Is BJP’s Bengal Dream Turning Sour?

by Jayant Chowdhury - Mar 30, 2015 12:30 PM +05:30 IST
Is BJP’s Bengal Dream Turning Sour?

The party is losing the plot in the state, and indiscipline reigns. To capture the imagination of the people, it needs to take quick and drastic action.

For a party that places a premium on being ‘different’ and ‘disciplined’, last fortnight’s ugly incidents in front of the headquarters of the BJP’s West Bengal unit would have been acutely embarrassing. But it was actually more than that—the foul fights between its activists, the angry and accusatory slogans against its state president Rahul Sinha, the burning of the party flag and the consequent expulsion of some mid-ranking leaders for their involvement in the incidents came as enough proof that the BJP’s ambition of projecting itself as a viable alternative to the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M) is floundering and runs the risk of turning sour.

A series of protests by BJP workers were witnessed in various parts of Bengal over distribution of tickets for the polls to various civic bodies in the state due next month. The most virulent protests were staged before the party’s state headquarters in central Kolkata earlier this week by supporters of a couple of candidates who were initially nominated by the party before their nominations were cancelled.

On March 24, supporters of Vishal Jaiswal, who was given the BJP ticket to contest from Ward 38 of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and then replaced by Madan Lal Gupta after local party workers complained that Jaiswal was an outsider, staged an angry demonstration before the state party office and shouted slogans accusing state party president Rahul Sinha of being corrupt.

Party workers loyal to Gupta clashed with Jaiswal’s supporters and a free-for-all ensued in which some senior party leaders were also injured. The next day, supporters of one Jayanta Bose, a leader of the South 24 Parganas unit of the party, who had been expelled for anti-party activities, clashed with supporters of rival leaders from that district in front of the state party office. There have been similar angry and ugly protests against distribution of party tickets in towns like Kharagpur, Siliguri and Behrampore over the last 10 days.

Tired of the 34-year-long rule of the CPI(M) during which Bengal declined socially, economically, educationally, culturally, and in all other fields, the people of West Bengal gave Mamata Banerjee an unequivocal mandate in 2011 to lift the state out of the morass it had sunk into. But within a few months, all hopes were dashed to the ground as the mercurial Mamata proved to be not only no different, but actually far worse, than her predecessors. It was in this context that the people of the state, let down by Mamata and unwilling to give the CPI(M) another chance so soon, started turning towards the BJP.

This found ample representation in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls where the BJP’s vote share went up to an impressive 17% from 4.14% in the 2011 Assembly polls. The BJP got more than 25% of the votes cast in the two Lok Sabha seats in Kolkata and even got a lead in Mamata’s own Assembly constituency Bhowanipore which is part of the South Kolkata parliamentary seat.

It looked as if the BJP would emerge as a strong alternative to the Trinamool and win some of the civic bodies that will go to the polls in April. It was widely believed that the BJP had a fighting chance of emerging close to the Trinamool in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), if not capturing the body. And the popular belief among political pundits was that the BJP would win at least 100-plus seats in the 294-member state legislative assembly (it has only one MLA now) to emerge as a strong opposition.

But the party seems to have lost the plot. And its state leadership has to shoulder a major portion of the blame for this. Its foremost mistake was that it made no effort to consolidate and strengthen the organization at the grassroots level. All that the BJP state leaders concentrated on was inducting thousands into the party fold. The membership drive was indiscriminate and even though the party fell far short of the target set by its president Amit Shah of having one crore members by March-end, it has a respectable 55 lakh on its rolls now.

But, in its hurry to induct as many people as it could, the BJP state unit ignored the credentials of the new entrants and, as a result, a huge number of goons, especially those sidelined in the Trinamool and the CPI(M), joined the party. This writer had warned against precisely this, and a few other dangers, in two articles published in Swarajya (BJP Should Learn From Mamata’s Mistakes, December 8, 2014, and Tough Road Ahead For BJP In Bengal, February 24, 2015).

