What does Sukanta Majumdar’s appointment mean for the BJP in West Bengal?
A day after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appointed 41-year-old Lok Sabha member Sukanta Majumdar as the Bengal unit president — the youngest state leader to hold the post that Dilip Ghosh, 57, was asked to vacate after a six-year stint — rumblings could be heard in the party’s upper rungs on Tuesday.
While some veterans commented off-the-record, rebels such as Krishna Kalyani, legislator from Raiganj in North Dinajpur district in north Bengal did not stay silent. Majumdar represents the Balurghat seat in the adjoining South Dinajpur district.
“Is he mature enough to run the party across the state? I have doubts. The BJP would have benefitted if an experienced person was given the responsibility. The appointment should have been discussed. Not a single MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] was aware of the decision till it was announced,” said Kalyani.
A senior BJP leader, who has been building the organisation in north Bengal for decades, on the condition of anonymity, said that “Kalyani had been making statements against the leadership for quite some time. Apparently, he wants to join the Trinamool Congress [TMC] like the four MLAs and Lok Sabha member, Babul Supriyo. But what Kalyani said is not wrong,”
Indicating that the decision to appoint Majumdar was taken by the central leadership, a senior functionary of the state BJP said, “The overlords decide how mortals will function. Ghosh could not continue as he had already served for six years. Moreover, he antagonised central leaders by saying that strategic mistakes led to the failure in the assembly polls in March-April. But couldn’t the party find a seasoned leader?”
Countering him, another senior functionary said the rumblings can be heard not because Majumdar entered active politics in 2019, when he won the Balurghat seat, but because of factions in the rank and file.
“Ghosh, too, was not a time-tested politician when he was made state president in 2015. Yet, he was accepted by all because, in the BJP, nobody challenges the leadership’s decision. Factionalism is now a factor because of [the] random induction of TMC leaders and workers. Such was not the case in 2015. Hopefully, Majumdar will be able to tackle this,” he said.
The role of the RSS
Since 1984, Dilip Ghosh was a pracharak and full-time campaigner of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP. He was sent to the Bengal BJP by the RSS in 2014 and was made the state president in 2015. The Lok Sabha polls were imminent when his first three-year tenure came to an end in 2018.
With eyes on the 2019 polls, the party wanted Ghosh to continue. The saffron camp created a record by bagging 18 of Bengal’s 42 constituencies. Ghosh, who hails from West Midnapore district in south Bengal won the Midnapore seat.
In 2020, the central leadership made Ghosh the state president for the second time. Even though by then, he was known for his controversial remarks and differences with a section of state leaders, Ghosh was given the credit for the party’s electoral success because of his mass appeal.
On Monday evening, the party announced that national president JP Nadda appointed Ghosh as national vice-president with immediate effect. This indicated that the party wants him to stay away from the day-to-day functioning of the Bengal unit.
In sharp contrast to Ghosh, Majumdar is a soft-spoken person. He has a doctoral degree in botany, is a teacher at the University of Gour Banga, and is an RSS member.
“We came to know that it was Ghosh who suggested Majumdar’s name when central leaders asked for his opinion. He might have had another person in mind as his successor, but being close to the RSS, he knew what it wanted,” said the BJP state vice-president.
The BJP’s post-poll crisis
Following the BJP’s defeat in the assembly polls (winning only 77 of the state’s 294 seats against the TMC’s 213), many flocked back to the TMC, starting with Mukul Roy who joined the BJP in 2017 and was made a national vice-president in 2020. Three more MLAs followed suit. The BJP faced a massive blow on September 18 when former Union minister Babul Supriyo, who started his political career in the BJP, joined the TMC.
“I cannot take names, but more traitors are waiting to switch sides,” former Bengal state president Tathagata Roy, a known hardliner, said on Tuesday, after Majumdar was felicitated in Kolkata. At the programme, the presence of some people close to the RSS was significant.
