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Representational image. (ANI)

BJP works on new West Bengal strategy as CBI breathes down TMC’s neck

The BJP, which dealt a major blow to the TMC in 2019 by winning 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, ended up securing only 77 of the 294 assembly seats in the latest assembly polls
By Tanmay Chatterjee, Hindustan Times, Kolkata
UPDATED ON MAY 27, 2021 04:41 PM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is working on a new strategy to regain ground in Bengal before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. A significant part of this strategy, party leaders said, is to reach out to people with a new approach that will make the BJP more acceptable and help it counter the general perception that in Bengal it is represented mainly by Trinamool Congress (TMC) turncoats, who switched sides prior to the assembly polls this year.

The BJP, which dealt a major blow to the TMC in 2019 by winning 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, ended up securing only 77 of the 294 assembly seats, falling far short of its target to oust the ruling party by wresting more than 200.

The BJP’s tally in the assembly has now come down to 75 as two of its winning candidates resigned to retain their Lok Sabha seats. Polls were held for 292 of the 294 seats as two candidates died of Covid-19.

TMC secured 47.94% of the votes polled against the BJP’s share of 38.13%, a difference of 9.81%. In 2011, when the TMC and Congress fought as allies and ousted the Left Front government, the difference in vote share between the winners and losers was 7.6%.

“We have not yet done a detailed analysis of the poll results, but the preliminary study indicates that public perception even in large parts of Hindu-dominated areas was not in our favour. While the TMC branded the BJP as a party of Hindi-speaking people from north and central India, the presence of so many TMC turncoats led to a sort of identity crisis. Despite having a presence in Bengal since its inception, no matter how small, the Bengal BJP failed to project its own identity. We will focus on this now,” said a BJP leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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The BJP is working on plans to secure the confidence of Bengal’s voters by working on the ground. On Monday, when the state government was preparing to face cyclone Yaas, BJP national president J P Nadda virtually addressed the party’s Bengal MLAs and MPs and asked them to go on overdrive during relief operations.

Countering the outsider tag

In the assembly polls, the battle for securing votes of various castes, sub-castes, religions and linguistic groups, manifested itself in two narratives. The BJP primarily projected Banerjee as an “appeaser,” a code for what the party alleges is the TMC government’s pro-Muslim tilt. Banerjee labelled the BJP’s national leaders from the Hindi belt as “bahiragato” (outsiders) to Bengal’s culture and spirit.

Since the results indicate that the “outsider” narrative influenced more voters, BJP wants to counter it effectively.

“The outsider tag did not influence voters in many rural areas of north Bengal and south Bengal districts located along the Indo-Bangladesh border where non-Bengali voters are almost non-existent. We secured seats in these regions. Right now, our job is to stand by people facing post-poll violence,” said BJP state vice-president Ritesh Tiwari.

Another BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, said they need to focus on the sensitivities of Bengalis. He referred to the raising of the Jai Sri Ram slogans at the celebration of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose’s birthday in presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kolkata on January 21.

“Modi’s bid to celebrate Bose’s birthday as Parakram Diwas (day of valour) ran into a political debate with Mamata Banerjee expressing anger at BJP supporters present at the event raising the slogan. Bengali voters, on whom Bose’s ideology has great influence even 76 years after his disappearance, did not take the sloganeering well. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and some old leaders of the BJP’s Bengal unit, such as chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya, said the sloganeering was uncalled for but central leaders from other states accused Banerjee of politicising the issue and being insensitive towards Hindus,” the BJP leader said.

“In the coming days, we have to rethink our ideological stand in reference to the Bengali psyche. The positive response we were getting till January started evaporating after that incident. Also, repeated references to Banerjee as pishi (aunt) and Abhishek Banerjee as bhaipo (nephew) in the campaign speeches of Modi and other BJP leaders had a counter effect on the Bengali mind,” he added.

Crucial CBI and ED cases

Eighteen days after Banerjee returned to power, the CBI arrested her heavyweight ministers Subrata Mukherjee and Firhad Hakim, MLA Madan Mitra and former TMC leader Sovan Chatterjee in the 2016 Narada sting operation case in which they are accused of accepting bribes to the tune of 4 to 5 lakh each. The leaders are still in judicial custody. CBI officials say more arrests and charge sheets are in the pipeline in the Narada and other cases. Their counterparts in the Enforcement Directorate, who are conducting parallel probes in these cases, have dropped similar hints.

Although the BJP has dismissed allegations that its central leaders and Union ministers are influencing the probe agencies to cripple the TMC, many in the Bengal saffron camp do not deny this during private conversations that prosecution of accused TMC leaders will help them regain strength.

The same leaders, however, also accept that with BJP national vice-president and MLA Mukul Roy and leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly Suvendu Adhikari, who defeated Banerjee, being accused in the Narada case, banking on the outcome of CBI probes may not be a good idea.

The central agencies began to act against TMC leaders before the polls. The chief minister and TMC youth wing president Abhishek Banerjee became the prime targets in the campaign speeches of all BJP leaders, including Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah.