The entry of petty criminals, thugs, extortionists and tainted opportunists into the BJP has sullied the image of the party in Bengal to a considerable extent. It is mostly these people who staged demonstrations in front of the state party headquarters and other party offices in many towns of Bengal to protest the denial of party tickets to contest the civic body polls.

Such protests are typical of parties like the Congress and the Trinamool; a disciplined party like the BJP can have no room, and tolerance, for such actions. But the very fact that lower and middle-ranking party leaders and their supporters have staged unseemly protests for being denied party tickets speaks volumes about the rot that has set in the state unit of the party.

This calls for immediate and decisive action that should involve scrutinizing the antecedents of all new entrants to the party and weeding out the undesirable elements irrespective of their clout at the local level. It is only then that the BJP can regain the respect of the common people. Mamata Banerjee had made the same mistake of indiscriminately inducting tens of thousands of people into her party with the objective of bolstering the Trinamool’s headcount, and the disastrous results are there for all to see.

Another warning sounded by this writer in the above-mentioned pieces—that the BJP would lose its way in the Bengal quagmire if it does not offer a concrete alternative to the people—is coming true. The BJP in Bengal seems to have a single-point agenda: oppose Mamata for her various acts of omission and commission.

It is true that there is a lot to criticize and attack Mamata for and as an opposition party, the BJP has to highlight her faults and her shortcomings. It is the duty of the BJP to campaign vigorously against the involvement of the Trinamool in the Saradha and other scams. It is important for the BJP to highlight Mamata’s lack of governance skills and her indiscretions as well as the sharp deterioration of the law-and-order situation in the state under her watch.

But that is not enough. If the BJP is to catch the people’s imagination, it has to specify what alternatives it can offer to the people of the state. It has to specify what it will do to improve the state’s finances, what it will do to bring in investments, its action plan on improving the state’s physical infrastructure, improving work culture and cleansing Bengal of extortionists, thugs and criminals who have flourished under Marxist, and now Trinamool, rule. Unfortunately, apart from its anti-Mamata plank, the BJP has not offered anything else to the people of the state.

Criticizing the Congress and the UPA-II alone did not get Narendra Modi the massive mandate last year, it was the dream of growth and prosperity that he offered to the country that got him that. But the BJP’s West Bengal unit has inexplicably failed to realize something as elementary as this.

Yet another failing of the party in Bengal is the lack of a credible leadership. The public face of the party in the state hardly inspires any confidence. People of Bengal would like to know who would head the government if the BJP eventually comes to power in Bengal. Such a person has to be not only charismatic, but also mature, clean and a visionary whose image and persona would strike a stark contrast with that of the immature, whimsical, mercurial and scam-tainted Mamata.

Unfortunately, the state BJP leadership is nondescript, to say the least, and there have been allegations of corruption and malpractices against some of them. They won’t be able to capture the hearts and minds of the people of Bengal.

The state leadership has done little to strengthen the party organization from the grassroots level. Rahul Sinha, the BJP state president, admitted this while speaking to the media after the demonstrations and fights outside the party office in Kolkata. However, he gave this (lame) excuse: “We are finding it difficult to give time to consolidate the organization because elections are being held one after another (in the state). Besides, a huge number of people are joining the party every day. We cannot deny that there are organizational shortcomings.” Sinha does little credit to himself or his party by offering this explanation.

A positive development that has emerged out of this week’s demonstrations is that the central party leadership has sat up, taken notice and is acting now to set things right.

Amit Shah has asked a senior colleague, Nirmala Sitharaman, to take charge of party affairs in Bengal. A core team comprising Sitharaman, Bengal minder Siddharth Nath Singh, Lok Sabha MPs from Bengal S.S. Ahluwalia and Babul Supriyo and five senior state-level leaders will now take corrective action.

While it is better late than never, it is doubtful if the BJP can match the performance that was expected of it in the civic body polls next month. And if the party is to realize its potential, this core team will have to take drastic, and unpleasant, actions to stem the rot within the state unit. The BJP in Bengal has to prove to the people of the state that it is a disciplined, incorruptible party that has a vision for Bengal. Only then will people repose their faith in the party.

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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