Kolkata: Proving right all speculations regarding his imminent change of camp, Bayron Biswas, the lone Congress MLA in the West Bengal assembly, joined the state’s ruling party Trinamool Congress (TMC), on Monday, May 29. The TMC’s all-India general secretary Abhishek Banerjee welcomed him to his new home.
Biswas won less than three months ago in a shock defeat for the TMC in the Sagardighi assembly by-poll in Murshidabad district. The seat, a stronghold of the TMC since 2011, was vacated due to TMC MLA Subrata Saha’s death. The Congress victory was seen as a sign of a section of Muslim voters switching from the TMC to the Congress, as Muslims make up nearly two-thirds of Sagardighi’s population, according to Census 2011.
The impact of the result prompted the TMC to increase Muslim outreach initiatives, which included Mamata Banerjee strongly standing by the Muslim community during the Ram Navami violence in Howrah district and later imposing a ban on the controversial film The Kerala Story, in the state’s theatres. The ban was overruled by the Supreme Court.
The TMC highlighted Monday’s development as a victory against the Congress’s efforts to weaken it.
“In March this year, with the blessing of the people, Bayron Biswas had emerged victorious in the by-poll held in Sagardighi. After taking oath as a legislator, Biswas was in touch with me. Even during our Jono Sanjog Yatra, we had spoken to each other. Today [Monday] morning, Biswas travelled from Murshidabad and joined us,” Abhishek Banerjee said, while welcoming him aboard at a public rally in Ghatal of West Medinipur district.
“If the Congress weakens Trinamool, the only party to gain will be the BJP,” he said, adding that Biswas had joined the party to strengthen the fight against the saffron party. He reiterated Mamata Banerjee’s old formula that the Congress should stay away from the electoral contest in Bengal and let the TMC take on the BJP.
“Trinamool is ready to support the Congress in places where they are strong, but they should do the same in places where Trinamool Congress remains the principal force to take on the BJP,” Banerjee said.
The Congress has always ruled out this proposal, calling it absurd as there is no state outside Bengal where the Congress needs the TMC’s help.
Referring to the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) electoral understanding in the 2021 state assembly elections, Banerjee junior said on Monday, “The fight was between the TMC and the BJP, yet the Congress leaders joined hands with CPI(M) and the ISF in a bid to strengthen the BJP. Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly stated that she has no problem supporting the Congress in order to defeat the BJP (at the Centre). However, the Pradesh Congress chief, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, is claiming that he will fight the TMC. This implies that he has no intention of defeating the BJP.”
Chowdhury, in turn, took potshots at the TMC, targeting the chief minister in particular. “The game that you have started will harm you the most, it will leave your party shattered. I am accepting your challenge,” he said, urging Congress supporters not to lose their morale.
Veteran journalist Avijit Ghosal pointed out the irony in Biswas’s induction ceremony being presided over by Abhishek Banerjee, who has been running a campaign over the past few months assuring the people of the state of ensuring a free and fair rural election.
“The man who continuously promises free polls and fair play in the panchayat elections and tirelessly assures the electorate of honouring their will presides over the most brazen migration of an opposition MLA to his own fold in fewer than 90 days of a landmark election. This may put Abhishek Banerjee’s trustworthiness at stake,” Ghosal said.
Beyond blame game
The Sagardighi byelection result was also seen as an indicator of changing political equations, as the Congress gained votes at the cost of both the TMC and the BJP’s losses. The Left-Congress-ISF camp in Bengal considered it a shot in the arm of their joint fight against the TMC and the BJP and hoped to utilise the momentum in the coming panchayat elections.
The TMC, however, saw bigger trouble. It thought a revival of the Congress in the Muslim-majority districts of Murshidabad and neighbouring Malda could upset the TMC’s own equations by splitting the Muslim votes. In the two districts, the Muslim community has traditionally voted for the Congress.
In the 2021 assembly election, the TMC for the first time in its history almost swept the two districts, thanks to a strong polarisation of Muslim votes in its favour. These two districts together have five Lok Sabha seats – two of them currently held by the Congress and one by the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won Malda Uttar due to a sharp division of Muslim votes between the TMC and Congress candidates.
Political observers say inducting Biswas into the TMC could actually have the opposite effect of what is being claimed by the ruling party – it can increase the scope for the BJP’s rise in the Muslim-majority districts, as the anti-TMC Hindu voters would likely find the BJP a stronger option to bet on.
Notably, while the Left and the Congress got swept out in the 2021 assembly election, the BJP managed to win two assembly seats in Murshidabad district: Beherampore, where the Bengal Congress president is from, and Murshidabad. The party also won four assembly seats in Malda.
About two-thirds of Murshidabad’s population are Muslims, according to the census of 2011, and Muslims made up more than half the population in Malda. The BJP has been trying to expand its support base in the districts, expecting the Hindu-dominated pockets to be fertile grounds for polarising Hindu votes in favour of the BJP.
Even though senior BJP leaders did not immediately comment publicly after Biswas joined the TMC, a Lok Sabha MP told The Wire, requesting anonymity, “Of course, it’s good for us. We were eager to see him switch camp. A revived Congress was not good news for us. Now, anti-TMC voters would look to us even more and it would help us portray the Left-Congress combine as an irrelevant force.”
BJP state unit president Sukanta Majumdar, Lok Sabha MP from Balurghat in northern Bengal, told The Wire, “I had predicted this during the Sagardighi bypoll campaign itself and urged people to vote for us because voting for the Congress would eventually go to waste. I have been proved right. People have lived experience now.”
Columnist and political commentator Suvashis Maitra saw the development as a continuation of the TMC’s long-pursued policy of engineering defections in the opposition camp in the state.
“At the national level, the TMC keeps accusing the BJP of disrespecting people’s mandate by engineering defections among opposition legislators and parliamentarians. However, in West Bengal, they keep doing the same, from taking over panchayats and municipalities that they lost to bringing in opposition MLAs. This does not speak good of the TMC and its ideological/ethical positions,” Maitra said.
He added that the move would also send out a bad signal ahead of the proposed meeting of different anti-BJP parties in Patna on June 12.
“Statements from TMC leaders in the aftermath of the Congress’s Karnataka assembly election victory were devoid of any mention of the Congress or Rahul Gandhi. Even reports in the TMC’s mouthpiece Jago Bangla followed the pattern. It reflected the TMC’s unease with the prospect of a revived Congress. It seems Biswas’s event was deliberately scheduled ahead of the Patna meeting of opposition parties to keep a distance from the Congress,” he told The Wire.
Since returning to power in 2021, the TMC has so far got six BJP MLAs and two Lok Sabha MPs to defect to its side. All the MLAs maintain in the assembly – in order to avoid disqualification – that they are with the BJP, even though they continue to work with the TMC. Two such MLAs, Mukul Roy and Krishna Kalyani, were made the chairman of the public accounts committee, one after the other, on the ground that they are with the BJP. It’s a post that traditionally goes to the main opposition party.
It remains to be seen if Biswas follows the same path.