Tough Road Ahead For BJP In Bengal

Tough Road Ahead For BJP In Bengal

by Jayant Chowdhury - Feb 24, 2015 11:30 AM +05:30 IST
Tough Road Ahead For BJP In Bengal

The BJP has to offer a new vision to the electorate. And find some charismatic leaders. Just criticizing Mamata Banerjee will only work thus far and no further

The results of the by-elections for the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency and the Krishnaganj Assembly segment in West Bengal announced earlier this week should serve as an eye-opener for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. Though the Trinamool was the victor in both these elections, the BJP increased its vote share in modest proportions. But the BJP could have fared much better, and the factors responsible for it not doing so call for a close scrutiny.

In the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat, which borders Bangladesh, the BJP’s vote share increased from 19 per cent in the 2014 general elections to 25.1 per cent in the by-polls that were necessitated by the death of the then-sitting Trinamool Congress MP Kapil Krishna Thakur. The Trinamool nominated his widow Mamatabala Thakur, who won by a margin of more than 2.11 lakh votes. But the BJP had nominated a defector from the Trinamool, Subrata Thakur, as its candidate. Subrata and his father Manjul Krishna Thakur (brother of the late Kapil Krishna Thakur) who is the MLA of Gaighata which falls under the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat ditched the Trinamool and joined the BJP in mid-January on the eve of the Lok Sabha by-polls. Manjul Krishna Thakur won Gaighata on a Trinamool ticket and was a minister of state in the Mamata Banerjee government.

The BJP state unit thought it had scored a hit with the induction of Manjul Krishna Thakur and his son. But an intelligent analysis would have shown otherwise. Manjul and his deceased elder brother Kapil are sons of Binapani Devi, the matriarch and head of the Matua Mahasamaj, a sub-sect of the Hindu lower caste namasudras. The namasudras were organized into a Mahasamaj by Harichand Thakur in the mid-19th century in what is now Bangladesh. Most Matuas migrated to India after the 1947 partition and settled in districts bordering Bangladesh. Harichand Thakur’s son Guruchand became the head of the Mahasamaj, which established its headquarters at Thakurnagar which falls within the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency. After Guruchand, his son Pramathanath donned the mantle of the head of the samaj and following his death, his widow Binapani Devi took that position.

Tough Road Ahead For BJP In Bengal

The Matuas, who number over 7 million, and are a decisive factor in as many as eight Lok Sabha constituencies in Bengal, especially Bongaon, were behind the CPM before they were won over by Mamata Banerjee. The support of the Matuas, who vote en-bloc as per the wishes of the head of their Mahasamaj, was a major contributing factor to Mamata’s impressive win in the 2011 Assembly polls. The BJP’s act of weaning away the brother of their deceased MP and making the defector’s son its candidate did not go down well with a large section of Matuas, who felt that the BJP was indulging in dirty politics and trying to divide their Mahasamaj. And their sympathies naturally lay with the widow of the deceased MP.

The BJP failed to realise that a widow campaigning in the name of her dead husband is sure to evoke a lot of sympathy and, hence, votes. Also, the BJP failed to win over Binapani Devi.

Subrata Thakur, who was the vice-chairman of the Trinamool-led Gaighata Panchayat Samity, was not the best candidate for the BJP to pick. By no means a popular person, he also battles many allegations ranging from hooliganism to cattle smuggling. His sudden nomination caused a lot of heartburn among BJP leaders and workers, who rightly felt they were being ignored and did not campaign with full vigour for the polls. The BJP would have done well to nominate one of its senior local leaders—and there is no dearth of them—rather than choosing a defector from the Trinamool.

The nomination of Subrata Thakur sowed the seeds of dissension and discord in the local unit of the BJP and led to a lot of infighting that cost the party dear. Had the party stuck to K.D. Biswas, a Matua himself, who it had fielded in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it could have fared much better. Biswas had polled an impressive 2.45 lakh votes last year compared to Krishnapada Majumder, the BJP’s candidate in the 2009 polls, who had got a little over 42,000 votes. Biswas is a widely-respected leader of the party who has worked hard to strengthen the BJP in Bongaon.

In Krishnaganj, too, though the BJP improved its vote share to emerge as the first runners-up from the third position it was in the 2011 Assembly polls, it would have done much better had it not been for infighting within the party. The local unit of the BJP is a divided house with a large section owing allegiance to Satyabrata Mukherjee, who was a minister in the earlier NDA government, and others loyal to the Nadia district unit BJP chief Kalyan Nandi (Krishnaganj is in Nadia). The state party leadership did little to address this issue.

Another takeaway from these two by-polls is that the BJP did well only in urban and semi-urban areas. That means it is still organizationally very weak in rural Bengal and there is no way its mission to pose a serious challenge to the Trinamool in the 2016 Assembly polls can succeed. BJP president Amit Shah and the party’s Bengal minder Siddharth Nath Singh have been paying special attention to the state and at a meeting with state party leaders, Shah told them to launch an aggressive membership drive so that the party’s strength touches the one-crore mark by end of March 2015. But as of mid-February, the party’s total membership strength was only 18 lakh, of which 10 lakh are from the major urban centres, mostly Kolkata, Durgapur, Asansol and Siliguri. It is doubtful if the state party unit can achieve the target set by Shah by March-end.

BJP President Amit Shah
BJP President Amit Shah

What also ails the BJP in West Bengal is that it lacks credible faces. The state president Rahul Sinha is not a popular leader. Well-known faces like Tathagata Roy and Satyabrata Mukherjee have either been relegated to the backstage or are too old to lead the party from the front. It is imperative for the BJP to launch a serious hunt for new faces who have a clean image and have something to show for themselves in terms of professional achievements. The Bongaon misadventure should teach the party a lesson: that inducting defectors from other parties and pitchforking them centrestage at the cost of those who have toiled for the party for many years is a bad strategy. Many tainted people from the Trinamool will now be searching for opportunities in the BJP and the party ought to guard against inducting such people, no matter how powerful and influential they may be.

The BJP also has to offer the people of Bengal something new. So far, the only agenda of the BJP has been to criticize Mamata for her various acts of omission and commission, the prime being the Saradha scam. But an anti-Mamata plank will only work thus far and no further. The BJP has to offer a new vision to the electorate. It has to set goals and work out means to achieve these goals.

There is not much time before the party. The civic polls are scheduled to be held a few months from now and though the BJP is expected to do well in a few of them, including in Kolkata, the Trinamool is expected to win a majority of these municipal bodies. In such a scenario, Mamata will be tempted to bring the 2016 Assembly polls forward to the end of 2015. That will leave the BJP with little time to prepare itself for the electoral battle. The task before the party in Bengal is a tough one: inducting fresh faces and grooming new talent, strengthening the party at the grassroots level and charting out a fresh agenda that will place the party as a credible alternative to the Trinamool. This task cannot be left to the state leadership alone; the party’s central leadership have to pay a lot more attention to the state unit and bring it to shape.

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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