The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal suffered yet another setback as legal hurdles pushed its proposed rath yatra to January. The “Ganatantra Bachao” (Save Democracy) yatra, which was to commence on December 7, was expected to give a boost to the BJP’s political chances in the State before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. However, the repeated delays in conducting the yatra may take the wind out of the BJP’s sails and soften its impact at the ground level.
After several weeks of twists and turns in courtrooms, the programme continues to remain at the planning stage. The BJP was forced to approach the Calcutta High Court as it did not receive any response from the State administration to its letters seeking permission to stage the rath yatra. If the BJP was determined to hold the rath yatra, the Trinamool Congress government was equally firm against allowing it. The rath yatra was supposed to have taken place in the districts of Cooch Behar and Birbhum and at Gangasagar in South 24 Paraganas and cover all 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State.
On December 6, taking into consideration intelligence inputs from the district administrations that the rath yatra might disrupt communal harmony, the High Court directed the BJP to keep its programme on hold until January 9. However, the very next day a division bench of the court set aside the earlier order and instructed the State administration and the police to hold a meeting with the representatives of the BJP and decide on the proposed yatra.
As per the court order, a meeting was held between government officials and BJP representatives. On December 15, the government issued an official order refusing the BJP permission to conduct the yatra. A disappointed BJP once again moved the High Court, and this time the ruling came in its favour. On December 21, while giving his assent to the BJP’s programme, Judge Tapabrata Chakraborty said a threat to public order “must be real, not imaginary or a likely possibility”.
However, the BJP had barely time to rejoice or fix new dates for the yatra, as on December 22, a division bench of the High Court stayed the single-bench order and referred the case back to it. The division bench of Chief Justice Debasish Kar Gupta and Justice Shampa Sarkar asked Justice Chakraborty to consider the intelligence inputs that were submitted by the State before his court in a sealed envelope. According to Advocate General Kishore Dutta, Justice Chakraborty returned the sealed envelope without considering its contents. The division bench said: “The yatra can happen only after a thorough examination of the 35-page report submitted by the district magistrates, the superintendents of police, and intelligence officials of various wings.”
With the Calcutta High Court closed for winter vacation from December 23 to January 1, there is little the BJP can do now. A BJP source said: “We are considering moving the Supreme Court, but most likely it will be once the winter vacation is over.”
After the High Court ruling, State BJP president Dilip Ghosh said: “…let us once again emphasise that this yatra is our democratic right, and that is why we have called it ganatantra bachao yatra. Democracy is being murdered in Bengal….The court never said that the yatra will not take place or it is illegal. They have said that both sides should find a way to enable the yatra to take place. But the State government is determined to prevent it.”
Although the High Court has not barred the BJP from holding the yatra, repeated delays are proving to be demoralising for the party workers. “We have been working tirelessly for this rath yatra, and time and again we have been disappointed. The mood in the party rank and file was sombre when the court turned down the state government’s order [on December 21]. But then a subsequent order of the division bench has once again dampened our spirits,” said a BJP source. The State BJP leadership, however, has little option but to continue putting on a brave front. “The yatra is definitely going to happen. There is no doubt about that. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s efforts to defer the inevitable only exposes her insecurity and her fear of the BJP’s growing political clout in the State,” BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury told Frontline.