The politics of defection continues unabated in election-bound West Bengal with another set of influential leaders and legislators from the ruling Trinamool Congress joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On January 30, former Cabinet Minister Rajib Banerjee and five other top Trinamool leaders—MLAs Vaishali Dalmiya and Prabir Ghoshal, former MLA Partha Sarathi Chatterjee from Ranaghat, former Mayor of Howrah Rathin Chakraborty, and well-known actor-turned-Trinamool leader Rudranil Ghosh—were flown to Delhi on a chartered plane to meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah. They were all inducted into the BJP.
This latest blow came when the Trinamool was barely recovering from the exit of Suvendu Adhikari on December 19, 2020. Rajib Banerjee is not only one of the most popular young leaders in the State, but also an able organiser and administrator. His departure costs the Trinamool his entire support base and the local leadership loyal to him. It will undoubtedly weaken the Trinamool’s hold in Howrah district—particularly the urban areas and also some of the rural constituencies. On January 31, at a BJP public rally to welcome the new members in Dumurjola, Howrah, a large number of Trinamool leaders from the block and panchayat levels joined the saffron party.
According to the psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, Rajib Banerjee’s defection will have an impact in at least 16 Assembly constituencies in Howrah alone. “So far, the BJP’s organisational strength in Howrah has been weak, and the party was lacking in strong leadership. Now, under the leadership of Rajib Banerjee, the BJP can hope to mobilise voters not just from Howrah but also from the adjoining districts of South 24 Paraganas, Nadia, Hooghly and Kolkata where Rajib has a lot of influence,” he said. Rajib Banerjee’s influence in those districts, traditionally Trinamool strongholds, is a matter of concern for the ruling party. Weakened as it is in north Bengal and in Bankura, Purulia, Purba and Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram, it is of vital importance for the Trinamool to retain its political bases in south Bengal.
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Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, Professor of Sociology in Amity University, Chhattisgarh, pointed out that the BJP’s rise could be directly related to the lack of industrial growth in several parts of the State. “Populism feeds off a de-industrialised situation. This is true for Barrackpore, the jute mill region of Hooghly, and for Howrah. These areas have become industry graveyards. And the failure of the Trinamool government to create jobs here is now working against it,” he told Frontline.
Not a bolt from the blue
Rajib Banerjee had been unhappy in the Trinamool ever since the Irrigation Department was taken away from him in 2018. In July 2020, he started openly criticising the party and the government on issues relating to corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. But the party could not afford to either expel or admonish him. The party, however, was not so wary when it came to Vaishali Dalmiya, the MLA from Bally, Howrah. When she began to echo Rajib Banerjee’s sentiments, she was promptly expelled.
As with the other cases of defection, the Trinamool leadership has been dismissive about the adverse impact Rajib Banerjee’s departure will have on the party’s election prospects. Party spokesperson Om Prakash Mishra told Frontline: “What prompted Rajib Banerjee to leave was an illusion backed by lure and a false sense of self-importance. If you notice, all his earlier attempts to win elections ended in failure until he received the ticket from Mamata Banerjee to contest in Domjur in Howrah. Though young and inexperienced, he was entrusted with important responsibilities in the Cabinet. It was because of the Trinamool that he rose to the position he reached.” However, Trinamool sources cannot deny that such developments are big blows to the morale of party workers.
Just two days after the defection of Rajib Banerjee and his group, another Trinamool MLA, Dipak Haldar from Diamond Harbour, joined the BJP. The MP from the Diamond Harbour Lok Sabha constituency is Abhishek Banerjee, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and her perceived political heir, which makes this defection all the more significant.
The BJP’s poaching tactics in the run-up to the election are clearly aimed at neutralising its organisational weaknesses in different parts of the State. Notwithstanding the brave front that the Trinamool is putting up, it realises that it will be in trouble if it cannot stem the constant erosion in the party leadership both at the grassroots and at senior levels. Joyprakash Majumdar, State BJP vice president and head of the political analysis department of the party, told Frontline: “The Trinamool’s internal health is in a precarious condition, and the party is on its way to the ICU [intensive care unit]. In the coming days there will be many more defections. Once the Model Code of Conduct is enforced, there will be protection from the Trinamool goons and the police, and there will be a deluge of defections taking place.” Amit Shah spoke in a similar vein after the new round of exodus from the Trinamool led by Rajib Banerjee: “So many leaders have joined the BJP in the last three months. Mamata ji [ Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee] should introspect why this is happening… By the time the elections take place, she will be left all alone.”
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However, the rampant defections are also causing major problems within the BJP. The poaching has enabled the BJP to make inroads into Trinamool strongholds, but clashes between old and new members of the party threaten to hamper its prospects in the coming election. On January 21, violence erupted between two factions of the BJP in Bardhaman. Some vehicles were torched and a new party office was vandalised. On another occasion, party members came to blows in the presence of State BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
A senior BJP source told Frontline: “We cannot deny that there is a problem arising from our strategy of breaking the Trinamool. It is mainly because the culture of politics in Bengal has declined. Today politics in Bengal means corruption, violence and nepotism. We are also a part of that system and it is difficult to change overnight. But we are trying to change this, and it will be changed once we assume power.”
In this game of flexible loyalties, the ruling party appears to be on the back foot as far as public perception is concerned. While the BJP inducts members from the Trinamool leadership into its fold with much fanfare on a regular basis, the reverse flow is not as powerful. Defections from the BJP to the Trinamool are too few and far between to be of any major consequence. Moreover, while the BJP showcases big names in Bengal politics like Suvendu Adhikari, Rajib Banerjee and Mihir Goswami, the Trinamool presents local celebrities and actors and a handful of little known “intellectuals” as examples of people joining the party.
A new trend
Suvendu Adhikari seems to have created a template for disgruntled leaders of the Trinamool to announce their imminent departure from the party. The first indications of his cooling off came in the form of banners and cutouts of his pictures that began to crop up in Purba Medinipur and elsewhere with the message “We are with Dada”. This was a subtle show of personal strength, indicating that he and his followers were not following the party line any more. Soon after, he quit the Cabinet, his seat in the Legislative Assembly and his old party (in that order) and joined the BJP. When Rajib Banerjee began to sing a contrarian tune within the Trinamool, his posters also began to pop up, apparently put up by his supporters pledging their allegiance to him and not the party. Other Trinamool leaders such as Prabir Ghosal, MLA from Uttarpara, Mihir Goswami, MLA from Cooch Behar Dakshin, and Rathin Chakraborty followed the same pattern.
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In the face of the BJP’s challenge, the Trinamool has been relentless in its attacks on the Centre’s policies and its handling of the farmers’ agitation. On January 28, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly passed a resolution voicing solidarity with the protesting farmers in Delhi and demanding the repeal of the three controversial farm laws. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blamed the BJP government at the Centre for the violence in Delhi on January 26. “It was an Intelligence failure. We will not tolerate farmers being branded as traitors,” she said. She also demanded that the Union government either repeal the farm laws or step down from power.