Gurugram: Less than a month after Suvendu Adhikari, former Trinamool Congress (TMC) Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of West Bengal from Nandigram, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, other TMC leaders have become increasingly vocal in expressing their unhappiness and frustrations with the functioning of the ruling party in the state led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and are apparently preparing the ground to join BJP in the run-up to the state Assembly elections scheduled to take place in April-May.
One of the first important TMC leaders to join BJP in November 2017 was Mukul Roy, former Member of the Rajya Sabha and one-time close aide of Mamata Banerjee, who is referred to as Didi or elder sister by her supporters. More saw an opportunity to switch their political allegiances after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in which BJP put up an impressive performance, winning 18 out of the 42 seats in the state. Former TMC leaders, such as Arjun Singh and Saumitra Khan, defected from the party to join BJP in the run-up to the general elections and won from the Barrackpore and Bishnupur Lok Sabha constituencies, respectively.
ON THE ADHIKARI FAMILY
With Suvendu Adhikari, five MLAs and one MP from TMC joined BJP in the presence of Amit Shah in December. Thereafter, Suvendu’s younger brother, Soumendu, left TMC and joined BJP. He was a TMC councillor and chairperson of the Kanthi municipality in East Midnapore district. Fourteen other TMC councillors shifted their political allegiances along with him.
The brunt of the decision of Suvendu and Soumendu to defect to BJP is being borne by their father, Sisir Adhikari, who is currently a TMC MP from Kanthi. He has been removed as chairman of the Digha-Shankarpur Development Authority and as party president for Purba Medinipur district. A family member, Ananda Adhikari, has also been removed from his post as a member of TMC’s district coordination committee.
Suvendu Adhikari’s public claims that his family would “conquer” the undivided district of Midnapore (which was bifurcated into two districts, Purba Medinipur and Paschim Medinipur in January 2002), including the adivasi-dominated Jangal Mahal area, has clearly not gone down well with Didi.
TROUBLE FOR TMC IN HOWRAH
Political observers named other TMC leaders who may be joining BJP. They include Baishali Dalmiya, sitting MLA from the Bally Assembly constituency in Howrah district, Rathin Chakraborty, the mayor of the Howrah Municipal Corporation, Rudranil Ghosh, Tollywood actor and once a star campaigner of the ruling party and Rajib Banerjee, the state’s Minister for Forest Affairs and MLA from Domjur.
Howrah district, which was supposed to be a TMC stronghold, is now looking particularly vulnerable for Didi. The current Lok Sabha MP from Howrah is Prasun Banerjee, a football legend and 1979 Arjuna Awardee. He retained the seat in the 2019 elections by defeating BJP’s Rantidev Sengupta by over one lakh votes. All seven Assembly constituencies which fall in the Howrah parliamentary constituency have TMC legislators. These are Bally, Howrah Uttar, Shibpur, Howrah Dakshin, Sankrail and Panchla.
Laxmi Ratan Shukla , former Indian Premier League cricketer and Howrah Uttar MLA, resigned as West Bengal’s Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports on January 5. He sent his resignation letter to the Chief Minister a day earlier announcing his decision to “leave politics for now” and to discontinue as president of the Howrah District Trinamool Congress (Sadar). He, however, said that he would continue as an MLA till the end of this term, and that he now wished to focus on “developing sports in Bengal.”
On Shukla’s decision to quit, Mamata Banerjee remarked: “He (Shukla) has written that he will continue as MLA till his term ends. But he wants to quit politics. I welcome his decision and I wish him all the best. He is a sportsperson and wants to concentrate on sports…”
However, Shukla’s resignation has opened fissures within TMC’s support base in Howrah. After he put in his papers, Baishali Dalmiya, MLA from Bally, said: “There are some negative-minded people in our party who continuously harass us. They do not allow legislators to work, try to demean them. Other parties like the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)], Congress or BJP do not insult us. It is our own party members, like the block president or councillors, who oppose us.”
Dalmiya also referred to certain unnamed people in TMC as “termites.” She told NDTV: “I have complaints against some people who are working against the party, the people and the community I serve. I have reservations about them. There are people in my area who are not allowing businesses to flourish in Howrah. There are people who are trying to create hurdles for MLAs, MPs and other leaders of the party… I want these termites – I call them termites – to be eradicated so that it is good for the community, for the common people, for senior workers of the party who have given their blood and sweat for the party but do not get any position in the party just because of these few people.”
