On Saturday, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Chandan Mitra joined the Trinamool Congress. Mitra, the editor of the Pioneer newspaper in Delhi, was welcomed into the party by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as she addressed her party’s annual Martyrs Day rally in Kolkata.

While defections to the ruling party are not uncommon in West Bengal, Mitra is the most senior BJP member to join the Trinamool. Mitra himself will have little effect on Bengal politics but the move makes it clear that as Mamata Banerjee makes a pitch for a more national role, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal will be a face-off between the Trinamool and the BJP.

No one can challenge Mamata

“I want to do something constructive for Bengal,” said Chandan Mitra explaining his shift. “And the Trinamool is the best vehicle for that. Mamata Banerjee is Bengal’s best option. No one can challenge her in the near future.”

Mitra’s faith in the Trinamool and Banerjee represents a significant change from his earlier comments as a member of the BJP. In March, just than five months ago, Mitra had argued that “Mamata Banerjee is trying hard to stop a saffron surge” in West Bengal in the wake of the BJP’s win in the Tripura Assembly elections. In 2017, he also complained against “Mamata Banerjee’s undisguised appeasement of minorities”.

Mitra dismisses these statements as the views of the BJP. “This was a part of my job, to push my party’s views,” he argued.

However, as a two-time BJP MP did he subscribe to the party’s Hindutva ideology? “I never subscribed to 100% of Hindutva,” said Mitra. “I have always had a nationalist vision.”

Effect on state politics

The state BJP, however, is dismissive of Mitra’s move. “Chandan Mitra has never worked for the West Bengal BJP other than standing for elections,” said Rahul Sinha, national secretary and former West Bengal president of the BJP. “Even when he was there [in the BJP], he was there only in name.”

Sinha added: “Mitra leaving the BJP is not a loss to the party but only a loss to him and his image given that he was a BJP MP twice. It makes no difference in West Bengal. No Bengali newspapers has even carried the news.”

Biswanath Chakraborty, Head of the Department of Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University, also said that the Delhi-based Mitra has little role to play in West Bengal politics. “Mitra is unknown in West Bengal,” said Chakraborty. “Mitra’s departure represents no specific loss for the BJP but is simply a way for the TMC to show that it can also break the BJP.”

TMC-BJP battle for 2019

Mitra’s jump comes after the BJP has engineered a series of defections from the Trinamool Congress in recent months. In 2017, former Trinamool Congress MP Mukul Roy, who was once Mamata Banerjee’s right-hand man, defected to BJP. In June, former Trinamool Congress minister Humayun Kabir joined the BJP. In Tripura in 2017, as many as six Trinamool MLAs jumped ship to link up with the saffron party.

The series of defections reflects the bitter confrontation between the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party as the saffron party has gained strength to become the main opposition party in West Bengal. That was obvious from the BJP’s performance in panchayat polls in May. Into this mix has been added Mamata Banerjee’s national ambitions in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. On Saturday, at her Martyr’s Day speech, Banerjee declared that the BJP would get only between 100-150 Lok Sabh seats in the next election while the Trinamool would sweep West Bengal. She also announced plans for a January multi-party rally in Kolkata as part of her plans to lead a coalition in 2019 Lok Sabha election to oust the BJP from power at the Centre.