Bengal BJP workers, victims of violence by Trinamool cadre, protest against TMC leaders joining the saffron party
IN the biggest clutch of defections on a single day that the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal has witnessed in recent months, former State Minister Suvendu Adhikari joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a rally in Pashchim Medinipur on December 19, along with a host of leaders and lawmakers. Union Home Minister Amit Shah was in attendance. The move ended months of political speculation about where Suvendu Adhikari, one of the tallest mass leaders that the Trinamool had, was headed. His former party may face further defections of workers and leaders ahead of the Assembly election due in 2021.
Suvendu Adhikari’s joining the BJP is being seen as the single biggest political development before the election, which is just a few months away. Even though the BJP’s rise in the State has been swift over the last couple of years, its organisational strength at the grassroots was weaker than the Trinamool’s. Suvendu Adhikari, who is known for his organisational skills and mass appeal, is expected to give the saffron party an edge over the Trinamool, which now appears to be struggling to keep its house intact. Nine members of the Legislative Assembly joined the BJP along with Suvendu Adhikari on December 19—six from the Trinamool and one each from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Congress. (Suvendu Adhikari himself recently resigned his seat in the Assembly). Five influential minority leaders, and several other leaders at the block and district levels also joined the BJP with them.
Suvendu Adhikari’s speech at the rally made it clear what he would be bringing to his new party: “I have just started. Give me 24 hours, and you will see the difference in every booth and in every neighbourhood…. I want to assure you that I have not joined the BJP to throw my weight around. I will not be ordering you about. I will do whatever the party wants me to do. If it wants me to paint graffiti, I will; if it wants me to plant flags, I will do it.” Once counted among the biggest opponents of the BJP, he touched Amit Shah’s feet and hailed him as his elder brother. Training his guns on his former leader, Mamata Banerjee, and her nephew and heir apparent to the party leadership, Abhishek Banerjee, he said, “What I do, I do with integrity. When I was with the Trinamool, I worked for the Trinamool, and today I say, throw out the extortionist nephew!”
The Trinamool leadership struck back. It called Suvendu Adhikari a “traitor” and a “coward” and alleged that he had joined the BJP to save his own skin. Suvendu Adhikari was, after all, one of the Trinamool leaders who were caught taking cash on camera in a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News, which the BJP first made public just before the 2016 Assembly election. Of the 11 top Trinamool leaders shown accepting wads of notes from a representative of a fictitious company, Impex Infrastructure (set up for the sting operation), three are now in the BJP—Suvendu Adhikari, former Kolkata Mayor Sovan Chatterjee, and Mukul Roy, once considered Mamata Banerjee’s closest aide. Mukul Roy was seen not taking the money but giving instructions about whom it should be handed over to. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is investigating the case; the charge sheets are yet to be filed.
A prize catch
According to BJP sources, the saffron party had its eyes on Suvendu Adhikari for quite some time. Suvendu Adhikari had found his political feet in the violent anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram in 2007-2008. He played a leading role in the movement, which was triggered off when 14 villagers were killed in police firing on March 14, 2007. The Nandigram movement was instrumental in propelling Mamata Banerjee to power in 2011.
The Adhikaris are the most powerful political family in and around Purba Medinipur district. Suvendu Adhikari’s father, Sisir Adhikari, is a veteran Lok Sabha MP; his brother Dibyendu Adhikari is a Trinamool MLA; another brother, Soumendu, is the Chairman of a municipal corporation. Suvendu Adhikari’s own political influence is spread across several districts. Until recently he was in charge of the party organisation (observer) in as many as five districts—Purba Medinipur, Pashchim Medinipur, Jhargram, Murshidabad and Malda. He was the architect of many electoral victories for the Trinamool at the local and rural level.
He was also one of the most powerful Ministers in Mamata Banerjee’s Cabinet, heading three departments—Transport, Irrigation, and Water Resources Investigation and Development. He was the go-to man for the party before elections. The BJP had calculated that Suvendu Adhikari’s crossing over to its fold would not only translate into gains from an organisational perspective but also precipitate a rush from the Trinamool camp and thereby further weaken the ruling party.
