With Suvendu Adhikari's departure from Trinamool, Bengal politics is more roiled than ever
Suvendu Adhikari's departure from TMC does not mean that everything is cut and dried. It’s possible that in the coming weeks, more Suvendu ‘loyalists’ will join BJP. But until that happens, what kind of traction he will have in his new home is debatable
Bengal politics has been on the boil for a while now. But former Nandigram MLA and state minister Suvendu Adhikari's resignation and defection to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a rally fronted by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Medinipur on Saturday has caused more ripples. But it's not a tectonic shift yet, the reasons for which I explain in this piece.
Let us begin with events that have transpired since Saturday.
On Tuesday, three BJP members, including state general secretary Sayantan Basu, were slapped with show-cause notices for opposing the induction into the party of Jitendra Tiwari, Asansol Municipal Corporation (AMC) mayor/administrator and Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA from Pandabeshwar, Pashchim Bardhaman.
Asansol MP and Union MoS Babul Supriyo and Agnimitra Paul, president of the state Mahila Morcha, who also publicly opposed Tiwari’s induction, have so far escaped action. Tiwari first quit the AMC on Thursday. He left the party a couple of hours later. Faced with a hostile reception in the BJP, he returned to the fold on Friday. We will go into the significance of this episode later.
On Tuesday, Suvendu, seemingly the new BJP mascot in Bengal, fired his first proper shots across the bows. At Purbasthali, Purba Bardhaman, at a rally also attended by state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, he reminded his audience that TMC chief had gone into an alliance with the BJP at all levels – panchayat, assembly and parliament – soon after it was founded in 1998.
He said the BJP was the only party to take the Nandigram issue to the Lok Sabha, whilst rebutting the charge that he was a traitor. He had left the TMC, he said, because it had become a ‘company run by two persons’. Par for the course, but the rhetoric as of now only proves that Suvendu is capable of scoring oratorical points.
Finally, again on Tuesday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reeled off a string of statistics to disprove Shah’s attacks on Bengal as being economically a basket case. Banerjee’s case was, first, that contrary to the Union home minister’s charge that Bengal ranked 20th in industrial production (IP) and 16th in state gross domestic product (SGDP) Indian government data of 31 July 2020 later published by the Reserve Bank of India showed Bengal ranked at fourth and second respectively. Second, she said that Bengal’s SGDP growth rate was far ahead of the national rate, that it had performed best in areas like provision of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and had generally done well on economic parameters.
She also pointed out that Bengal’s record on the development of infrastructure (rural housing, roads and e-governance) was the best in the country, while it was outperforming the national average in terms of human development indices, including the infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate and, generally speaking, provision of health and educational facilities.
As far as the GDP growth rate is concerned, it is true that Bengal has performed well – first in 2018-19; and in 2019-20, it’s GDP growth rate is estimated to have increased to 14.6 per cent (at current prices), while the national growth rate is estimated to fall from 11.2 (2018-19) to 7.5 per cent. Whether that ranks it at number two we could not ascertain. It is true, also, that on human development indices, Bengal has performed creditably, as attested to by the National Family Health Survey 2019-20.
Mamata’s claim about infrastructural development and work provision under MGNREGA has some basis and some of the schemes the state has created have won national and international awards – Kanyashree and e-governance related schemes, for instance. We’ll get to the importance of Mamata’s claims, whatever the reality – for instance, Bengal’s high GDP growth rate is premised on a smaller economic base than exists in the developed states. Most voters don’t, however, fact check statistical details, either way.
Suvendu’s rhetoric is not a big deal, whichever way you slice it. So, let’s begin with the opposition to Tiwari and the action taken by the ‘high command’ against Basu, et al. The animus against Tiwari is neither purely personal, nor a one-off. Bankura district’s Bishnupur MLA Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who was also in switchover mode last weekend reportedly backtracked after being roundly denounced by BJP cadres.
The problem, which is hardly a big secret, is that there is considerable tension in the state BJP between the old faithful and the new, opportunistic arrivals. This may not mean that the party is riven and dysfunctional, but it has serious problems. I could cite any number of examples, but let me stick to three.
First, BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy. When Roy joined the BJP in November 2017, there were high expectations on both sides, which failed to materialise. Roy failed to deliver anything remotely resembling a critical mass of MPs, MLAs, other functionaries and cadres. In Bengal, Roy remained a marginal figure for over two years, largely because Ghosh is generally antithetical to opportunistic defectors. The Bengal party chief has now been told by Shah to push defectors into the limelight, but it hasn’t really happened yet, leaving aside the current honeymoon with Suvendu, of which more in a bit. It took Roy, almost three years to get an official position in the party, but that still doesn’t mean he’s got a big role in Bengal.
Second is Saumitra Khan, who quit as TMC Bishnupur MP just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and won it for the BJP. Soon after, he was made the president of the state Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). In August this year, Khan circulated a list of new office-bearers without consulting Ghosh, who immediately rejected it, making it clear that it was he who would take the final call. In October, Ghosh disbanded all the district BJYM committees, without consulting, or, in fact, informing Khan. It had become obvious that Khan had been foisted on the state leadership, specifically Ghosh, by central leaders.
Finally, Arjun Singh. The North 24 Parganas TMC strongman defected to the BJP just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections because he wasn’t given the Barrackpore ticket. He defeated TMC incumbent Dinesh Trivedi and became MP. In the wake of the elections, six TMC-held municipalities switched to the BJP, with mass conversions. They were Bhatpara, Bongaon, Halishahar, Haringhata, Kanchrapara and Noapara. By mid-2019, all of them were back with the TMC. Kanchrapara is reckoned to be Roy’s fief. His son, who later joined the BJP, was Bijpur MLA and a councillor of the Kanchrapara municipality.
Getting back to Suvendu, it is clear that as of now the riches he has delivered to the BJP isn’t exactly munificent. That does not mean that everything is cut and dried. It’s entirely possible that in the coming weeks, more Suvendu ‘loyalists’ will join the BJP. But until that happens, what kind of traction he will have in his new home is debatable.
The historical fact is that in Bengal, party loyalty is strong because politics, especially electoral politics, is organised predominantly through party organisation. Caste, region, language, or generally speaking community, does not play a big role. Feudal obligations are non-existent. That is what makes party loyalty strong, especially for adherents of a ruling party. It takes seismic events to make big shifts – like the Emergency in the 1977 elections and the ‘land question’ in the 2008-11 period. It could happen, but doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
Mamata Banerjee’s political strategy plays into this. She has been following a populist/welfarist trajectory, rolling out a slew of schemes that have been fairly successful. The latest and most high-profile of these are the health scheme entitled ‘Swastha Sathi’ and the doorstep welfare delivery programme ‘Duare Sarkar’, which reached one crore registrations on 18 December, in 15 days.
Mamata is sending the message that the government is with the people on welfare and livelihood issues, while harping on the ‘outsider’ theme, meaning the BJP is a party of outsiders who don’t understand or value Bengal’s unique cultural heritage. The BJP have scored a few own goals, to strengthen this narrative. Mamata also says that the Centre has left the state in the lurch when it comes to financial assistance for the damages caused by Cyclone Amphan and the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s some evidence that these messages are chiming with people, though they are getting diluted by the BJP and CPI(M)’s incessant focus on corruption and misdirection of relief on the ground.
At the moment, there is no way of saying how these trends will play out six-odd months from now when the Assembly elections will likely be held. But some things are becoming clear. The mostly upper-caste Hindu middle classes in urban areas are switching to the BJP in numbers, while the labouring poor in urban areas and rural Bengal are on balance sticking with Mamata.
It’s not prediction time yet.
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