BJP needs a new gardener in Bengal
Today Kolkatans are voting for their Municipal Elections. One needn’t be a political pundit or pollster to predict – it’ll be a clean sweep for Trinamool Congress – probably as impressive as AAP’s win in Delhi Assembly elections. BJP would be lucky to finish a distant (and, most probably, insignificant) second.
This is surprising since only a few months ago ‘Saffron’ was being hailed as the new ‘Red’ in Bengal and BJP was seen as a serious threat to ‘Didi’ (Mamata Banerjee). BJP’s membership in the state crossed the 10 lakh mark. Simultaneously, trouble was brewing within Trinamool – caught on a sticky wicket over ‘Saradha-Scam’ - there was also talk of internal dissension within the party, with a section ready to jump the boat with Mukul Roy - the General Secretary, ‘Master Strategist’ and organisation strong-man of TMC (whom many, including this columnist, referred to as Mamata’s Amit Shah).
Buoyed by the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections – when BJP increased its vote-share to 16.8 % (from a measly 6.2 % in 2009) in the state and whopping 25% in Kolkata proper - winning 2 and securing second position in 3 seats (and a clear lead in 23 assembly segments including Mamata Banerjee own constituency, second in 40 others) the party’s state leadership declared Mission 150 + for 2016 Assembly Elections. At the famous – ‘Utthan Divas’ Rally in Kolkata on November 30th – held after a major tussle with the state government – Siddharth Nath Singh, BJP’s National Secretary – in charge of West Bengal – made that audacious call of ‘Bhaag Mamata Bhaag’.
The momentum continued for another 3 months or so giving people an impression that at last a credible challenger to Mamata was emerging. But, a sudden denouement followed Amit Shah’s Burdwan Rally on January 20th. First, there was an announcement of number of top TMC leaders crossing over to BJP on that day – which didn’t happen. Claims were made that around 40 TMC MLAs were ready to join BJP and simply waiting for a call. By way of explanation of the “no show”, BJP functionaries said they had postponed the ‘welcome ceremony’’ to a later date as they didn’t wish to divert attention from the main purpose of the event. But, a certain loss of steam was apparent even in the bye-elections that followed in February – which TMC won with ease.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee – the street-smart fighter that she is – started to put her house in order. Making truce with some disgruntled elements – who were wielding veiled threats of en-masse defection – and craftily isolating Mukul Roy without expelling him from the party. Once again proving the old adage – a party is bigger than an individual.
Simultaneously, there were a few other developments – which many people refuse to dismiss as mere coincidence. One couldn’t but notice a slow-down in the pace of the Saradha Scam probe by CBI. 3 of the 4 main protagonists arrested were let out on bail – including a young Rajya Sabha MP (from a well known Stevedoring family also owning a pro-TMC media group) – who resigned from the party as well as his parliament seat the very next day. Mukul Roy – though called for interrogation after allowing him a long leash – was not taken into custody unlike the others who had been summoned before him by CBI. Thereafter, the spotlight of the investigation seemed to shift to another accused – political wheeler-dealer - Matang Sinh.
Perhaps, the most significant event was Mamata Benerjee’s meeting with Narendra Modi – the first in nearly 10 months after his assuming office as Prime Minister. Though the body language on camera was distinctly stiff – one doesn’t know what exactly transpired in the one-on-one interaction or subsequent off-line engagements with key members of Modi cabinet like Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari. While the shenanigans continued in Parliament and Trinamool refused to budge on the Land Acquisition Bill – some other Bills were quietly allowed passage by tactical ‘walk-out’ by TMC MPs during voting. The Centre too showed a great deal of grace and generosity in the budgetary allocations for West Bengal – keeping aside political differences.
But, the biggest challenge facing BJP in Bengal’s is the quality and calibre of State level leadership. There is not a single leader of stature, charisma or mass-base. Since the elections in May 2014 – all the leaders who had been para-dropped from Delhi to contest like Chandan Mitra or even an S. S. Ahluwalia who won from Darjeeling – have been missing in action – with the sole exception of Babul Supriyo, who has little political standing or appeal beyond his Bollywood Rock-Star image. The few others – who are considered to be men of substance like Tathagata Toy or Dr Subhash Sarkar of Bankura have been sidelined and maintain a low profile. Siddharth Nath Singh – who was supposed to be the Central “Prabhari” of the state ( whose claim to fame is he is a ‘son-in-law’’ of Bengal by virtue of having his ‘sasural’ in Kolkata) has become scarce – one doesn’t know whether due to party or –in-law issues. It was reported that – Nirmala Sitharaman has been given charge of looking after West Bengal affairs. But, perhaps, she too has been busy organising the Hannover Messe.
With the result – the ticket distribution for the KMC election turned out to be an embarrassing mess – with in-fighting breaking out in public – seriously denting the party’s image. Rahul Sinha – the State Secretary appeared totally out of depth and control. In any case, he does not inspire either confidence or respect. People question his political credentials and even integrity. There are also insinuations of clandestine side-deals struck by the senior local leadership with TMC – hinting at possibilities of deliberate sabotage. But, all this is here say – what is clear: BJP in Bengal is rudderless and leaderless. By frittering away the chances of scoring an impressive tally in Kolkata – where probably the anti-incumbency of Trinamool was the highest – they have dashed the hopes raised after the Lok-Sabha elections.
Now, only a strong leader can salvage the party from the dump it has dug for itself in less than a year, but none can be seen on the horizon. If Modi’s really wants to expand BJP’s presence in the East – he and Amit Shah might be better off going shopping outside the party and for that Mukul Roy is a prime prospect in waiting
A party without a leader is as ineffective as a leader without a part. That probably makes a good – even if expedient – fit for Roy and BJP. But, will Modi-Shah bite the bullet ?
Artcle first published in the @DailyO_ Click here to read
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