THE steady flow of defections from the ruling Trinamool Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which began after the Lok Sabha election results were declared on May 23, is showing no signs of abating. The latest defection, that of Sovan Chatterjee, Trinamool heavyweight and a former Mayor of Kolkata, has come as a major blow to Chief Minister and party supremo Mamata Banerjee, particularly because of the municipal elections next year. Sovan Chatterjee is the most high-profile leader from the Trinamool to switch sides since Mukul Roy left the party to join the BJP in November 2017.
On August 14, he formally joined the BJP in the presence of Arun Singh, the party’s national general secretary, and Mukul Roy. “I joined the BJP to fight the politics of negativity in Bengal…. When I was in the Trinamool, I asked why the opposition parties were being denied the opportunity to file nominations for the 2018 panchayat elections,” Sovan Chatterjee said. He added that he supported the “development agenda” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. A close associate of his, Baishakhi Banerjee, joined the BJP along with him.
So far, the BJP has not been able to make a dent in Kolkata in spite of having most of its top leaders based there. With Sovan Chatterjee in its ranks, the BJP now has a foothold in the State capital. Even in the Lok Sabha election, the Trinamool increased its vote share in Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin, Barasat, Dum Dum and Jadavpur.
Although the Trinamool puts a brave face on it, it cannot deny that Sovan Chatterjee’s departure is a huge setback. “It is definitely a big loss for us, but nothing changes as far as our struggle is concerned. With this, the BJP will now make inroads into Kolkata, particularly, south Kolkata, a Mamata bastion. The BJP needed an organiser in this region, and Sovan Chatterjee may just be the answer to their prayers,” said a Trinamool source. Not only is Sovan Chatterjee known to be an efficient organiser and a wily political strategist, his influence is not restricted to his Assembly constituency, Behala Purba, but extends to large parts of Kolkata and its surrounding areas. He is also known to have a strong following among the minorities. “Sovan is a name in Bengal politics. With Sovan coming to the BJP, the party will win the Kolkata civic elections in 2020, and I tell you, Mamata Banerjee’s party won’t get opposition status in the Bengal Assembly after the 2021 elections,” said Mukul Roy at the press conference following Sovan Chatterjee’s induction into the BJP.
Relations between Mamata Banerjee and Sovan Chatterjee had been souring since late 2017, ostensibly over issues relating to his personal life. Party insiders claimed that the rise of Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and heir to the Trinamool leadership, Abhishek Banerjee, was a factor in Sovan Chatterjee’s growing disenchantment with the party.
Once Mamata Banerjee’s blue-eyed boy, whom she fondly referred to as Kanan even in public, Sovan Chatterjee began to find himself being left out of important party and government events from 2018. Finally, on November 20, 2018, he resigned as Cabinet Minister (Fire and Housing departments). His resignation was immediately accepted by Mamata Banerjee, who also ordered him to step down as Mayor of Kolkata. “I thought he would mend his ways,” an irritated Mamata Banerjee had said. However, after the Lok Sabha election results indicated that the Trinamool was fast losing its position of pre-eminence in the State to the BJP, the Trinamool began to make overtures to one of its ablest organisers, but by then the rift had become too wide.
However, not everyone in the BJP is happy with Sovan Chatterjee’s induction into the party. According to sources, in a recent closed-door party meeting, some had expressed concern over the BJP losing its credibility by welcoming someone like Sovan Chatterjee, who was seen accepting cash on camera in a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News. The sting was carried out just before the 2014 Lok Sabha election and was revealed days before the 2016 Assembly elections in the State.
Acknowledging that a section of the BJP in West Bengal had reservations, a senior BJP leader said: “We are in a position to pick and choose in other parts of the State but not in Kolkata as we do not have a strong leadership there. This is the only problem area for the BJP, so we have to take anybody who can help increase our base in Kolkata.”