“I love BJP with all my heart, I love Modi with all my heart,” said Soumen Das. “But today I can’t show my face in my own village. What have our party leaders done by taking the Trinamool’s candidate? I simply can’t understand.”
Das, 25, typifies the attraction Narendra Modi and his aggressive brand of politics holds for many young Hindu men in Bengal. Das joined the party in 2019, working hard in a state that can often be harsh on opposition workers. But today he is angry with the party for one rather specific reason: candidate selection.
Das lives and works in the Singur Assembly constituency in West Bengal which goes to vote on Saturday. In 2008, Singur shot to infamy for being the site of a movement led by then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee protesting against the forcible acquisition of land for an automotive plant of Tata Motors by the Left Front government. The anger against the Left that Singur let off is seen to be one of the major reasons for the end of its 34-year rule in 2011. In 2016, the Supreme Court added to the Left’s wounds, ruling that the land acquisition was illegal with one judge questioning how land acquired for private industry could be termed “public purpose”.
Unsurprisingly, the Trinamool has been incredibly popular in Singur since then, with one of its main faces during the movement, Rabindranath Bhattacharya, being elected MLA continuously. This time, though, the party dumped Bhattacharya – citing his age. It instead awarded a ticket to Becharam Manna, who had along with Bhattacharya, spearheaded the Singur agitation.
A day after Bhattacharya was dumped by the Trinamool, he was accepted by the BJP – and awarded the Singur ticket. In 2019, the BJP had taken a substantial lead in the Singur Assembly constituency area, pulling ahead of the Trinamool by more than 10,000 votes. Yet, in its curious eagerness to adopt a Trinamool discard, the BJP may have shot itself in the foot for the 2021 contest, endangering its own lead and making Singur a close contest.
“He simply does no work,” said an exasperated Saikat Ghosh, who turned 18 just a few months ago and will be voting in his first election. “He only helps his own people.”
Ghosh had tried to ask Bhattacharya for help with his caste certificate. But to no avail. “He will look at your papers with a magnifying glass and then say, “this job isn’t mine’”, Ghosh said, mocking the elderly Bhattacharya’s poor eyesight. “If he comes back, no one will get any work done.”
While media attention remains focussed on big leaders and attractive ideological battles, clearly the area work an MLA performs is still critical to an Indian election. “See an MP election is fine. BJP did well here,” said Anup Chatterjee, a retired clerk who had worked for the Garden Reach Shipbuilders in Kolkata. “But who will elect this man as MLA? People need an MLA for so much work.”
So wide is the gap between Bhattacharya and Manna that local BJP worker and Modi fan Soumen Das admits than in his constituency, the TMC candidate is the “kaajer lok” – person who will get your work done. “I am not speaking as a party man but Becharam Manna works hard,” Das said. “No doubt about it.”
“We are small fry so we can’t question the party’s decision,” Das said. “But mastermoshai [teacher, as Bhattacharya is known locally] should have opted for retirement. He has opened himself to ridicule after such a good career. He is deeply unpopular in Singur now.”
Singur is a prominent example of the BJP nominating a TMC defector as its candidate for the 2021 elections – but it is hardly the only one. More than a hundred of the BJP’s 283 candidates have been borrowed from other parties. Many of them are from the ruling Trinamool Congress, including prominent examples like Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy, both former ministers and top Trinamool leaders.
The reason for it is obvious: the BJP is severely hobbled when it comes to party organisation – an especially significant drawback in West Bengal given its highly politicised rural space.
However, as Singur shows, this strategy of relying on defectors comes with its drawbacks: it also imports anti-incumbency into the BJP. This is especially relevant given that while there are significantly high levels of anti-incumbency against the Trinamool, Scroll.in has observed during its reporting that most of it is directed at local leaders. Inexplicably, chief minister Mamata Banerjee often escapes unscathed.
Can the BJP outweigh the negatives of importing anti-incumbency with the benefits of getting a readymade party organisation when Trinamool leaders move to it? In Singur, it seems like a poor deal. On Monday, party president JP Nadda had to cancel two rallies in constituencies around Singur given the crowd was so thin that media images of the meeting would have embarrassed the party.