Suvendu Adhikari quit the party on November 27 amid talks of a growing rift between him and the Trinamool. From that point, his joining the BJP was inevitable, though both he and the BJP were tightlipped about it. His imminent departure opened up the floodgates of discontent within the Trinamool. One leader after another began to speak out against the top leadership and hint at leaving the party themselves. On December 16, Suvendu Adhikari resigned as a Trinamool legislator, and the following day he quit the party.
The mass defections may help the BJP to build up momentum before the election and at the same time demoralise and weaken an already beleaguered Trinamool, but they are not without consequences. Resentment among the foot soldiers of the party, who have been at the receiving end of violence allegedly perpetrated by Trinamool workers, is now brimming over in protests and demonstrations against new inductees such as Shyamaprasad Mukherjee of Bankura district, a former Minister from the Trinamool, and Jitendra Tiwari, MLA and former Mayor of Asansol Municipal Corporation. On December 21, senior BJP leader Saumitra Khan’s wife, Sujata Mandal Khan, defected to the Trinamool in protest against people like Suvendu Adhikari joining the party. “People who have shed blood for the party are being ignored and undeserving people coming from the Trinamool are being given prominence,” she said. Saumitra Khan accused the Trinamool of “stealing” his wife.
Jitendra Tiwari was forced to retract his announcement of quitting Trinamool in the face of protests from BJP workers and leaders. He had given a stirring speech when he resigned from the party and his post as Mayor indicating that he would return as a member of the BJP. Later he was forced to admit that leaving the Trinamool was a “bad decision”. The Trinamool was only too relieved to be able to retain an important leader in the face of large-scale defections.
However, retaining disgruntled people whom the BJP will not have is also problematic. A senior Trinamool source said: “The problem we are facing now is not so much with those who have left for the BJP, but with those who have been rejected by the BJP. Their presence is disturbing a lot of people within the party, and yet at this point we cannot afford to lose any more members.” That the Trinamool cannot afford to expel such leaders shows the pressure the party is under.
While the State BJP has been systematically breaking the Trinamool’s party organisation, the BJP-led government at the Centre has been putting pressure on the State administration by ordering the transfer of three senior Indian Police Service officers who were in charge of the security of BJP president J.P. Nadda during his trip to Diamond Harbour on December 10. Nadda’s convoy was attacked, allegedly by Trinamool workers. The BJP had alleged that the security provided for Nadda by the State government was not adequate. The BJP and Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar have long accused the State administration and police of being partisan in their dealings with the opposition.
The transfer order has led to a fresh stand-off between the Centre and the State. Mamata Banerjee has accused the Centre of interfering in the State’s affairs and browbeating the administration. She tweeted: “GoI’s order of central deputation for the 3 serving IPS officers of West Bengal despite the State’s objection is a colourable exercise of power and blatant misuse of emergency provision of IPS Cadre Rule 1954… We wouldn’t allow this brazen attempt by the Centre to control the State machinery by proxy! West Bengal is not going to cow-down in front of expansionist & undemocratic forces.”
Maintaining that it was functioning within the ambit of the Constitution, the Centre went ahead with the transfer of Inspector General (South Bengal) Rajeev Mishra, DIG (Presidency Range) Praveen Kumar Tripathi, and Diamond Harbour S.P. Bholanath Pandey. Amit Shah countered Mamata Banerjee’s allegations saying: “The letter which the Centre has written is completely constitutional and as per law. The letter is written under the ambit of federal structure and she should refer to the rules and speak to the Centre.”
Chief Ministers of opposition-ruled Delhi, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan supported Mamata Banerjee, as did Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M.K. Stalin. “Centre is brazenly interfering with State Govt functioning by transferring police officers. My gratitude to @bhupeshbaghel @ArvindKejriwal @capt_amarinder @ashokgehlot51 & @mkstalin for showing solidarity to people of Bengal & reaffirming their commitment to federalism. Thank you!” she tweeted.