What BJP’s National Committee Rejig Means to Poll-Bound Bengal

With the elevation of Mukul Roy, the party has made one thing abundantly clear. Defectors will be rewarded.

Kolkata: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s recent reshuffling of its national committee results in two additions from West Bengal. The state has been in focus for the party, as it is scheduled to go to Assembly polls in less than a year. The change, however, means more than just an increase in the state party leadership. It sends a crucial message: defectors from other parties will find rewards in BJP.

Mukul Roy, a long-time right-hand of Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee, who joined the BJP is 2017, is now one of the party’s national vice-presidents. It is after 27 years that a leader from West Bengal has been named a BJP national vice-president. The last person from Bengal to serve in this position was Vishnu Kant Shastri, between 1988 and 1993.

Among the other changes are the replacement of BJP veteran Rahul Sinha, a former state unit president, with newcomer Anupam Hazra, as national secretary. Darjeeling MP Raju Singh Bista is now a national spokesperson.

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Hazra, an assistant professor at Visva Bharati University, had joined BJP in March 2019, following in the footsteps of Mukul Roy. Bista, a Manipur-born, Delhi-based entrepreneur, is the first Bengal BJP leader to be named a national spokesperson.

The most impactful of the changes, of course, was the appointment of Roy and Hazra. The appointments came following widespread talks in West Bengal in July and August about the possibility of Roy, who was perceived to be unhappy with the lack of recognition in the BJP, returning to the TMC. Though Roy had repeatedly rubbished the talks as rumours, BJP’s national leadership did reach out to Roy to find out if he had grievances.

File image of Mukul Roy. Photo: PTI/Files

A former railway minister, Roy has been a member of the BJP’s national executive, a position not considered an influential one. Now, he shares a position at par with the likes of former BJP chief ministers Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan and Raghubar Das of Jharkhand.

Political analysts see in this dual change the BJP’s attempt not only at assuring Roy of proper recognition in the party but also in sending a clear message to those in other parties who might be considering a move to the BJP.

Anupam Hazra. Photo: Official Twitter account

The appointment of Hazra, considered a political lightweight, hints at the larger political message, political observers felt. He had won the 2014 elections on a TMC ticket and was expelled from the party in January 2019. Contesting on a BJP ticket, he lost the 2019 elections.

According to psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, the changes make evident the fact that BJP is prioritising a drive to get leaders from other parties to defect to it ahead of the assembly election.

He felt that Bista’s appointment as a national spokesperson was aimed to amp up the anti-TMC rhetoric at the national level ahead of the Assembly elections.

“Saturday’s appointment would not only give Roy a great deal of confidence to move ahead with a proper defection drive but will also give confidence to those in other parties considering changing camps. With this, BJP has given the clear message that newcomers would be welcomed well,” Chakraborty said.

After joining BJP in November 2017, Roy got two sitting TMC MPs, two sitting TMC MLAs, two sitting Left MLAs a and a youth leader to defect ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Three of them won the Lok Sabha elections on BJP tickets. Since then, eight more TMC MLAs have joined the BJP and seven of them came through Roy.

Udayan Bandyopadhyay, who teaches political science at Bangabasi College in Kolkata, said that pleasing Mukul Roy was the principle motive behind the changes.

“Mukul Roy has been pleased not only with a high post but also with the elevation of one of his loyalists. Clearly, the BJP is banking on him to get leaders from TMC, Left and the Congress to join BJP,” Bandyopadhyay said.

He, however, predicted that this could also create resentment among BJP old-timers. “The BJP’s old-timers will not take these changes in good humour. This could intensify the factionalism which is already troubling the BJP in Bengal,” Bandyopadhyay said.

Indications of resentment among BJP veterans and those who came from a background in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s parent organisation, were clear on Saturday itself. Replacing Sinha with Hazra, for instance, is a sore point.

“Those who are ideologically committed to the cause of Hindutva and those who gave everything to expand the party in the state are being neglected to appease newcomers, mostly opportunists. This is very upsetting,” said a BJP state unit member who did not want to be named.

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Sinha, who served as state unit president for two terms before being made the national secretary, did not hide his displeasure.

In a video statement uploaded on Twitter on Saturday evening, Sinha said, “I served the BJP for 40 years. And the reward is that I have to make way for those coming from the TMC. There cannot be anything more unfortunate. I will not say anything in favour of or against the party’s way of rewarding me. I will make my future plans clear in another 10-12 days.”

According to several state unit members, there are three factions in the BJP Bengal unit. One functions under state unit president  Dilip Ghosh, general secretary (organisation) Subrato Chatterjee and national joint general secretary (organisation) Shiv Prakash, all of whom were pracharaks of the RSS.

The other faction comprises Kailash Vijayvargiya and Mukul Roy and are believed to enjoy the backing of Union minister Babul Supriyo and Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta on strategy matters. Rahul Sinha had his own third set of followers, though his influence had been on the wane.

A section of Bengal BJP leaders also feared that Roy could have a greater say in the selection of candidates for the 2021 Assembly elections. Since 2018, Roy has been named the chairman of the BJP’s election management committee for three major elections – the panchayat polls in 2018, Lok Sabha election 2019 and the municipal elections in 2020. In the Lok Sabha elections, it was clear that Mukul Roy had had his say in the BJP’s choice of candidates.

“Now that he is holding a position that can be considered equal to the state president Dilip Ghosh’s, Roy will have a greater say in the selection of candidates and defectors from the TMC, the Left and the Congress may get priority over BJP veterans,” said a state unit secretary who did not want to be identified.

Biswanath Chakraborty, too, read the situation similarly. “Now, if Roy is also named the chairman of the Assembly elections management committee, his clout in the candidate selection process would increase many times,” he said.

Roy is perceived to be close to Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP’s national general secretary in charge of Bengal.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and author, most recently, of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment.