BJP gains in Bengal as Mamata repeats the CPI-M's mistakes

18 January, 2015

Three years and a few months is too short a period for any political party to come undone. But if the spate of events rapidly unfolding in Bengal is any indication of its changing political future, then the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has entered the zone of vulnerability.

On 15 January 2015, the TMC lost a prominent electoral face. Manjul Krishna Thakur, the minister of state for refugee relief and rehabilitation, showed up at the BJP party office and defected to the party with his son Subrata Thakur.  Launching a frontal attack on the chief minister and her "autocratic" ways, Manjul said, “I have decided to join BJP today along with my son as I feel that TMC is no longer a party for honest and good politicians. The TMC government has not allowed me to work for the benefit of my Matua community.”

Coming as it does, before the by polls that are scheduled to be held in Bengal on 13 February 2015, this defection is a huge setback for the TMC. The Matua community is a crucial voting bloc in Bengal, one that no significant political party can afford to alienate. According to the Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Santosh Rana, the 2001 census suggests that, out of the Scheduled Caste population in Bengal—constituting 22 percent of the total population—16 percent belong to the Matua community.

An upbeat BJP today sniffs an opportunity in Bengal’s messy political scenario. At a public rally in May last year, Narendra Modi blamed Mamata Banerjee for providing hospitality to “Bangladeshi infiltrators,” while turning a blind eye to the plight of the Matuas, who are Hindus refugees who had fled from Bangladesh to escape persecution.

Adding fuel to the fire, Manjul has blamed Banerjee squarely for not allowing him, a minister in her cabinet, to better the condition of the Matuas. Few however are taken in by Manjul’s euphemistic alibi. The real reasons for his desertion are less noble than his public expression of concern for the community he seeks to represent.

Mamata Banerjee’s bizarre attempt to undo the political damage caused by the  departure was to announce the candidature of Mamatabala Devi, Manjul’s sister-in-law, as the Trinamool nominee for the by polls to be held in the constituency of Bongaon in North 24 Parganas district next month. That the Bongaon poll was necessitated by the death of Kapil Krishna, Mamatabala’s husband and Manjul’s elder brother, has only heightened the political drama being played out.

The tragedy of Bengal, which once claimed to be the ideological hub of Marxism, can be seen in its present philosophical vacuum. But the vacuum did not form recently. This process of attrition has been underway for over two decades. At the present juncture, there appears to be no way of stemming the play of cynical and violent politics. More than in any other state in contemporary India, Bengal has made violence­—and never ideology—the leitmotif of its politics.

Back in the 1980s, after a decade of uninterrupted rule in Bengal, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) was teeming with workers who flocked to the party in the hope of finding economic and social mobility. Instead of creating a committed and principled cadre, the CPI-M morphed into a monolith that patronised criminal elements and the real estate mafia. Yet, party bosses looked the other way. Aided by political violence and a burgeoning number of criminals, the CPI-M kept itself in power for over three decades even as it sacrificed ideals at the altar of political machinations.

Banerjee took over these criminalised structures of reproducing power. Instead of smashing the complex linkages running throughout the state machinery—as she had promised to do through her emotive slogan of poriborton or “transformation”—the Trinamool chief made these structures of violence her own. Her party swelled with defectors from the CPI-M.

Even at the time of its genesis in 1998, the Trinamool had no identifiable organisation or distinct membership. Until the Nandigram and Singur agitations, the Trinamool had no compact social or political base. It was primarily perceived as a party with a following among the urban youth, street hawkers, slum dwellers, illegal settlers and workers in the informal sector. The Trinamool acquired a pro-poor and pro-farmer identity after the successive agitations in Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh.

The rapid unraveling of the Saradha scam is currently dragging the top Trinamool leadership down into an abyss and has led to widespread panic across the party. Several important Trinamool leaders, including Kunal Ghosh and Srinjoy Bose (members of parliament); former director general of police Rajat Majumdar; a top football club official, Debabrata Sarkar; as well as sports and transport minister Madan Mitra are currently behind bars. The latest in the CBI’s list of suspects is Mukul Roy, the second in command in the Trinamool and a leader who has stood by Banerjee through thick and thin.

The chief minister should be worried about the expanding CBI dragnet. The scam could well travel to her doorstep in time. Throughout her political career, Banerjee has tried to maintain a clean image, turning her back on ministerial posts and punishing her colleagues—such as Sudip Bandopadhyay and Ajit Panja—whom she perceived to be lobbying for ministerial berths. Her personal credentials of incorruptibility may still be intact, but can the Trinamool supremo, known for keeping an eagle eye on her colleagues, escape her share of responsibility for the massive scam that appears to have been brewing right under her nose? Surely, there can be no personal glory or integrity in looking the other way while your colleagues are making money on the side.

Almost in the blink of an eye, the political chemistry of Bengal is changing. The CPI-M, which should have legitimately stepped into the vacant opposition space, has gone into deep hibernation. In the aftermath of the Left Front’s humiliating defeat in the 2011 assembly polls, many had ditched the Left and sought succor in Trinamool. Now they are shifting base again— this time to the BJP.

Indeed, the emergence of the BJP—under Narendra Modi—in Bengal in the past year, has further blurred the already tangled lines of political loyalties in the state. The exodus of activists from both the Trinamool and CPI-M to the BJP could now spread to even the top Trinamool echelons. Speculation is already gaining ground in Bengal that Manjul Krishna Thakur is going to be followed by others. There is even speculation that Mukul Roy, in trying to save his own skin, is currying favour with the BJP. Even if that turns out to be idle gossip, there is just no denying that Trinamool supporters and activists are greedily eyeing greener pastures on the other side.

The BJP wants and needs Bengal under its belt. It would like to flaunt the state’s conquest as a symbol of the party’s rising acceptance and popularity under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who continues to be a polarising figure. Bengal is an important cog in the BJP’s electoral machine.

However, not all is going as planned. The party’s strategy of linking the Saradha scam money to the funding of terrorists recently ran into controversy generated by the BJP’s own minister. Three days after BJP president Amit Shah alleged, at a public rally in Kolkata, that Saradha money had been used to fund terror, union minister Jitendra Singh told the Lok Sabha that investigators had found no such link.

But Bengal is getting restless with its old political protagonists. The new player promises not only development—whatever that may stand for—but also a kind of polarising politics that the state has deliberately kept at bay since the days of Partition in the 1940s. The road ahead is unclear, but restlessness can have many outcomes, not all of them are desirable.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.