In Bengal, BJP's 'expansion by assembling' strategy backfires

The BJP in West Bengal seems to have bitten off more than what it can chew. In a rush to climb up to the saddle of power, it has filled its camp with turncoats from rival parties much to the dismay of old guards who had held the party flag aloft when the going was tough.

The BJP in West Bengal seems to have bitten off more than what it can chew. In a rush to climb up to the saddle of power, it has filled its camp with turncoats from rival parties much to the dismay of old guards who had held the party flag aloft when the going was tough.

The discontent snowballed into statewide protests once the party announced the name of its candidates. The “original” BJP workers took to the streets and vandalised party offices, complaining that newcomers got preference in ticket distribution over those who toiled for years for the party’s growth.

The BJP has so far announced candidates for 280 out of 294 constituencies. Of them, about 150 are ‘migrants’ who’ve switched over to the saffron camp in the past five to six years.

Worst, there are about 35 candidates, who got nominations barely months after switching side. Many film and serial actors too are being rewarded with tickets within days of donning the saffron hat.

The strategy clearly is expansion through assembling, negating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that the BJP is an “organic entity and not an assembled one.” He made the claim while addressing a two-day training programme of BJP lawmakers at New Delhi in August 2019.

The compulsion of the BJP to grow in the state, riding piggyback on imported leaders, stem from its poor grassroots presence in most parts of the state. Late last year, an internal survey of the party had pointed out that in around 100 assembly seats it did not even have any booth-level machinery, according to BJP insiders.

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The BJP’s organisational weakness became even more evident from the announcement of candidature of Sikha Mitra, the wife of late Congress leader Somen Mitra, and Tarun Saha, husband of outgoing TMC MLA Mala Saha. Both of them were given nominations even before they gave their consent to join the party. Causing a major embarrassment to the BJP, both have refused to contest elections under the party banner.

To plug the organisational loopholes, the BJP started poaching leaders from rival parties, triggering a spate of defections from the ruling Trinamool Congress.

BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, who is credited for the rise of the party in Bengal, is a great advocate of growth through assembling.

“If we don’t take people from other outfits, how will we grow? In a democracy, numbers play an important role. We have to get the numbers (to come to power),” he is often heard as saying.

Many old-timers, however, were not very comfortable with the indiscriminate induction of leaders from rival parties. Ticket distribution outbursts the pent-up anger. The flare-up saw protesters heckling senior leaders outside the party’s election office at Hastings in Kolkata, several district offices were either being locked or ransacked and many district-level BJP leaders resigning.

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Annoyed with the development, BJP leader Amit Shah reportedly rebuked the party’s state leadership, cautioning that if the public display of dissent continues the party could give up on its hope of coming to power.

“We have taken far too many leaders from other parties and now we are paying the price,” said Sourav Sikdar, a BJP leader. Sikdar, nephew of former BJP state president and Union minister Tapan Sikdar, resigned from all party posts on Thursday (March 18) in “protest against the indifferent attitude of the present party leadership towards old-timers.”

Infighting within the party is, however, not the only cause of concern for the BJP.

BJP losing ground?

Poor attendance in the rallies attended by the party’s senior national leaders like Amit Shah, JP Nadda and Yogi Adityanath is an indication that the BJP is not getting 2019 Lok Sabha election-like response wherein it had bagged 18 of the state’s 42 seats, cornering over 40 per cent votes.

“Many of the TMC legislators and ministers who have joined the BJP are facing anti-incumbency in their constituencies. By taking them into its fold, the BJP has only dented its prospect. It should have been more selective in inducting leaders from other parties,” said Abu Munir, the head of the department of mass communication, the Siliguri College.

Along with its Hindutva push, the promise of granting Scheduled Tribe status to the state’s Kudmi community and citizenship rights to the Matua migrants played a crucial role in the BJP’s meteoric rise in the 2019 parliamentary elections in Bengal.

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This time, particularly in Adivasi dominated Jangalmahal area, the BJP is facing backlash from influential Adivasi Kudmi Samaj (AKS) for allegedly not taking any initiative to grant ST status to the community.

Along with the ST demands of the Kudmis, the Adivasis are also seeking recognition for their indigenous religion ‘Sarna’ and provide a separate code for it in the upcoming census. The separate religion code demand can offset the influence of the BJP’s Hindutva card in the area.

“We have been forced to mark ourselves as Hindus in the census as currently, citizens can choose from only six religions — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. Once the code is approved, the census will have a new column for the tribal religion,” said Swapan Mahato, president of the AKS’s Purulia district unit.

Even many BJP leaders in private now admit that only a Hindu nationalist surge can give the party the tailwind it needs to improve its tally from a mere three in 2016 to 147 this time to cross the magical mark.

Even in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP could take lead only in 128 assembly segments. This time it will have to outdo its Lok Sabha performance, a tough call in the absence of a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Mamata Banerjee-led ruling dispensation.

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It’s perhaps this need for a Hindu nationalist surge that compelled Modi to resurrect the Pulwama terror attack and the Batla House encounter at an election rally in Purulia on Thursday.

Accusing Mamata Banerjee of siding with terrorists, Modi said, “People of Bengal have not forgotten how Didi had raised question against the encounter in which a police officer was martyred,” referring to the 2008 incident. “People have not forgotten either who you (Banerjee) stood with after Pulwama attack.” Mamata had raised questions about the timing of the terror strike before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Modi at the rally also harped on the perceived minority appeasement politics of CM Mamata Banerjee and infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh, falling back on the party’s tried and tested polarisation formula.

Will that work? Only time will say.

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