KOLKATA: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a stern message to Bengal BJP leaders at Raj Bhavan last week during his maiden tour of West Bengal, telling them to pull up their socks. The 10-member BJP delegation led by state president Rahul Sinha met Modi for 32 minutes. Sinha tried to convince Modi how the BJP can win the state Assembly elections scheduled for next year if armed central police forces were deployed to combat “Trinamool Congress (TMC) goons and state police”.
Modi replied, “During elections don’t think the central forces can bring you victory. Don’t expect that. Even a thousand companies of central forces can’t ensure electoral victory. What is needed is a strong organisation and you are yet to have that. Not much time is left.”
Earlier, when BJP president Amit Shah visited West Bengal thrice after the 2014 general elections, he had the same message: strengthen the party. During his last visit when he addressed a meeting in Burdwan where there had been a bomb blast on October 2 last year, he told BJP leaders to strengthen the party instead of depending on people’s anger against the ruling TMC to win the Assembly polls in 2016.
A state BJP leader says, “Shah’s message was clear. He told us to start a door-to-door campaign and sweat it out in the fields instead of holding press conferences and participating in TV chat shows. He said that before the Lok Sabha polls our party membership was only 1.25 lakh and soon reached 14 lakh. Why can’t we reach the target figure of 75 lakh by March end? He had set the target mark at one crore for West Bengal. Talk to 10 people each day and try to enroll eight of them.” The BJP is 30 lakh strong in West Bengal.
Shah had told them, “Mission 2016, to win the state Assembly polls.” He had also stressed that other than enrolling new members, the party needed strong polling booth committees in each of the 294 Assembly constituencies. “Without at least 100 members in each booth one can never put up a good contest during polls. Each booth needs at least two party functionaries as ‘booth bahadurs’. You have to begin this task on a war footing as time is short,” Shah had said.
A growing BJP—with a number of Left and TMC workers flocking to it—is worrying the TMC. However, the BJP has not been able to turn it into a win-win situation. When BJP workers, particularly Muslims, were attacked in Birbhum, Sinha just held press conferences and public meetings. Former BJP leader Tathagata Roy visited Birbhum with relief but returned after police stopped them saying prohibitory orders had been enforced.
The recent Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) polls in which BJP’s vote share fell from 23.65 per cent to 15.72 and from 17 to 9 per cent in rest of Bengal came as a blessing for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Despite claims by Sinha, the BJP won only 82 seats out of around 2,100 total seats in the municipal polls, getting only nine per cent votes.
BJP leaders in the state say that Sinha concentrates more on bringing in celebrities than on expanding the organisation. He has contested eight elections from different constituencies, and lost each time. They say that state BJP secretary Shamik Bhattacharya, who made his debut in the state Assembly through a tough bypoll, is a better organiser and should replace Sinha. When Sinha was announcing the nominees for the municipal polls outside the BJP headquarters in Kolkata, a scuffle broke out. Then, Doodh Kumar Mondal resigned as Birbhum district president. All this did not go down well with the electorate who considered the BJP as a disciplined party. The RSS also favours Bhattacharya, whom the TMC is trying to woo.
Former film stars like George Baker—whom Sinha had brought in and who became a member of the Film Censor Board—did not even campaign for the party. Rupa Ganguly, inducted by Bhattacharya, campaigned all over the state and tried to take on TMC’s musclemen. The last gaffe by Sinha was to bring in former state minister Manjulkrishna Thakur and his son Subrata to the BJP; they are from the Motua community, erstwhile refugees from Bangladesh and with a sizeable vote bank in North and South Paraganas and Nadia. Subrata was the BJP candidate for the Bongaon Lok Sabha bypolls; he was defeated by his aunt Mamatabala Thakur by 200,000 votes.
Playback singer Babul Supriyo is the only Bengali minister in Modi’s cabinet, holding the Minister of State for Urban Development, and for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation portfolio. He is not a seasoned politician and has been slammed by some BJP leaders for accompanying Banerjee in her car. Ganguly, also new to politics, is more accepted among middle class Bengalis.
Names of BJP national executive member and Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra and M J Akbar (both senior journalists) have been floated by the vernacular media as prospective BJP presidents and chief ministerial candidates for the party. However, both left the state decades ago and are not familiar with grassroot politics of the state.
Despite the unprecedented growth of the RSS, the saffron brigade in West Bengal is batting on a sticky wicket and facing doomsday unless a total overhaul is carried out by the central and state leaderships.