentuated the rift within the state BJP, but also left the party unit to fend uncomfortable questions about its alleged separatist intent.

Modi on Wednesday drafted Cooch Behar MP Nisith Pramanik, Alipurduar MP John Barla, Bankura MP Subhas Sarkar and Bongaon MP Shantanu Thakur as new faces from Bengal in his revamped Union council of ministers.

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Ministerial accommodation to Barla and Pramanik in particular has put the state BJP in an uncomfortable situation.

Barla had last month raised a controversial demand to split Bengal by carving out eight districts, collectively called north Bengal, to form a separate state or Union Territory.  These districts are Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, Coochbehar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda.

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The region has already witnessed movements for separate Gorkhaland state, mainly comprising areas of Darjeeling hills, and Kamtapur state with six West Bengal districts and four contiguous districts of Assam.

Against this backdrop Barla’s demand is seen as a fresh attempt to destabilise the state.

In Bengal, which has witnessed partitions in 1905 and 1947 with disastrous consequences, the call for division of the state had naturally sparked angry reactions, prompting the state BJP to quickly distance itself from the demand of the party MP.

Now that the 45-year-old MP has been elevated as a Union minister, BJP’s rival political parties are alleging that the tea-garden-employee-turned politician has been rewarded for pushing the BJP’s “divisive agenda,” an accusation which can be politically damaging for the party in the state.

The Trinamool Congress, the CPI (M) and the Congress on Thursday lashed out at the BJP for “rewarding” Barla with a ministerial berth.

“Now it is clear that Barla had the blessing of the BJP leaders. But we want to make it clear that we will protect the geographical integrity of the state at any cost,” said senior TMC leader Partha Chatterjee.

Barla, who had in the past joined hands with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for a separate Gorkhaland state, has remained steadfast to his demand despite a snub from the party’s state leadership.

He raked up the demand even after taking over as junior minister for minority affairs, raising serious doubt about the BJP’s intent.

BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari on Thursday reiterated that his party did not endorse the division of Bengal, a claim that will have a few takers after Barla’s induction in the Modi government.

The allotment of the home portfolio to 36-year-old Pramanik also raised eyebrows as he had declared 11 pending criminal cases against him in his affidavit for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The Cooch Behar strongman has been made Amit Shah’s junior apparently to keep the BJP’s Rajbongshi vote-bank in good humour.

Incidentally, the BJP weathered the TMC storm in north Bengal in the recently concluded assembly elections. The saffron party won all the 10 seats in Darjeeling and Alipurduar districts; it swept Cooch Behar district winning seven out of nine seats, it won four, out of seven, in Jalpaiguri and three out of six in South Dinajpur. Only in two Muslim dominated districts of the region – Malda and North Dinajpur, the TMC did better than the BJP.

BJP’s Matua face Shantanu Thakur has also been made minister to woo the politically-crucial community.

The two previous Bengal’s representatives in the Modi government – Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo and Minister of State for Woman and Child Development Debasree Chaudhuri—were dropped.

Supriyo, the singer-turned-politician, did not take the boot quietly. He took to Facebook to reveal that he was “asked to resign” indicating his displeasure.

The BJP sources said the Asansol MP got the axe for his flamboyant lifestyle and recent electoral debacles and not for non-performance as minister.

“In one occasion he even tried to enter the Prime Minister’s residence riding a bike. When the security officials prevented him, he made it such an issue that the PM himself had to intervene,” said a BJP leader.

His “bike expeditions” on the streets of New Delhi had been a constant source of security concerns, the BJP leader added.

A more important blot on his appraisal form, however, from the perspective of the BJP central leadership, was his recent poor electoral performance.

The singer-turned-politician was given nomination to contest the assembly elections from Tollyganj assembly seat earlier this year. He failed to win the seat. On top of that, the BJP was also trounced in five of the seven assembly seats that fall under Supriyo’s Asansol Lok Sabha constituency.

His “asked-to-resign” remark elicited strong reactions from the state BJP president Dilip Ghosh though Supriyo later retracted his earlier statement saying “asked to resign may not be the right way to put it.”

“Why none of the 12 other ministers who had resigned did not make a similar remark?  He (Supriyo) had been asked to resign to make way for others. That is how the party functions. Would it have been better if he were sacked?” Ghosh retorted.

That the two do not share a very cordial relation, is an open secret in the BJP circle. In January last year, Supriyo had reproved his party state president for advocating that those who had destroyed railway properties during anti-CAA protests in the state should have been “shot like dogs.”

Supriyo had dubbed the remark “highly irresponsible.”

BJP sources said the Asansol MP is still miffed by the turn of events and that his clarification is at best a “temporary truce” brokered after hectic persuasion.

Another BJP MP and chief of the BJP youth wing in the state Saumitra Khan had to be pacified after he had announced to relieve himself of the responsibility of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) state unit.

Though he did not specify the reason for his outburst, according to his close associates Khan was expecting a slot in the central government.  He was disappointed for not getting a call, they said.

Khan changed his mind only after senior central BJP leaders, including Amit Shah, spoke to him, BJP sources said.

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Taking a dig at Adhikari, Khan said the Nandigram MLA made frequent trips to New Delhi to mislead the party’s central leadership and to seek credit for himself.

Khan claimed that Adhikari had brought with him into the BJP all corrupts and discredited leaders from the TMC ahead of assembly elections.

He also criticised Dilip Ghosh saying the party’s state president did not comprehend the entire picture. “He understands only half of what happens,” the disgruntled leader said.

Meanwhile, the BJP on Thursday served show-cause notices to two senior leaders Rajib Banerjee and Sabyasachi Dutta for making social media posts that put the party in bad light.

BJP sources said by acting tough against the two, the party is actually trying to send strong signals to more powerful dissidents like Khan and Supriyo to prevent a full-scale rebellion.


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