“We want power and we will win”: Dilip Ghosh on BJP’s electioneering in Bengal, challenging TMC

25 April, 2021

Dilip Ghosh, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, has been the chief of Bharatiya Janata Party’s West Bengal unit since December 2015. Under his command, the BJP’s popularity has increased by leaps and bounds in the state. A member of parliament representing West Bengal’s Medinipur constituency, Ghosh appears to be a serious challenger to the two-time chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, in the ongoing West Bengal assembly elections. The election result would be announced on 2 May.

As the eight-phase long assembly election in West Bengal was reaching its final lap, Amit Bhardwaj, a freelance journalist, interviewed Ghosh to understand his politics and work in the state. Early morning on 19 April, Bhardwaj, who has been covering the state elections, met Ghosh at his residence in Kolkata’s Lake Town locality. Ghosh appeared confident of BJP’s victory and estimated that the party would secure 25 seats in each phase of the elections.

Ghosh has claimed on multiple occasions in the recent past that the Trinamool Congress has physically attacked him and other BJP members. Such statements—and other comments with sexist, communal or inflammatory undertones—have often landed Ghosh in controversy, including many times during this elections season. When Bhardwaj asked him about a few of such statements, Ghosh was unapologetic. He staunchly defended all decisions by him and his party—including that of holding huge election rallies in West Bengal in the middle of a brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Bhardwaj asked him about the politics of enmity and violence in West Bengal, Ghosh blamed other parties. Then, he said, “We respond in the language that they understand. Should we become Gandhiwadi and offer prayers? We are here to do politics.

Amit Bhardwaj: Sir, during this election, the country is grappling with a pandemic. In West Bengal, 323 new COVID cases were reported on 18 March. A month later, on 18 April, 8,419 new COVID cases were reported. In times like this, from where did political parties and politicians get the moral courage to hold such huge rallies in West Bengal?
Dilip Ghosh: This trend started last May, and was started by the TMC. Mamata Banerjee has never acknowledged any lockdown. Hence, the term “lockdown” became a farce in the state. The state government fudged the data of COVID cases and deaths. The place where we are right now, in last May, a TMC district president had organised a rally of 20,000 people, without any restrictions. Then the trend began. We also followed suit. Then we also held public meetings, rallies and door-to-door campaigns. We geared up for the polls. And that is continuing. 

Moreover, the states which are witnessing an upsurge in the COVID-19 cases such as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, no elections are happening there. No jan sabhas [public meetings] are happening in these states. On other hand, West Bengal witnessed public meetings with lakhs of participants. So, why are COVID cases increasing in those states instead of West Bengal?! We need to find the real reason behind the surge instead of putting blame on someone.

AB: I am quoting the figures here: on 18 April, of around 46,000 samples, 8,419 tested positive for COVID-19. This clearly shows that less testing is happening in the state and the positivity rate is high. In this context, how can you justify the big election rallies? The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress have called off their rallies.
DG: Jinki sabha hoti nahi wo to kabhi bhi band kar dein. [Those who can’t gather crowds at rallies, can call it off anytime.] Mamata Banerjee is asking for a one-phase poll [for the remaining rounds] because she knows that she has lost the election. The eight-phase election was decided by the Election Commission.

We built our strategy according to eight-phase polls to win West Bengal and we are heading in that direction. Big rallies were happening even two to three months back, COVID didn’t spread back then. How will it happen now?

For the past two months, the prime minister is holding rallies [in West Bengal] and lakhs of people are attending them. By that logic, lakhs of people would have been infected by one rally. Hence, the big political rallies cannot be the sole reason for the spread.

AB: But it could be one of the reasons, right?
DG: Yes, it can be one of the reasons. The prime minister has been holding big rallies here for the past two months. A single rally could have infected thousands of people. But that’s not the case. The rate of infection has increased not only in India but across the globe.

We need to find the reason for this instead of putting the blame on one factor. So the sabhas should happen. The Election Commission can order whatever restrictions it wants.

[On 22 April, the EC banned road shows and vehicle rallies as well as public meetings with more than 500 people for the remaining phases of the election. India’s cases are reportedly a key reason behind the global surge.]

AB: But when the prime minister expresses his happiness after witnessing a jam-packed BJP rally—on a day when the country registered more than two lakh cases—don’t you find it a little insensitive?
DG: The prime minister has been visiting West Bengal for the past three months.

AB: But the explosion is happening right now.
DG: The spread is not happening due to the rallies. There could be other reasons for it. And irrationally blaming the political parties is not an intelligent act. And those who are running away are doing so because they have lost the elections. It has nothing to do with corona.

AB: In September 2020, you said that “Corona is gone” from West Bengal. Were you living in a state of denial back then?
DG: I was misquoted. One line from my speech in Bangla was taken out and wrongly translated and used by the news organisations. I have been wearing a mask. I have distributed 50,000 masks—with my branding on them—to the people. I will go to get vaccinated soon. But the media tries to distort my statements in order to portray me in a bad light.

