Political rivals have not stopped sniggering since BJP West Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh declared that his party would win 23 out of 42 seats from West Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls. “I will be surprised if BJP gets three seats,” said Rezzak Mollah, a cabinet minister in the ruling Trinamool Congress.
BJP has only two MPs in West Bengal compared to the Trinamool’s 33. And one of these, the Darjeeling seat has traditionally been held by the BJP which got the support of the local Nepali-speaking Gorkhas who have been at loggerheads with successive state governments on the issue of a separate Gorkhaland.
Yet, the Opposition derision — which questions BJP’s ambitions of achieving a gain of 21 seats — notwithstanding, several factors lend credibility to Ghosh’s claims. Most significant of these is the glaring shift in loyalties taking place at the constituency-level in several erstwhile Trinamool strongholds.
It is a sunny day in the jungle villages of Jhargram in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district. Part of Jungle Mahal, as the vast area has come to be known for the vast stretches of dense forests which cover it, Jhargram is one of the three parliamentary constituencies housed here, the other two being Purulia and Bankura.
Since chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress came to power with an overwhelming majority in 2011, the party has won every subsequent election from these remote regions, once the haunt of Maoists, whether central, state or rural. So much so that even in the midst of the Narendra Modi-wave which swept the country during the 2014 general elections, TMC’s Dr Uma Saren defeated BJP candidate Bikash Mudi (as well as his CPIM and Congress counterparts) by a margin of over 3,50,756 votes.
One of Banerjee’s self-proclaimed success stories in fact, Jungle Mahal was flushed out of Maoists (her police killed the militant group’s leader Koteshwar Rao in an encounter) and the tribal villages benefitted from public distribution schemes (like the one offering subsidised rice at Rs 2 per kilo).
But five years on, the only party “visible” in some of Jhargram’s villages is the BJP. The walls of the hamlet huts are painted with pink lotuses and the graffiti reads “vote for BJP.” Saffron flags are ubiquitous, dangling from branches of trees, peeping out of windows and sticking out of doors.
“We were for Trinamool once, but now we are backing BJP,” admitted 49-year-old Kali Shankar Dey of Gopiballavpur village. Indeed, his admission is backed by the fact that in last year’s panchayat elections Gopiballavpur replaced the Trinamool rural government with that of BJP. By way of reason he offers a host of grievances against the ruling party," “Didi (as Mamata is popularly known) may have given money for the poor people, but it was pocketed by the local party people and their relatives.”
Sheikh Osman, 43, of Jhargram’s Naya Basan Muslim Basti village snapped, “Who told you Didi is giving you the rice? Don’t you know these are central schemes?” Osman, who was initiated into the BJP as an active worker during last year's rural polls, is eager to project the fact that he supports BJP despite being from a minority community. “I have been telling my people that BJP is not anti-Muslim. In fact, we Muslims have been kept poor by previous governments. Now it is time for us to be a part of development.”
Other reasons cited by former Trinamool supporters or even workers are “factional feuds.” “Khub kechaal hochhey,” (too much in-fighting is going on) said Bunty Sarkar, a Trinamool worker from Nadia district, using the Bengali slang for “squabbling”. And Hoogly district’s Abdul Hussain, a construction worker, said he was forced by local construction-material-supply companies, run by musclemen allegedly belonging to the ruling party (the practice has gained notoriety in Bengal as “syndicate raj”) to work for them.
In Birbhum district, a Trinamool ground worker said on condition of anonymity, “Not everyone is talking about it, but secretly many of us are thinking of making the shift or have already switched sides.” He doesn’t think of it as a betrayal. “I don’t have qualms admitting that we go with the flow. We have to think of our survival. If today openly I tell you ‘I am BJP’ and then tomorrow the party does not do well, then they will take revenge on me. We are waiting and watching.” Interestingly, the party office has been repainted from green to orange.
The other common complaint emanating from the villages in Jungle Mahal was intimidation by political thugs allegedly of the ruling party during elections, especially the rural polls. When the locals of Jungle Mahal shifted loyalties from the communists in 2011 to the Trinamool after 34 years, these same reasons were given.
Biswanath Chakraborty, political scientist and professor, explained, “Leaders of the Left Front government lost touch with the people on the ground in constituencies. Local goons were controlling everything from the public distribution funds to the elections in the name of the party. When the alternative — that is, Trinamool — came along, they simply switched sides. The Trinamool government is repeating the mistakes of the Left and this is bound to cause erosion in the vote banks because BJP is offering an alternative.”
But factors other than just capitalising on anti-incumbency are contributing to BJP gradually gaining ground in West Bengal. The party is pro-actively building organisational strength at the grassroots, which was a strong point of the Trinamool (which means "grassroots"). Before Trinamool captured power in Bengal it effectively drained the Left out of its ground forces. When it was clear that Trinamool was the alternative that the people would go for, cadres abandoned the Left like a sinking ship and jumped into the Didi bandwagon in droves.
To that effect, BJP has been wooing some of Trinamool’s top leaders known for their organisational skills. In this category, the most high-profile induction has been Mukul Roy, one of Trinamool’s founding members and once Mamata's right-hand man. Explaining the controversial switch-over Roy said, “The Trinamool had a purpose, which was to oust the CPIM government. I was with the party then. But beyond that it has lost its reason to stay on in power because it is not offering governance. The BJP government has proved that development is its main focus and the people of Bengal want a chance at that.”
Roy, who commands a huge support base among the cadre, is said to have engineered the defections of others, including former Trinamool strongmen and state ministers. Murshidabad’s Humayun Kabir walked out of Trinamool with a virtual army of 10,000 cadre and marched into BJP. Close to 3,000 workers followed North Dinajpur’s Abdul Karim Choudhury. Among other recent defectors to BJP is Nishit Pramanik, once considered one of Trinamool’s strongest “ground managers”, who contested on a BJP ticket from Cooch Behar in northern Bengal (which went to the polls during the first phase on 11 April).
In Barrackpore parliamentary constituency, in southern Bengal’s North 24 Paragana district, too the BJP has pitted a former Trinamool heavyweight Arjun Singh against his former colleague Dinesh Trivedi. It is expected to be a tough contest for Singh, as Trivedi, who has held the seat for the last two consecutive terms, is a hugely popular candidate. “He drops by to check on us regularly,” beamed Biswanath Biswas, 55, a teashop owner in Barrackpore’s Naihati.
Yet, a saffron flag protrudes out of the terrace of his shop. Biswas said, “Look, I am a supporter of our current MP because he is doing good work, but there is no denying that the BJP is coming up in a big way in these parts.” Barrackpore’s BJP district president Phalguni Patra said, “This is not a question about one party’s MP versus another. Trinamool as a party has failed the people of Bengal and BJP is the alternative.” Patra insisted that this Trinamool stronghold is one of the 23 seats Ghosh is talking about.
Trinamool dismisses the claims and charges as preposterous. Trivedi, reacting to Ghosh's prediction called it a "jumla." But Ghosh claimed his figure was carefully calculated. “In each constituency we have fielded strong candidates,” he said. “We have also been sending the message of BJP’s development programmes to the people. On 23 May, there will be 23 BJP MPs in Bengal.”
As evening descends on the jungle villages of Jhargram, a storm begins to brew over the horizon. The political colour in these parts can change as rapidly as the weather. Driving past the wildly swaying forests and with the voices of villagers fading in the distance, clusters of Trinamool’s grassroots green flags appear every now and then. But they make way for clumps of flaming saffron just as quickly. Only time will tell whether the flower that blooms for Bengal will be the jora-phool (the Trinamool symbol of twin-daisies) or the lotus.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2019 08:42:38 IST