Bengal Has Been Overlooked For Last Seven Years, PM Modi Needs To Correct This In His Impending Cabinet Reshuffle

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 7, 2021 02:05 PM +05:30 IST
Bengal Has Been Overlooked For Last Seven Years, PM Modi Needs To Correct This In His Impending Cabinet Reshuffle 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • In 2019, out of the 18 BJP MPs that were elected to the Lok Sabha from Bengal, Prime Minister Modi inducted only two into his ministry, and that too as junior ministers with not-very-important portfolios.

For a party that loudly proclaims its intent on expanding its footprints in Bengal, the lack of representation of the state in the Union Council of Ministers seems quite anomalous. Bengal has only two lightweight junior ministers (ministers of state or MoS) in the Union Council of Ministers even though there are 18 BJP MPs from Bengal in the Lok Sabha.

The results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections threw up a pleasant surprise for the BJP. It vastly improved its 2014 tally of two seats to bag as many as 18 of the 42 seats in the state.

Those results three years ago whetted BJP’s political ambitions for Bengal and it decided to pull out all stops to wrest the state from the Trinamool in 2021.

According to top party sources, immediately after the Lok Sabha results were out and the government headed by Narendra Modi had been sworn in, the then BJP president Amit Shah (he was also the Union Home Minister) and some other leaders of the party decided to focus on Bengal.

Apart from Bengal being a crucial state that represented a tough challenge for the BJP, the BJP leadership rightly reckoned that winning Bengal in 2021 would boost the party’s prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Turning Bengal saffron would also completely demoralise the opposition and ease the BJP’s win in 2024. Also, with the BJP reaching saturation levels or facing tough challenges in many states in northern, western and central India, it needed to expand to states beyond its traditional spheres of influence.

Amit Shah and the top RSS brass held a series of meetings with Bengal BJP leaders in the summer of 2019 to chalk out a strategy for capturing power in the state in 2021.

Being in power in the state, they surmised, would help the party increase its tally from 18 to at least about 30 or so in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. And that would go a considerable way in helping the party retain power at the Centre.

Given all this, and the party’s decision to focus on Bengal, it is surprising that even a respectable representation was not given to the state in the Union Council of Ministers.

Modi inducted only two Lok Sabha MPs into his ministry, and that too as junior ministers with not-very-important portfolios. The two--Babul Supriyo and Debashree Chaudhuri--do not even hold independent charges of their departments unlike nine other Ministers of State (MoS) who hold independent charge of 21 departments including major ones like atomic energy & space, culture and tourism, sports & youth affairs, civil aviation and housing and urban affairs.

Babul Supriyo, the two-time MP from Asansol, is the MoS for environment, forests and climate change. Debashree Chaudhuri, the first-time MP from Raiganj, is MoS of women and child development.

Compare this dismal representation of Bengal to neighbouring Bihar where the BJP won 17 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 (one less than its tally in Bengal).

Five of the 17 MPs from Bihar are Union Ministers and two of them are senior cabinet ministers--Ravi Shankar Prasad (law and justice, communications, electronics and IT) and Giriraj Singh (animal husbandry, dairy and fisheries). One of them (R.K.Singh) is an MoS with independent charge of power, renewable energy and entrepreneurship and skill development.

The two other Ministers of State from Bihar--Nityanand Rai and Ashwini Kumar Choubey--are in charge of much more important departments than the two ministers from Bengal. While Rai is MoS of Home Affairs, Choubey is MoS of health and family welfare.

Another BJP ally from Bihar--the Lok Janshakti Party--found representation in the Union Ministry: its president Ram Vilas Paswan was food, public distribution and consumer affairs minister in the Union cabinet till he passed away in October last year.

What is also worth mentioning here is that another major BJP ally--the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U)--was offered a token representation of one cabinet berth, but it turned down the offer demanding proportional representation. The JD(U) wanted at least four berths in the Union Council of Ministers--one cabinet berth, one MoS with independent charge of a department and two junior ministerships.

The JD(U)’s demand is likely to be fulfilled in the impending cabinet rejig and expansion. But had the JD(U) accepted the BJP’s offer in 2019, Bihar would have had seven representatives in the Union Ministry--four cabinet ministers and three junior ministers.

According to central BJP leaders, the more-than-adequate representation given to Bihar was because the BJP wanted the NDA to retain power in the state in 2020 (Assembly elections that were held in November).

By the same token, Bengal should also have been given similar representation in the Union ministry. But that did not happen, and for inexplicable reasons.

Compared to many other states, too, the poor representation of Bengal in the Union Council of Ministers seems to be unfair. The BJP, for instance, won 28 Lok Sabha seats in Madhya Pradesh in 2019, and gave ministerships to six MPs--four of cabinet rank and two junior ministers.

There are six ministers from Maharashtra--three heavyweight cabinet ministers and three MoS--where the BJP won 23 seats.

Even Jharkhand, where the BJP won 11 seats, has two cabinet ministers--Arjun Munda (tribal affairs) and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (minority affairs).

Bengal’s under-representation mirrors that of the entire Northeastern region where the BJP bagged 14 out of the 25 seats but made only two of the 14 MPs junior ministers.

The saving grace for Northeast, however, is MoS (independent charge) of youth and sports affairs, Kiren Rijiju, who has created a name for himself through his hard work. The other minister from the region is Rameswar Teli (Assam), who is MoS of food processing.

Political observers say that the BJP could have signalled its intent to win Bengal very strongly had it made at least one or two of the 18 MPs from the state a senior cabinet minister and made three or four others junior ministers.

That would have created a huge and positive impression on the minds of the state’s electorate and served the party well in the Assembly elections held earlier this year.

Some in the central leadership of the party argue that the Lok Sabha MPs from Bengal lack administrative experience and could not, thus, have been given cabinet ranks. But that is a specious argument since a few other cabinet ministers also have little administrative experience. Also, there are MPs with a lot of potential from Bengal who deserve cabinet berths; one name that comes to the mind right away is that of Darjeeling MP Raju Bista who is a highly successful entrepreneur and was the head of a major electrical and consumer goods company.

Another Lok Sabha MP from Bengal who could have been made a cabinet minister is Arjun Singh. A three-time Trinamool MLA from Bhatpara in North 24 Parganas adjoining Kolkata, Singh switched over to the BJP from the Trinamool before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and defeated veteran Trinamool MP and former Union Minister Dinesh Trivedi.

Singh is a BJP strongman and has been courageously leading the fight against the Trinamool. He is one of the few BJP leaders from Bengal who has the spunk to take on Mamata Banerjee, and has successfully fought off many attacks on him by Trinamool gangsters.

Giving a cabinet berth to Singh would have sent a strong signal to party workers in Bengal and emboldened them to take on and defeat the Trinamool’s formidable election machinery. Arjun Singh as a cabinet minister would have also been very aggressive towards the Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee, thus serving the interests of the party in Bengal very well.

Another MP who could have been made an MoS, if not a cabinet minister, is Nisith Pramanik who, like Arjun Singh, made his way to the BJP from the Trinamool. Pramanik is a strongman from North Bengal which has turned into a BJP bastion.

That the BJP did not give fair representation to Bengal after 2019 became a sore point, albeit a minor one, among some sections of the electorate and could have been a factor behind the party’s disheartening performance in the Assembly polls this year.

Prime Minister Modi has a chance to set this right now. Doing so would definitely boost the BJP’s prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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