“While leaders such as Tathagata Roy, Babul Supriyo, and Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta sometimes expressed their unhappiness over organisational issues, Mukul Roy, and leader of the Opposition in the assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, never spoke in the open about their differences with Ghosh. It will not be an exaggeration to say that as many as 14 Lok Sabha MPs [Members of Parliament] faced this problem,” said a state general-secretary.
A leader close to Ghosh said, “The problem escalated in 2020 when Subroto Chatterjee, the state general (organisation) who was close to Ghosh was replaced by Amitava Chakravorty. This is a key post held by RSS members. Ghosh had differences with Chakravorty over a number of issues.”
Like Majumdar, Chakravorty also hails from South Dinajpur district in north Bengal.
The north-south divide
The change of guard prominently underlines the BJP’s focus on north Bengal, a region it has dominated since 2019. Its presence in south Bengal, which is much larger, is limited to the tribal belts or areas where Hindu Dalit refugees from Bangladesh live in significant numbers. In several parts of north Bengal, the population size of these two segments is proportionately higher than upper-caste Hindus and Muslims.
As a result, the BJP won seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats in the north Bengal region in 2019, and bagged 30 of the 54 assembly seats in the March-April polls.
Before the assembly elections, Prashant Kishor, the TMC’s election strategist at the time, threw a challenge at the BJP saying that it cannot win more than 99 seats in the state because the TMC focused on the big south Bengal districts with a high population of Muslims.
In June, BJP Lok Sabha member John Barla raised a demand for the formation of a separate state or Union Territory comprising districts in north Bengal — where he represents the Alipurduar seat — saying the region has faced only apathy for decades.
Within days, several Gorkha groups from the Darjeeling hills as well as the Dalit Rajbanshis in the plains began talking about their age-old demands for statehood. Armed movements carried out by some of these outfits claimed numerous lives in the past, posing a problem for Marxist chief ministers Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and their successor, Mamata Banerjee.
For Banerjee, who announced some major projects for north Bengal and grants for various communities during her pre-poll visits, this was bad news.
Although the BJP said that it does not endorse Barla’s views and sees Bengal as one state, local BJP leaders continued to echo the demand. In July, when the Union Cabinet was reshuffled, Barla and Nisith Pramanik, another MP from north Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, were made Union ministers of state.
“With seven of the 17 remaining MPs, 30 of the 71 remaining MLAs, the state president and the general secretary (organisation) representing north Bengal, one can almost anticipate a north-south divide in the BJP state unit. During the Left Front era, many CPI(M) leaders and ministers complained that the party was run by the Burdwan lobby as almost all the key leaders in the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] state committee and state secretariat came from that district,” a prominent state BJP functionary, who did not want to be identified, said on Tuesday night.
Majumdar somehow attempted to set aside the speculations during his back-to-back interactions with the media and while addressing party leaders.
“Only the BJP can select (as state president) a man from a middle-class family that lives in an aspirational district 400 km away from Kolkata. Tomorrow, there will be someone else in my place,” he said in his first speech before party leaders on Tuesday.
“Our party has made it clear till now that West Bengal will remain the state that Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee dreamt of. To me, there is no difference between the north and south. I am president of the Bengal BJP. Also, John Barla made those statements before he became a Union minister,” he said before the media.
The road ahead for Majumdar
Kolkata-based political science professor, Udayan Bandopadhyay, felt that with Ghosh assigned to a national role, Adhikari may become more active in state politics.
“Whichever way the BJP goes, one cannot deny Ghosh’s contribution. In the 2011 assembly polls, when Mamata Banerjee came to power, the BJP had a vote share of around 4%. It rose to around 40% this year. Majumdar has to be more strategic,” said Bandopadhyay.
TMC’s senior Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy said, “Majumdar is educated, but he is young and inexperienced. Dilip Ghosh may be a foul-mouthed person, but he is a hardcore BJP worker who brought some sense in his workers. His foul mouth had cost the BJP some public support, but he was good from the party’s point of view.”
“Sukanta is connected to the RSS, but I think his promotion will lead to the downslide of the BJP. Adhikari will try to overshadow him,” Roy added.