After Dalmiya was asked if she would consider joining BJP, she claimed: “I haven't thought about it because I have a lot of patience and I will try to fight till the end. That is the reason I am vocal about these issues.”
Dalmiya also said that many in the party are involved in illegal construction activities, harass factory owners and take “cut money” (a euphemism for bribes) from government contractors. A month after TMC’s unimpressive performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the number of its MPs came down to 22 from 34 in 2014, Mamata Banerjee had publicly warned her party leaders about taking bribes and threatened them with serious action if they did not return the “cut money” they had taken from beneficiaries of government schemes. Some of them did indeed return the money.
However, TMC’s political opponents in BJP, Congress and the Left claim that corruption has not abated significantly in the state. There were many reports of funds meant for rehabilitation of those whose homes were destroyed by Cyclone Amphan being siphoned off.
Baishali Dalmiya is the daughter of Jagmohan Dalmiya, former president of Board of Cricket Council of India (BCCI). She joined TMC in February 2016 along with Shukla in the run-up to the Assembly elections in May that year. She is said to be close to former Indian cricket captain and current BCCI president Sourav Ganguly. She was recently seen at Woodlands Hospital in Kolkata along with Didi where Ganguly was convalescing after a minor cardiac arrest.
Following Shukla’s resignation, Howrah Municipal Corporation mayor Rathin Chakraborty said: “The TMC is going through turmoil and many sincere leaders and party workers are not being given the opportunity to work.”
In an interview with India TV, Chakraborty heaped praises on Shukla and described his resignation as a “bad omen” for the party. He also agreed with the interviewer when he said that the ones leaving the party were at one time perceived to be close to Chief Minister’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, but had subsequently fallen out with him.
In the first week of January, a video of West Bengal Minister and Domjur MLA Rajib Banerjee had gone viral where he can be heard saying that some functionaries in the TMC treat party workers as their servants. He can be heard saying in the video: “I urge them not to play with the sentiment of the loyal party workers.”
While Domjur Assembly constituency is in Howrah district, it is part of the Sreerampur Lok Sabha constituency represented by TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee. This is not the first time that Rajib Banerjee expressed his displeasure with the functioning of his party. In December, he reportedly had an hour-long meeting with election strategist Prashant Kishor and TMC secretary-general and state education minister Partha Chatterjee, and is supposed to have been critical of certain leaders in Howrah district. At the same time, he sought to distance himself from Adhikari. He said: “...I will also request you not to link me with Suvendu Adhikari. (his decision to join the BJP) was his personal decision… Differences in the party can be discussed in a democratic way.”
TMC’S PROBLEMS GO BEYOND HOWRAH
Mamata Banerjee’s problems in keeping her party together extend to other parts of Bengal. In an interesting development, Dipak Kumar Halder , Trinamool MLA from Diamond Harbour met BJP’s party observer for Kolkata, Sovan Chatterjee, who was also the mayor of the city. The Diamond Harbour Vidhan Sabha constituency is part of the Lok Sabha constituency from where Didi’s nephew, Abhishek, is the sitting MP.
In September 2015, Halder had been arrested on orders from the Chief Minister for allegedly being involved in instigating violence between two factions of the Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad in Fakirchand College in the South 24 Parganas district.
After his arrest, The Telegraph reported that Didi disliked Halder because of his “sour relations” with her nephew. The report quoted an unnamed TMC leader from Diamond Harbour saying that Halder was “anti-Abhishek and is close to Tamluk MP Suvendu Adhikari”.
While Halder described his meeting with Sovan Chatterje as a “courtesy visit” and claimed that he had no plans of leaving TMC, he was accompanied on the occasion by Abu Taher, a TMC leader from South 24 Parganas district. He, too claimed he had gone to meet an “old friend.”
Chatterjee, who defected from TMC to join BJP in August 2019 after the Lok Sabha elections, has himself been in the news for all the wrong reasons, including his personal life. He held a roadshow in the southern part of Kolkata on Sunday, and is seen as important for BJP, as he was once considered by Didi to be like her brother.
Despite its unimpressive performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC performed well in constituencies in the southern parts of the state. However, recent developments indicate that TMC strongholds, like Howrah, may be breached because disgruntled party functionaries are waiting in the wings to join BJP.
