Lok Sabha elections 2019: Grassroots expansion key to BJP’s ‘Mission Bengal’
When Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah picked two leaders of his party for “Mission Bengal”, they had little idea oft the enormity of the challenge they faced.
The party lacked someone it could project as its face in the state. Its organizational structure was weak. And its cadre wasn’t motivated enough.
Not surprisingly, the BJP won just two of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014. That was an improvement over the one it did in 2009.
The mandate to the party’s general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, an astute politician from Indore, and joint organisational secretary Shiv Prakash, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak loaned to the BJP, was to fix each of the BJP’s shortcomings in West Bengal. They moved to the state around the middle of 2015.
Another RSS volunteer,Arvind Menon, who for years oversaw the building of the party’s organisation in Madhya Pradesh, soon joined the other two leaders. Odisha BJP leader Suresh Pujari was also drafted in to complete the team.
The early years weren’t smooth. The return of Mamata Banerjee as chief minister in 2016, and the BJP’s poor show in the assembly elections came as a blow. The BJP’s vote share dropped from 17% in the 2014 parliamentary election to just 10.3% in the 2016 assembly election. “We realised what was wrong and started working on it,” a BJP leader who is part of Mission Bengal said, asking not to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Several months went into putting a team in each of the 78,000-odd polling stations in West Bengal. “We managed to build a team of grassroots workers in every booth and this helped increase our footprint in Bengal. Today, we have our organisation in 60-65,000 polling stations,” Vijayvargiya said.
The number of mandals — the smallest organisational unit in the party — increased from 454 to about 1,100. This helped the BJP accommodate more workers as the party’s office bearers, giving them a sense of ownership in Mission Bengal.
“But we realised that this was not enough,” said the first leader cited above. “The BJP needed more leaders who would bring votes with them.”
This led to the formulation of a two-pronged strategy.
First, the BJP made a conscious decision to shed its image as a party of Hind- speaking people. This was done by giving prominence to Bengal- speaking leaders; Hindi speaking leaders were asked to keep a low profile. Press conferences were now held by Bengali leaders. Care was taken to ensure that no leader from outside the state was seen to be overshadowing the local leadership.
Second, Vijayvargiya was asked to tap prominent leaders of the opposition who were not happy in their own parties. Former railway minister Mukul Roy of the Trinamool Congress was a big catch in 2017, and the one-time organisational man of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee helped the BJP identify others who could cross over. At least two dozen prominent leaders, including MPs and MLAs, have joined the BJP since then. Some of them are in the fray as BJP candidates.
“These leaders helped us get a foothold in areas where the BJP was traditionally weak,” the first leader said.
The BJP’s candidate in Cooch Behar, a seat where it stood fourth in 2014, is former Trinamool Congress member Nishith Pramanik, a strongman who has several criminal cases pending against him. In Alipurduar, the BJP’s candidate is John Barla, a prominent tribal leader who for years struggled for the rights of tribespeople and tea garden workers in the Dooars region.
Then, starting 2018, the BJP has worked on stitching up social alliances by joining hands with the outfits such as the Greater Cooch Behar People’s Association (an outfit of the Rajbongshi community that has influence in about half-a-dozen Lok Sabha seats of north Bengal), the Kamtapur Progressive Party of Atul Roy, a Gorkha Janmukti Morcha faction led by Bimal Gurung, and the Gorkha Rashtriya Mukti Morcha of Man Ghising.
This has helped the BJP build a presence in north Bengal, which accounts for eight Lok Sabha seats.
Rivals admit there has been an expansion of the BJP in the region. CPM veteran and Siliguri Mayor Ashok Bhattacharya claims the BJP has managed to exploit the religious faultlines that existed in the region. “They played divisive politics. The RSS played a major role in its expansion in this region,” said Bhattacharya, a former minister of the West Bengal government.
This was evident in last year’s panchayat elections in the state where, despite a sweep by the Trinamool, the BJP did well in areas with a significant tribal population. It also emerged the second strongest party in the state, ahead of the Left Front and the Congress.