“If you go out, you’ll get beaten by our own workers,” Sujoy Chandra Roy told his colleague Santosh Kumar Mondal at the Bharatiya Janata Party office in Malda town late on the evening of March 22 – the day Malda celebrated the festival of Holi.
Roy and Mondal, long-time BJP workers, had met in the office’s retiring room for a chat. Though Roy’s warning to Mondal was a joke, the ribbing did have an underlying subtext: anger in the local BJP unit over the candidates announced for the two Lok Sabha seats in Malda district of West Bengal the previous day.
Both the candidates are outsiders who defected from other parties to join the saffron party, as its graph rises in West Bengal.
This pattern has been repeated across the state, with the BJP ignoring its own local units and importing candidates from other parties. The trend shows that even as support for the BJP is growing in West Bengal, the weakness of its state unit is still a roadblock.
Situated in North Bengal, Malda is one of West Bengal’s poorest districts. It is a Congress bastion – a rare feat maintained right through 34 years of Left rule, which ended when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was voted into power in 2011.
However, over the past few years, the district has seen political turbulence with the rise of both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP in the region. The saffron party won a seat in the district during the 2016 Assembly Elections.
Not only was this remarkable given the BJP’s historically weak position in West Bengal, it was a win in a Muslim-majority district – a feat achieved as a result of strong communal polarisation in the region following an incident in 2016, where a Muslim mob set fire to about two dozen vehicles and ransacked the police station in the town of Kaliachak.
In spite of this, however, the BJP was unable to find a Lok Sabha candidate in Malda from its own ranks. Khagen Murmu, the party’s candidate for Malda North, is a veteran communist and three-time MLA who joined the BJP on March 12. The Malda South candidate is former Trinamool Congress leader, Sreerupa Mitra Chowdhury, who joined the BJP in 2015.
This has angered local party workers who feel disappointed that their hard work in the state – at a time the BJP was a minor player – has been ignored.
“We faced injustice from the police and Trinamool workers at the time of the panchayat elections [in May],” said Ajay Mondal, a local BJP worker from Manikchak village in Malda. “So many of us were on the run from the police. But our views were ignored when the time came for the Lok Sabha elections. Why?”
Sanjit Mishra, Malda district president of the BJP is aware of the discontent on the ground. On March 22, the day after the BJP announced its candidates for Malda, Mishra went around the district speaking to local workers and pacifying them.
“As a president, even I will admit the way the seats were allotted was somewhat unfair,” Mishra told Scroll.in at the BJP district headquarters in Malda. “But this sort of thing happens in every party. Now once the candidate has been declared, we shall fight for them.”
Chowdhury denied there was any discontent around her candidature. “This is a non issue raised to disturb the BJP by its opponents,” said Chowdhury. “The BJP is a very organised party. Policy decisions are taken at the highest level.”
However, in this case, it is precisely this centralised system that has led to anger. “People have managed to get the seats from the party’s upper leadership and, as a result, the local unit is somewhat disappointed,” explained Mishra.
Other party workers specifically blame Mukul Roy, himself a defector from the Trinamool, for ignoring local BJP units when finalising the party’s candidates list. Roy oversaw the Trinamool’s strategic planning and is doing the same job in the BJP after changing parties in 2017.
This phenomenon of nominating turncoats is not limited to Malda.
Till March 28, the BJP had announced nominations to 40 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. These comprise 10 candidates who have defected from the Trinamool, Left or Congress, including former Indian Police Service officer Bharati Ghosh, who was once seen to be very close to Mamata Banerjee.
This has led to protests from local units across the state.
BJP workers in Cooch Behar district vandalised their own party office on March 22, in anger over a former Trinamool leader being nominated for the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha seat. A state BJP vice-president also resigned after being denied a party ticket.
On March 16, state president Dilip Ghosh admitted that the party did not have enough candidates of its own who can win elections. “We have party leaders and workers who are working very hard,” Ghosh told PTI. “We had given them tickets in panchayat and Assembly polls. But in case of fighting Lok Sabha polls we do not have enough candidates who can put up a fight and win the elections.”
This BJP’s organisational weakness in West Bengal is evident in Malda. “The BJP’s weakness is that it is strong in some areas at the MLA level but not at the MP level,” explained former Malda BJP president Subrata Kundu.
In Malda, a parliamentary constituency consists of seven Assembly seats. The district votes on April 23, in the third phase of the polls.
Given the limitations of the state unit, the BJP is expected to depend heavily on outside campaigners. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath will hold rallies ahead of each of the seven phases that West Bengal will vote in. The BJP has organised two rallies by Modi on April 3: one in Siliguri and the other in Kolkata.