KOLKATA: Amid speculations of defections by BJP leaders in the party's north Bengal citadel following two back-to-back ones in south Bengal, five BJP MLAs from the region skipped the first party conference of legislators.
Out of 29 MLAs, 24 turned up at the conference to discuss strategies to consolidate the party base in the region in the wake of the ruling Trinamool Congress’s aggressive attempt to make inroads in north Bengal.
The MLAs who skipped the meeting are Ashok Lahiri of Balurghat, Satyen Roy of Gangarampur, Manoj Oraon of Kumargram, Joyel Murmu of Habibpur, and Gopal Saha of Malda.
"We were surprised when five MLAs did not turn up. One or two MLAs may have problems. But the absence of almost one-fifth of the total MLAs in north Bengal appears to be abnormal when it was the first post-poll party conference of elected MLAs," said a BJP leader.
On Monday, BJP’s Bishnupur MLA Tanmoy Ghosh joined the TMC and the next day Bagda MLA Biswajit Das followed his footprint. Earlier, Mukul Roy, MLA of Krishnangar, had quit BJP to join TMC.
"Our legislative count has already been reduced to 72 from 77. By-election is yet to be held in seven Assembly constituencies and six of them are located in TMC’s strongholds in south Bengal. If more MLAs shift sides, it will have a massive impact on our electoral performance," said another BJP leader.
The absence of five MLAs also triggered a question of whether there is a rift in the party over the issue of statehood for north Bengal as demanded by a section of party functionaries. Alipurduar MP John Barla had recently demanded either separate statehood for the region or its inclusion in the list of Union Territories. While state BJP president Dilip Ghosh backed Barla’s demand, many others in the party did not.
"When a section of our party leaders think the demand for statehood will help us to retain our north Bengal stronghold, others believe it may not go down well. If it doesn’t get the support of the common people, retaining north Bengal citadel will be difficult in coming elections which may start with defection from our party," said another BJP leader.
Manoj Tigga, the BJP MLA from Madarihat and party’s chief whip in the Assembly, was confident to retain the party’s legislative count in north Bengal. "None of our MLAs will defect from the party and we can vouch for it," he said.