The BJP has alleged that Abhishek Banerjee was involved in a coal smuggling case. The probe got a boost on December 31 when the CBI raided three residences of businessman and TMC’s youth front general secretary Vinay Mishra. He has been declared an absconder.

It is alleged that illegally mined coal, worth several thousand crores of rupees, has been sold in the black market over several years by a racket operating in the western parts of Bengal where the Eastern Coalfields Limited runs several mines.

The CBI has questioned Abhishek Banerjee’s wife, Rujira, and her sister Maneka Gambhir. The latter’s husband, Ankush Arora, and his father Pawan Arora have also been grilled.

The central probe agencies started speeding up the investigations from August 2020 when the Kolkata office of the CBI, which is also probing the Saradha, Rose Valley and MPS Group Ponzi fund scams involving thousands of crores of rupees, revamped its team in the economic offence wing. New officers flew from Delhi. During the same month, the ED sent notices to five TMC leaders in connection with the Narada sting operation case. But this was only the beginning.

On August 24, the ED asked Lok Sabha members Saugata Roy and Kakali Ghosh Dastidar, former Lok Sabha member Aparupa Poddar, then TMC minister Suvendu Adhikari and former leader Sovan Chatterjee’s estranged wife, Ratna Chatterjee, to furnish details of their properties in connection with the Narada case.

“The ED served me notice after several years. There are clear indications of a political vendetta,” said Saugata Roy.

Adhikari left the TMC and joined BJP in December. In the recent polls, he made news by defeating Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram by around 1,900 votes.

In March 2017, the CBI also registered an FIR against then TMC Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Roy, who joined the BJP in October that year and became the opposition party’s election strategist in Bengal.

Roy and Adhikari have now become prime targets of the TMC.

“Unlike Adhikari, Roy did not mention in his declaration to the Election Commission (EC) that he is an FIR-named accused in the Narada case. Why weren’t they arrested along with the four others?” said TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh.

The CBI also wants to wrap up the Saradha Ponzi fund case involving an estimated 2,460 crore that was raised from around 1.8 million depositors from West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh.

Sudipta Sen, who owned the group, is in jail. Before the assembly polls, Sen wrote a letter to the state government saying he gave a huge amount of money to Adhikari in instalments. BJP has called this a conspiracy to put Adhikari in trouble.

BJP leaders admit that the Saradha case is crucial for them because there are allegations that money from the group was used to fund Jago Bangla, the TMC mouthpiece.

In August 2019, TMC Rajya Sabha MP and national spokesperson, Derek O’Brien, was questioned by the CBI as he is the publisher of the mouthpiece. Subrata Bakshi, its editor and TMC’s national general secretary, was summoned too.

The Rose Valley scam, estimated at 17,000 core, is however the biggest Ponzi scam in Bengal in terms of money involved. In 2014, the Supreme Court asked the CBI to investigate the scams and the role of influential people in money laundering. The ED is running a parallel probe.

“The Calcutta high court is overseeing the probes as well as the refund of money to investors, around 200 of whom have died by suicide in these years,” said lawyer Arindam Das who represents the cheated investors of Saradha, Rose Valley and MPS groups.

“If the probe agencies arrest top TMC leaders and file charge sheet the ruling party will be in trouble. But there is a catch. Former TMC leaders, such as Adhikari, can land in trouble too. Also, the TMC will intensify its campaign saying we are influencing the agencies to make up for our organisational weakness,” said a senior BJP leader who did not want to be named.

Columnist and political commentator Suvashis Maitra said, “BJP will always run the risk of being bracketed as a party that uses probe agencies because CBI and ED work under the Centre. For a long time, there has been a demand to make the CBI an autonomous body like the Election Commission.”

Helping people during the pandemic

During a recent virtual meeting, BJP central leaders from Delhi instructed that all MLAs must be in touch with workers on the field and help people affected by the Covid pandemic. The party feels that this may have a far-reaching effect.

“We were told that our MLAs must help the administration set up camps for vaccination, distribute sanitisers and masks and spread awareness among people. This will help the BJP reach out to those who did not vote for us and send out a positive message,” said a BJP state committee member.

The party acted on this immediately.

Actor-turned-politician Hiranmay Chatterjee, who won the Kharagpur Sadar seat, former economic adviser to the Centre, Ashok Lahiri, who wrested the Balurghat seat, Krishna Kumar Kalyani, the MLA from Raigunj, Subrata Maitra from Berhampore and Shankar Ghosh from Siliguri are among many new legislators who are actively working on the field. More MLAs have followed them.

Facing an uphill task

In the recent polls, the BJP managed to regain the trust of many Hindu, tribal and Dalit voters, who backed the saffron camp in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the south Bengal region which comprises 240 assembly segments.

In north Bengal, on the other hand, two prominent TMC ministers lost while BJP candidates won 30 of the region’s 54 assembly segments.

In terms of the 2019 Lok Sabha results, the BJP was ahead of the ruling party in 121 assembly segments. But the picture changed in most of the south Bengal districts during an unprecedented eight-phase assembly election.

Regaining that lost ground before 2024 is the party’s main priority and it is an uphill task, BJP leaders said.

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