BJP Gives Up Bengal

Jayant Chowdhury

Jul 08, 2015, 10:56 PM | Updated Feb 24, 2016, 04:33 PM IST

By getting into an unnecessary deal with Mamata Banerjee, the BJP has demoralized the state unit and has scored a self-goal

The BJP has withdrawn from the Bengal battlefield even before the battle for the 2016 Assembly polls has begun

The BJP in Bengal hasn’t been able to project a single leader who is capable of taking on Mamata Banerjee.

Having surrendered to TMC in Bengal, Amit Shah’s dream of winning more from WB in 2019 seems fated to be a pipedream

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has withdrawn from the Bengal battlefield even before the battle for the 2016 Assembly polls has begun. Party National President Amit Shah, who visited the state on Monday, announced that the BJP has its sights set on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and not the Assembly polls next year.

Shah’s announcement at a closed-door meeting of about 600 party leaders from Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, at Howrah should, however, come as no surprise. As had been mentioned in earlier articles, the BJP lost the plot in Bengal soon after posting impressive gains in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.  Those gains were largely due to the Modi wave that swept across the country. But the state leadership of the party failed miserably to capitalize on those gains.

Shah had set an ambitious goal of enrolling one crore workers into the party by March 2015. That was, by all means, an achievable target. But the state party leadership failed to meet even half the target. Again, this isn’t surprising because the BJP in Bengal hasn’t been able to project a single leader who is capable of taking on Mamata Banerjee. The state party leadership lacks credibility, charisma and is spectacularly unappealing.

The state party president, Rahul Sinha, lacks popularity among any section of the electorate in Bengal and is not popular even within his own party. His style of functioning has spawned serious dissent and factionalism is rife within the party.

Prime Minister Modi in conversation with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Dhaka.
Prime Minister Modi in conversation with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Dhaka.

This was on full public display in the run-up to the municipal polls held across Bengal recently when party workers and leaders clashed and battled each other in front of the state party headquarters and Rahul Sinha is reported to have let loose his goons on them.

As had been written by this author earlier, the failure of the central BJP leadership to replace Sinha and appoint a charismatic leader with a clean image who would be able to mobilize all sections of the electorate has cost the state BJP very dear. Sinha is widely perceived to be an upstart who relies more on muscle to hold on to his position. Even reporters covering the BJP beat ignore Sinha, who is infamous for his massive ego and intellectual shallowness. Why the central BJP leadership persists with Sinha is a deep mystery.

The Bengal BJP, beset as it is with deep dissensions and an ineffectual leadership, received a debilitating blow a few months ago when the central BJP leadership decided to sacrifice its stakes in Bengal in lieu of receiving Mamata Banerjee’s support for passing crucial bills in the Rajya Sabha.

After going hammer and tongs against Trinamool and its chief Mamata Banerjee on the Saradha scam, the central BJP leadership fell strangely silent. The investigations by the CBI into the Saradha scam also slowed down suddenly at a time when it had gathered fierce momentum and unearthed evidence that would lead directly to Mamata Banerjee. That was the time an alarmed Mamata Banerjee, fearing for her own political future and also that of her key aides, who were about to be arrested, sent urgent feelers to the central BJP leadership to save her.

The BJP leadership, which was staring at a stalemate in the Rajya Sabha and the prospect of key bills being held up in the Upper House by the Congress, which has numerical superiority there, found the prospect of an understanding with the Trinamool very alluring.

The widespread perception is that the central BJP leadership directed the CBI to go slow on the Saradha probe and, in return, the Trinamool supported bills like the GST Bill and the Land Boundary Agreement Bill that lead to a historic land swapping with Bangladesh. The sudden bonhomie between Modi and Mamata, who, just a year ago, were fierce critics of each other, was an overt sign of this understanding.

Obviously, those BJP leaders and workers in the state who had the interests of the party in their hearts and wanted to go the whole hog to rid Bengal of Mamata felt disillusioned by the quid pro quo between Modi and Mamata. They felt abandoned and demoralized.

They were asked to drastically tone down their criticism of Mamata Banerjee and her corrupt ministers and also desist from raising issues like ineffectual governance, lack of industrialization, failure of the state government to bring in investments and halt the flight of capital (including intellectual capital) from Bengal, the Trinamool’s hooliganism, the sharp deterioration in the law and order situation and politicization of all institutions.

All these issues, if raised effectively by clean and credible faces within the state BJP—and there are many who reply to these two primary requirements but have been sidelined by the state BJP leadership–would have found deep resonance across Bengal.

The central BJP leadership’s abject surrender of its interests in Bengal at a time its prospects were bright for immediate, short-term gains at the Center is an ill-advised move. Mamata Banerjee, cornered by the Saradha probe, would have done the BJP’s bidding in the Rajya Sabha, had the screws been further tightened on her.

She is a shrewd politician and would have known that no matter how much she screamed from the rooftops that the CBI probe was politically motivated, a charge sheet against her (which the CBI was reportedly preparing very meticulously) that would have stood the scrutiny of the Court would have ended her political career. So she offered the BJP a deal (of support in the Rajya Sabha in exchange for taking the CBI off her back) that the latter ought to have turned down.

Senior BJP leaders say that getting bills that would boost the NDA’s performance at the Central level clear the Rajya Sabha hurdle is much more critical now than strengthening the party’s position in Bengal. If important bills are held up in the RajyaSabha, the Modi government will turn into a lame duck one like the UPA-II under Manmohan Singh, and that has to be avoided at all costs.

While that may sound logical, the cost for Trinamool support in the RajyaSabha need not have been sacrificing the BJP’s interests in Bengal and abandoning the party’s state unit. As stated earlier, all that New Delhi needed to do was ask the CBI, which was anyway mandated by the Supreme Court to probe the Saradha scam, to hasten its investigations and start preparing chargesheets against Trinamool leaders.

Those ready charge sheets would have been enough to make Mamata Banerjee fall in line and ensure that she sticks to the straight and narrow for a long time to come. At the political level, the BJP ought to have upped the ante against her in Bengal and discredited her thoroughly. Instead, what the BJP has done is handed her a second term in Bengal—which will undoubtedly lead to the further ruination of the state—on a platter.

The BJP should have learnt its lessons from the past that Mamata is a totally unreliable ally and never sticks to her side of the bargain. She will not hesitate to go back on her pledge to support government bills in the Rajya Sabha the moment she senses that the NDA is on the backfoot (as it just may be with controversies like Lalit Modi and the Vyapam scam piling up on it).

The go-slow order to the CBI, she knows, has dealt a body blow to the progress of the probe, and it is unlikely to gain fresh momentum to nail her and her key aides. As for 2019, it’s still a long way off and after having surrendered to the Trinamool so abjectly in Bengal, Amit Shah’s dream of winning more seats from this state in 2019 seems fated to be a pipe dream. The BJP has only itself to blame for scoring a self-goal in Bengal.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.

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