AB: Moving forward, what’s your stand on “anti-Romeo squads”? [Anti-Romeo squads are an initiative of the Uttar Pradesh government to ensure women safety. They have been accused of vigilantism and harassment. Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister had announced the same would be done in West Bengal if BJP came to power.]
DG: These are social problems. Anti-Romeo squads and things like that are not just legal issues. These are social issues that can be resolved only after taking the society on board. When the BJP comes to power, we will discuss it with the society.

AB: So the BJP doesn’t have any plans of rolling out such squads? Adityanath formulated these squads in his state.
DG: I acknowledge that it is a social problem. But the same strategy cannot be implemented in all states. It is not necessary that we will do exactly what they did. In Bengal, the biggest challenges are—terrorism, communal violence, corruption. And we will combat these.

AB: I wanted to ask whether you, as a politician and as an individual, have a problem with intellectuals.
DG: It’s the other way around. They have a problem with me. Possibly because I don’t consume liquor, I don’t speak English, I don’t attend parties. I don’t misguide people. I think the people who do all this are called intellectuals here. But I am against them. I had questioned them, what is their contribution to society besides abusing me during the election? I have been abused by them for the past 40 years.

AB: You had recently said that you would “rogre debo,” or rub them the wrong way, referring to intellectuals.
DG: Yes, I had said that because they claim that they are unbiased but are actually working to further the agenda of a particular party or ideology. Unfortunately, that party and its ideology have become irrelevant, hence they are not talking about it.

If they want to do politics, they should contest the polls. Face me directly. Many celebrities have entered politics. And we are ready to face them in the electoral battle.

AB: There is a Bengali song with lyrics—Aami ei deshe tei thaakbo, or I will reside in this nation. Does this song make you and your party uncomfortable?  
DG: It’s these intellectuals who are saying—thaakbo [will stay]. Who has stopped them? But if they want to live in India, they will have to follow Indian rules. When the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 was passed, they had said—aami kagaz dekhabo na [won’t show the documents]. First “dekhabo na” and now “thaakbo.” They fear that they won’t be able to live in this country. It is because they have betrayed the nation. They have misguided the masses. Today, the destruction that we are witnessing in different sectors is because of these people.

AB: Who are you referring to?
DG: These intellectuals. These so-called seculars, so-called communists! I don’t know what their role in society is. They would hit the streets on every other issue. The ideology that they follow has become irrelevant today.

AB: Let’s talk about one more statement you had made. Recently, you said that if the chief minister wants to sit in a particular manner, she should wear “bermuda” shorts.  Do you think it is right for a politician of your stature—the state president of the BJP, the electoral face of the BJP—to make such comments?
DG: I had said how a public figure like her, a woman, should sit. A woman sitting on a chair in that manner is considered indecent. Hence, I had expressed my protest. It doesn’t look good on the chief minister to sit like that.

AB: What should a woman wear, how she should sit—does the society have the right to comment on it?
DG: Certainly. She is part of the society. You can’t do anything as per your whims and fancies. Who has given you the right to hurt the sentiments of society? To hurt the traditions! It doesn’t matter what people think, I stand by my comment.

AB: When we look at the BJP’s West Bengal campaign, it is highly dependent on polarisation. Is it possible for the BJP to weave a campaign for an assembly election without referring to these two factors—polarisation and Pakistan?
DG: Pakistan is not a factor here. Bangladesh is. Because infiltrators and Rohingyas come from there. And not once, not twice, I will keep talking about it thousand times  because it’s a matter of national security. When we come to power, we will not let even a mouse enter Indian territory, let alone the terrorists and Rohingyas.

AB: How will you do that? Will you construct a wall?
DG: We have thousands of kilometres of land border. The fencing has been done largely at the Pakistan and Bangladesh border. These borders are the most sensitive. But in West Bengal, neither the communists nor the TMC gave land to build the barbed wire fences. They didn’t allow it because the move would have stopped infiltration. And the infiltrators are their voters.

[In December 2019, the state government reportedly agreed to purchase land for the purpose of putting barbed wire on the border.]

AB: Why does West Bengal have a culture of political enmity and violence?
DG: You should ask this question from the CPM and TMC. They are the ones who have brought this culture to Bengal. Across the world, the communists have resorted to violence to gain power. They did the same here.

AB: But your politics and working style seems to be no different.
DG: We respond in the language that they understand. Should we become Gandhiwadi and offer prayers? We are here to do politics. Satta humko chahiye, aur jitenge. [We want power and we will win.] And we will straighten them [the opposition] up the way we did in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tripura and Assam. Now it’s West Bengal’s turn.  

AB: There is a slogan reverberating on the ground, “Aage Ram, pore baam—which means this time Ram, next will be communists. This helped you in increasing your vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Is it helping the BJP in these elections too?
DG: Those who were with the CPM and are against the TMC have now realised that the CPM cannot defeat the Trinamool. They know it is only the BJP that can defeat the TMC and hence they are shifting towards us. The floating voters are moving towards us. That’s how we have increased our vote share from a mere four percent [in 2011] to forty percent [in 2019].