TROUBLE FROM TOLLYWOOD
Of late, popular actor and TMC leader Rudranil Ghosh has also been attacking his party. In an interview with Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika, he supported the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act which was against the “party line.” He said: “In India do only Hindus have to take responsibility for maintaining secularism? We follow this as if it’s written somewhere. I get information from Bangladeshi friends. The way Hindus are tortured there, is it wrong to give them citizenship here? What’s the problem in giving citizenship to minorities from our neighbouring countries?”
Unlike some of his party colleagues, Ghosh has openly acknowledged his meetings with BJP leaders and political observers say it is just a matter of time before he joins the saffron party. While Ghosh has never contested an election, he was a star campaigner for the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 Assembly elections.
The Bengal film and television serial industry (nicknamed Tollywood-A and Tollywood-B since it is based in Tollygunge in South Kolkata) has of late been exerting an increasingly important influence on politics in the state under TMC. Many film and television actors have campaigned for TMC.
Film stars Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan, Dev (Deepak Adhikari) and Satabdi Roy are TMC MPs from Jadavpur, Basirhat, Ghatal and Birbhum, respectively. While actor Locket Chatterjee is a BJP MP from Hooghly, playback singer and Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Babul Supriyo, represents the Asansol Lok Sabha constituency. More than 10 actors from Tollywood had joined BJP in July 2019.
Tollywood is now divided into two camps, one in favour of and the other against TMC. The latter includes senior artistes, such as Kanchana Moitra, Rimjhim Mitra and Anjana Basu. The last-named is understood to be close to senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, TMC obtained a little under 45% of votes and won 211 out of the 294 seats. Five years earlier, when it came to power in the state for the first time, TMC’s vote share was lower (almost 39%) and the party had 184 MLAs.
While TMC continues to put up a brave face in public as its leaders campaign in various parts of the state, faced with the unprecedented money power of BJP, Didi has a very tough task ahead of her in the next few months to get her house back in order.
RISING COMMUNAL TENSIONS
However, the shifting of allegiances of erstwhile TMC functionaries and supporters to BJP may not automatically lead to a shift in voter preferences and behaviour. These defections could well be perceived by the state’s politically-aware electorate as political opportunism of the worst kind, just as Mukul Roy's parting of ways with TMC was seen as a move to escape the long arm of the law for his alleged involvement in financial scandals. The law-enforcing agencies in New Delhi (and their political masters) surely know how to keep even BJP's vice president on tenterhooks. As recently as November 17, the Enforcement Directorate sent a fresh notice to Roy and his wife asking them to disclose their financial transactions 2013-14 onward, when he was with TMC.
Even as BJP, with its access to unprecedented financial resources and its army of social media "volunteers" – led by the party’s information technology (IT) cell chief Amit Malviya, who is actively involved in the election campaign in the state – seeks to build its base through defections from TMC, there are clear attempts to communalise the political atmosphere through disinformation. Incidents of communal violence are on the rise.
The ruling parties in Bengal – in the late-1960s and since 1977 – have been in opposition to the party or coalitions in power in New Delhi. The BJP is claiming that the state will revive economically if the same political dispensation is in power in both Kolkata and at the Centre. Will these claims be widely accepted?
How discerning are Bengal’s voters? Will a substantial section of the state's population view with considerable apprehension the communalisation of politics in the state?
Bengal has had a long history of Hindu-Muslim tensions but it also has a tradition of communal harmony over the recent decades. After the partition of the sub-continent in the 1940s and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, Bengal has been relatively free of tensions between Hindus and Muslims. After the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, unlike in many parts of the country, Bengal was free of communal violence. Whether BJP’s attempts to “consolidate” the majority community and whip up Islamophobia for political gain for political gain in a state with Muslims as nearly one-third of its population (officially around 27%), remains to be seen.
A number of big questions remain unanswered. Who will large sections of the electorate consider the “lesser evil”? Will a triangular contest automatically lead to an advantage for BJP? Even if there cannot be any pre-electoral alliance between all the political parties opposed to BJP in Bengal, can there be a subterranean coalescing of voting behaviour in favour of the strongest candidate opposed to BJP? And finally, can the "Maharashtra model" be replicated in Bengal after the elections?
More than a century ago, noted Marathi-speaking leader Gopalkrishna Gokhale (who was considered a political guru by both M K Gandhi and M A Jinnah) famously remarked: “What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow.” Can his remark be turned on its head today?