BJP national reshuffle exposes Bengal fault lines; Mukul Roy, Anupam Hazra get key posts, Rahul Sinha dumped
While no reshuffle of this magnitude can possibly be uncontroversial, some decisions taken with regard to West Bengal certainly look a bit on the quixotic side.
If the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) nationwide organisational reshuffle was meant to smooth out some wrinkles, it appears to have rumpled the fabric in a number of places as well. While no reshuffle of this magnitude can possibly be uncontroversial, some decisions taken with regard to West Bengal certainly look a bit on the quixotic side.
It is true that in trying to balance the forces and meet competing demands, the national leadership has been confronted by a number of particular problems, which put the exercise somewhat in context. We could start with the fact that the Assembly elections in Bengal are only about eight months away. On the back of the party’s unexpected performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it obviously hopes to either win the state or emerge in the Assembly as a strong Opposition next year. Currently, on the basis of the 2019 election results, suitably disaggregated, the BJP holds 122 Assembly segments out of 294, against the Trinamool Congress’s 163.
The second problem is the one that’s really difficult to figure out because it directly impinges on both the reshuffle dynamics and the electoral calculus. This is the one that has been caused in roughly the last five years by a massive influx of leaders into the party at many levels from other organisations, mainly the Trinamool Congress and CPM. This influx has led to an exponential rise in conflicts of interest, rival claims and infighting.
On Saturday, some key changes were made in the national setup which affected Bengal. Leaving aside the many significant changes that do not affect Bengal, the three main changes were the award of a party position to Mukul Roy, who became one of the all-India national vice-presidents; the award of the post of national secretary to Anupam Hazra; and, almost seismically, the removal of long-time stalwart Rahul Sinha, a national secretary, from any party position whatsoever. He holds no office in the state unit either.
Alongside, was the uncontroversial appointment of Darjeeling MP Raju Bisht as a party spokesperson; and, significantly, the unspoken decision to maintain the status quo in respect of Bishnupur MP Saumitra Khan’s incumbency as president of the Bengal unit of the state Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the party’s youth wing.
First, Roy. After having been sidelined in the Trinamool Congress, of which he had been as working president and virtual number two, in 2015, Roy had tried to float his own party but made no headway. In 2017, matters came to a head when he was suspended from the party. In November that year, he joined the BJP. But Roy’s career in the party failed to set off any fireworks, most probably because he failed to engineer mass defections, which had been the implicit expectation.
One possible reason for Roy having so far been kept out of the party’s inner councils despite his reputation in the context of Bengal as being a ‘master political and electoral strategist’, has been his running animosity with West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh, also the Lok Sabha member from Medinipur.
In the past weeks, Roy has met national leaders and has had some kind of dialogue with party president JP Nadda. Some deal must have been struck, but in the public domain, his role in the BJP’s affairs in Bengal has not been defined. Given that Ghosh isn’t known for doing ‘outsiders’ any favours, nothing can really be assumed.
Sinha’s case is somewhat surreal. He’s not exactly a new kid on the block. He’s been around with the best of them. He was not only a national secretary for five years before being unceremoniously dumped, but he had also served two terms as president of the Bengal unit of the party, from 2009 to 2015. His own statement after being removed best expresses the position. "I have been serving the party for the last 40 years. In reward, I had to make way for a leader coming from Trinamool. I will wait for 12 to 15 days and announce my future course," he said on Saturday.
Sinha’s description of Hazra is significant (and spot on), as is the declaration of intent. Hazra, unlike Roy or Sinha, is a lightweight. He became the Trinamool MP of Bolpur constituency (in Birbhum district) in 2014, but had no substantial organisational or political heft, though he was close to Anubrata Mondal, the Trinamool leader who controls the party’s Birbhum unit.
Hazra was expelled from the party early in 2019, was given the ticket for the Jadavpur constituency for the Lok Sabha elections, but was trounced by the Trinamool winner Mimi Chakrabarty, losing by a margin of nearly 300,000 votes.
It is not known exactly how close Hazra is to Ghosh, though it is well known, as mentioned, that the Bengal unit president is not particularly well disposed to ‘outsiders’. At any rate, Hazra’s elevation at Sinha’s expense is bound to set off a few turf wars in the party. It is possible that Sinha will not do anything drastic and public, but he has a major following amongst old BJP hands, despite his loss to Trinamool’s Sudip Chattopadhyay in the contest for the Kolkata North Lok Sabha constituency in 2019, which did more than anything to lower his stature with the national leadership.
On Sunday, however, BJP supporters agitated against Hazra and blocked his car in Baruipur, a few kilometres south of Kolkata, where he had gone for a party meeting.
The case of Soumitra Khan is also curious. He was the Trinamool MP from Bishnupur, having won the constituency in 2014 for the first time. He joined the BJP in early 2019 and won the constituency again on the ticket given by his new party. In June this year, he was made the state BJYM president, apparently, after the national leadership told Ghosh to ease more former Trinamool leaders in as office-bearers in preference to hardcore Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) individuals.
How well this purported instruction has gone down with Ghosh, who was headhunted from the RSS himself, is not known, but within months Khan and Ghosh had a fairly nasty bust-up. In September, Khan published a list of members of the BJYM’s state committee, apparently without Ghosh’s clearance. The state president didn’t like the way things had been done, as well the list itself, and Khan was forced to publish a new list.
That there is serious infighting within the Bengal BJP has been known for some time. It is also known that one of the most salient of the fault-lines is constituted by the old-timer/new entrant dichotomy. As in other parties, so too in the Bengal BJP people who’ve rendered years of service in the lean years resent being pushed aside by opportunist newcomers in the fat years.
The Bengal BJP’s problem is that it has grown so fast in the past five years or so that it has been inundated by ‘defectors’. The national reshuffle of the party has just exposed the problem. It will obviously have to do something about it.
If that were the only problem it would have looked manageable, but the further problem is that the man who has been chosen to run the state unit – Dilip Ghosh – seems also to be more part of the problem than the solution. From the neutral observer’s vantage, it cannot be gainsaid that he has presided over a massive expansion of the party and a big upswing in its fortunes.
But from this same vantage, somewhat paradoxically, it is also clear that he is not greatly enamoured of the defector brigade as well as being a prickly kind of customer. It appears that Khan was thrust down his throat and it is unclear whether he will easily cede ground to Roy.
He has, for instance, successfully blocked former Trinamool leader, Sovan Chattopadhyay, who was Kolkata mayor for over a term, from having any role in party affairs. Media reports keep suggesting that Chattopadhyay is ready to call it quits, but he has held on. He has been with the BJP for over a year.
The BJP is preparing for assembly elections that are something in the region of eight months away. The fissures within it, especially the unhappiness of the old faithful, combined with what appears to be a tactical/strategic cleavage between Delhi and Kolkata could plague it in the months ahead.
In every way, Narendra Modi gains from this needless controversy before the nine state elections this year and the general election next year. And a master politician like him will not let this opportunity for his opponents to malign themselves go waste
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