The voters of West Bengal are politically very aware. They are not the vote bank of a specific party. The CPM’s vote share had increased even after 34 years of rule and yet they lost the polls [in 2011]. The TMC is heading towards the same fate.

AB: So the supporters of the same communists, whom you are attacking, are helping you in the battle against the Trinamool?
DG: It’s not their vote bank. This is an anti-TMC vote bank that had shifted to the CPM because they did not have any alternative. Now they are drifting towards us because we are the formidable force.

AB: In 2016, the BJP only won three assembly seats in West Bengal. In the ongoing assembly elections, there seems to be an undercurrent working in favour of the BJP. How did you manage to reach this stage?
DG: In Bengal, politics means hitting the streets, protesting and opposing the policies of the government. That has been the definition of politics here since the British era. The communists, too, were anti-establishment. They had a culture of opposing everything. This shaped the mindset of the Bengali voters on similar lines. This culture has certainly hurt Bengal’s prospects [in terms of development]. But it is a fact, until you hit the streets in Bengal, people don’t take you seriously. We did the same. We opposed the Mamata Banerjee government.

No one had the courage to raise the voice against Mamata Banerjee’s dictatorship in the state. I opposed her. I dared her. When people started to take us seriously, the attacks on me and our party workers began. In the past few years, roughly 140 BJP workers have been killed during this struggle. Our 25–30 candidates were attacked during this election. Our candidate in Malda was shot at. But with our sacrifices, we managed to gain the confidence and trust of the Bengali voters.

Over the years, we managed to increase our vote share. There are ten parliamentary seats around Kolkata that we hadn’t been able to win [in 2019] because there was a sense of fear among people and our organisation was weak. In the past two years, lakhs of our workers have worked round the clock to turn the tide in our favour. In this process, we got full support from the central leadership. The visits of honourable [Prime Minister] Narendra Modiji triggered enthusiasm. The organisational work done by Amit bhai and JP Naddaji [the home minister, Amit Shah, and the BJP president, respectively] along with the struggle of workers on local issues helped us to gain momentum.

AB: Who should get the credit for the rise of BJP in West Bengal—how much percent of the credit goes to you, the central leadership and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh? I am mentioning the Sangh Parivar because it had passed a resolution in 2017 expressing concern on the rise of “jihadi elements” in West Bengal. 
DG: Such segregation is not possible. We have gotten the benefit of Modiji’s popularity and his government’s achievements. Amit bhai is an efficient strategist and has been leading us from the front. In the past five–six years, he played a key role in the organisation. Naddaji worked with us to expand. And there are a couple of leaders who also helped us to grow. As a state president, I led the fight from the front. Despite the attacks and murders of our workers, I didn’t budge and was able to win the trust of people. Hence, it has been a composite effort.

AB: But what about the RSS? Did the Sangh Parivar help?
DG: See, the Sangh is a political organisation. During the polls, when there is a need for parivartan [change] they try to influence the voters. And they are actively doing so even during this election.

Do remember Bengal is a peculiar state located on the international border. The threat perception here is higher. And because Bengal’s border is vulnerable, it makes India’s international border vulnerable. Today, nowhere in the country one finds a trace of terror activities, bam-banduk [bombs and guns]. But in Bengal, terror modules are being busted.

AB: The BJP has claimed that it is in a comfortable position in the elections. You are promising to build a “sonar Bangla”—a golden West Bengal. Who will be the chief minister of this Sonar Bangla?
DG: We will decide that after winning the polls. That has been the tradition of our party. The vidhayak dal [legislature party] and the parliamentary board of the party will take a call on it.

AB: But many BJP workers do take your name.
DG: That is bound to happen. For the past five–six years, I have been working with them. I have faced challenges from the front. Naturally, they want me to lead them. Hence, I decided not to contest the assembly polls. Instead, I asked the party to allow me to campaign in the entire state during the polls.

AB: But do you aspire to be the chief minister?
DG: I never imagined or planned to enter politics. I was appointed as the state president. Then I became a member of legislative assembly, [then] MP. Others have many aspirations, but I don’t. I am a mere karyakarta [worker]. The party trusted me and gave me responsibility. And I have delivered as per my capabilities.

I never had dreams of entering politics or becoming the chief minister—I have one dream that is to make Bengal of sona [gold].

AB: As we come to the end of this conversation, could you tell me how many seats that you are expecting to win?
DG: On average, count 25 seats per phase of polling for the BJP. I think towards the end we will be able to touch the mark of 200 seats. The seats which are going for the polls in the last two phases were our weakest link. But the situation has changed. We will prove to be strongest there. The trend which began from Jungle Mahal [of BJP wresting a TMC bastion] will end on a similar note. They [TMC] have realised that they will be routed and hence they are resorting to violence during the polls.

AB: But Prashant Kishor, TMC’s poll strategist, has claimed that the BJP will not be able to even touch three-digit figures.
DG: 2 May is not too far. But he should start considering the options as to what he will do after the Bengal poll. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.