After a lull that lasted more than a year, the BJP was back on the streets in West Bengal on Tuesday with “Nabanna Abhiyan (March to Secretariat)”, one of its biggest campaigns in recent times. Sources said the West Bengal BJP was upbeat about the 2024 Lok Sabha elections now that the party’s national leadership had once again turned its attention to the state.
While recent raids by central investigative agencies and the summoning of Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders in cases of alleged corruption have given an impression that the Centre is finally taking action against what the BJP calls the ruling party’s “violent and vindictive politics”, insiders said BJP office-bearers had been working consistently on the ground to strengthen the cadre, especially the young brigade.
During a visit to West Bengal in May, Union Home Minister Amit Shah assured state BJP leaders as well as the cadre that he would directly monitor the state unit. This, according to insiders, infused new life into the Bengal BJP, which had been feeling “neglected” after the Assembly election defeat.
“The appointment of Sunil Bansal, considered to be the most powerful general secretary, as the West Bengal in-charge was the cherry on the top. The appointment and his visit last month have given more confidence to the state unit,” said a party leader.
He added, “The optics of the cash recovery in the ED raids has given such confidence to the party cadre that they started believing that the Centre had finally paid heed to our complaints about TMC leaders and the rampant corruption. In fact, the BJP state unit, which has been floundering, has got its mojo back since then.”
On Tuesday, with Bansal in the state, the party started the march to the secretariat in the morning but was stopped by the police. Thousands of workers were either arrested or detained in many districts, several of them were injured in clashes with the police, and functionaries such as Leader of the Opposition Suvendu Adhikari, Hooghly MP Locket Chatterjee, Haldia MLA Tapasi Mondol, and Sonamukhi legislator Dibakar Gharami were detained. Many policemen were also injured in the violence.
“It is a sign that the party has awakened from its slumber in West Bengal. Now, the march will be on,” said another leader who has been involved in the BJP’s activities in West Bengal for a few years.
But state BJP leaders said it was not a “one-day miracle” and that the leadership had “been active on the ground”. Sources said state organisation secretary Amitava Chakraborty, appointed to the position in October 2020, had built a “strong young cadre” across the state. Chakraborty, with his background in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, has led an intense campaign from the front on the Centre’s welfare schemes for the poor in the state.
“He has been silently working hard behind the screen. Another disadvantage the BJP experienced was a lack of support among intellectuals or educated youth. The appointment of the new state president Sukanta Majumdar last September has helped at that front — at least, people started taking the party more seriously,” said a BJP leader from West Bengal, adding, “After a leader such as Dilip Ghosh — considered to be a hardliner — Majumdar has introduced a fire-and-ice approach to the party’s strategies.”
BJP national president JP Nadda last week appointed former Bihar minister Mangal Pandey the state in-charge for West Bengal. The party’s IT Cell chief Amit Malviya, who has been working with the state unit since November 2020, and national secretary Asha Lakhra are the co in-charges.
The road ahead
West Bengal with its 42 Lok Sabha seats is top on the BJP’s priority list for the 2024 elections. The party will need a formidable number of Lok Sabha seats from the state to compensate for the prospective losses in Bihar after the exit of the Janata Dal (United). The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 39 of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar in 2019. The party, according to insiders, will have to ensure that West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Telangana contribute more to its Lok Sabha tally to remain the dominant force in national politics.
Although the BJP could not unseat the TMC in the Assembly elections despite putting in a strong performance in 2019 — its Lok Sabha tally increased from two seats to 18 — it established itself as the main Opposition party. The BJP bagged 77 seats in the 2021 elections. But, hit by a series of defections — some senior leaders returned to the TMC post-elections — the state unit’s progress stalled. Factional feuds spilled out into the open. Then, a debacle in a series of by-elections and local body elections, and the central leadership’s hesitance in obliging the demands of the state unit for action against the alleged violent politics of the TMC left the party in disarray. BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya — who was credited with building the party’s organisation in the state from 2015 onwards and helped deliver 18 Lok Sabha constituencies and 70-plus Assembly seats — also stayed away since the Assembly poll defeat because of cases the state government initiated against him.
But Shah’s visit gave “fresh hopes to the disillusioned state cadre”, said sources. They added that Shah and then Bansal successfully made efforts to allay the apprehension of state leaders and the cadre that the Central government had adopted a “soft approach” towards Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The state leaders had claimed that this had emboldened the TMC to unleash violence against BJP workers following the declaration of Assembly poll results.
Despite the encouraging signs from the mobilisation for the secretariat march, party leaders admitted that the road ahead was still tough. “The main task of Bansal and the new leadership will be ensuring cohesion among state leaders. They will have to ensure that every leader — hardliners, soft-liners and moderates — work in tandem with the cadre, which is not at all easy,” said a national office-bearer.