Last Thursday, the Bharatiya Janata Party engaged in a major confrontation with the Trinamool-led state government in West Bengal, attempting to get its workers to blockade the main secretariat, Nobanno. The march quickly became violent as BJP workers hurled stones and bricks at police officials and sett fire to tyres, reported the Indian Express. Bombs were also used in Howrah, the town neighbouring Kolkata in which Nobanno is based, reported Bartaman.

The rally underlined the BJP’s strength in the state, where it has gone from being a virtual non-entity to the main opposition party in just a matter of a few years. It also highlighted how the BJP is going to approach the Assembly elections, scheduled in the first half of 2021: the saffron party will depend on the national high command while handing the state unit a relatively minor role.

The Thursday action, for example, was led by Tejasvi Surya, president of the BJP youth wing and a member of parliaments representing a constituency in Bengaluru. As would be expected, Surya is a non-entity in West Bengal. At the same time, the older Bengal leadership had a distinctly muted role. State president Dilip Ghosh was the lone senior leader on display as he led a march from the party headquarters.

To make matters worse, veteran leader Rahul Sinha was absent from the proceedings entirely – a significant signal of anger given just how much emphasis the BJP had placed on this gherao. Sinha had made his displeasure with the party clear on September 27 by releasing a video criticising the party’s strategy of dropping him in order to “make way for TMC [Trinamool Congress] leaders”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party march in Howrah. Credit: @BJP4Bengal via Twitter

Public opposition of this kind is rare in the BJP. Sinha, after all, has served the party for decades from the time the saffron party was a non-entity in the state.

The immediate cause of his anger seems to be his replacement as the BJP’s national general secretary by a former Trinamool Congress MP, Anupam Hazra. To add to this, Trinamool Congress defector Mukul Roy was promoted as a vice-president of the BJP.

While Roy is not a mass leader, he is seen to be an important strategist, having managed the Trinamool’s election machine. He is also seen to be close to Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP’s national general secretary in charge of Bengal, further underscoring the control of the high command.

Clearly, Sinha’s open rebellion, Ghosh’s lack of prominence and the promotion of Trinamool defectors is a sign as to how the BJP’s Delhi high command intends to remote control the 2021 election campaign to try and topple the Banerjee government.

Since 2019

This whittling down of the state unit has been a work in progress since the Bengal BJP managed an astonishing performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, trailing the Trinamool’s vote share by just three percentage points. As Narendra Modi formed his new cabinet there were protests from Dilip Ghosh about West Bengal being “underrepresented”.

Rather than listen to Ghosh, the party clipped his wings even further, sending a new governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, in July who would function as the principal political opposition to the Trinamool. He has since made statements about a range of issues. While governors have more often than not been party men, Dhankar’s public engagement is unique for an Indian governor till now. This, of course, served to undermine state leaders like Ghosh and Sinha, since public opposition to the Trinamool government from within the state should be their job.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and other officials during a review meeting after his aerial survey of the Amphan Cyclone affected areas in the state in May. Credit: PTI

Only Modi

The BJP has also made clear that it will fight the 2021 election without a chief ministerial face. This means the party will depend solely on the charisma of Narendra Modi to pull in the votes – a campaign that the Prime Minister will kick off by addressing Bengalis on the occasion of Durga Puja later this month.

While Modi is – by some distance – the country’s most popular politicians, data shows that his pull wanes considerably in state elections, as compared to the national Lok Sabha elections.

To add to this is the fact that West Bengal is one of India’s most politically independent states, with elections till now requiring strong local faces. Even under the prime ministership of Nehru, for example, with the Congress dominating the Indian Union, the West Bengal chief minister BC Roy had an independent base and functioned with considerable autonomy from the party high command. After the decline of the Congress, this trend deepened. While it was a national party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had a deep local base in West Bengal. And the Trinamool, of course, is a West Bengal party with its existence, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, limited to one state.

However, the BJP is hoping that it can overturn these trends with the popularity of Prime Minister Modi helping it across the finishing line in Bengal.