In a major Union Cabinet reshuffle and expansion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has picked Shantanu Thakur, Nisith Pramanik, Subhas Sarkar and John Barla as his council of ministers from West Bengal.
However, two ministers of state (MoS) from Bengal, Debasree Chaudhuri (MoS woman and child development) and Babul Supriyo (MoS environment, forest and climate change) have been dropped.
The selection of MPs has been strategically made to stop BJP leaders from joining TMC, reward some for their electoral performance and fix caste equations in the state before the 2024 general election.
Three of the four picks belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. All four MoS are first-time MPs. Thakur was given the portfolio of MoS ports, shipping and waterways, Pramanik got the MoS home affairs and youth affairs and sports, Sarkar was given MoS education, and Barla was made MoS minority affairs.
Thakur is BJP’s MP from the Bongaon constituency and a representative of the crucial Matua community of South Bengal. Thakur, 38, is the grandson of Binapani Devi popularly known as Boro Maa, the matriarch of the Matua Mahasangha.
Matua is the second biggest of the sub-groups of Scheduled Castes in West Bengal, comprising 17.4% of the overall SC population in the state.
After becoming the MP in 2019, Thakur consistently advocated for citizenship based on religious identity, which helped BJP in consolidating Matua votes. Matuas are heavily dependent on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The community sided with the BJP in the last Lok Sabha and the recent assembly elections.
Earlier Thakur openly expressed his disappointment with the party’s position on the delay in rolling-out of the CAA. However, he never jumped ship. During the West Bengal assembly election, he accompanied Prime Minister Modi to Orakandi, Bangladesh, where he paid respects to Harichand Thakur, the founder of Matuas. Orakandi is the birthplace of Harichand Thakur.
The Matuas are a closely-knit group in the state belonging to the Namashudra (Dalit/SC) community, who migrated from Bangladesh during and after Partition.
In assembly election 2021, BJP won 11 of 14 Matua dominated seats which fall under Bongaon and Ranaghat Lok Sabha constituencies. In Shantanu Thakur’s Bongaon constituency, BJP won six of the seven assembly segments.
Pramanik, 35, defected from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) two months before the last parliamentary election. He is a representative of the Rajbanshi community, the largest sub-groups of the ST community in West Bengal, comprising around 18% of the overall SC Population in the state.
He won the Coach Behar Lok Sabha seat in North Bengal and since then BJP has steadfastly grown in the district. The saffron party bagged seven of the nine assembly seats in the Cooch Behar district in the recent assembly elections.
In the last assembly polls, BJP fielded Pramanik from Dinhata seat in Cooch Behar and he secured a win for the saffron by 57 votes. However, he resigned as an MLA to keep his membership in the parliament.
Pramanik was known to be close to Mukul Roy. Roy returned to TMC on June 11, after spending 44 months in BJP and serving as a national vice president. He had been unhappy with BJP leadership for a while and looking to switch.
In a major setback to the saffron party, the TMC has also taken control of the Bhetaguri I gram panchayat in Dinhata Block in Cooch Behar where the BJP won seven out of nine assembly seats. Apart from this many BJP workers are joining TMC in various administrative blocks of Cooch Behar.
A local BJP leader from the region earlier told The Wire, “I strongly believe this couldn’t have been done without Nisith’s (Pramanik) involvement. We have information that he got in touch with some senior leader in TMC.”
A political analyst, who wishes not to be named, told The Wire, “BJP’s strategy is to hold its ground in North Bengal against Mamata Banerjee, and to ensure that it does not lose ground, the party rewarded Pramanik and Barla.”
Barla is the MP from Alipurduar and was formerly a tea garden union leader with a grassroots-level connections with the tribal electorate. He started his political career in 2007 by joining the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP).
Before joining BJP in 2014, Barla actively worked for Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
BJP has made substantial inroads in Alipurduar district and most of the credit goes to Barla’s organisational workers there. Even though TMC swept the Bengal election by winning 213 seats, BJP managed to win all five seats from the Alipurduars district.
Two weeks ago, Barla was all over the news as he demanded a separate state or Union Territory carved out of North Bengal, alleging that the region “lacked development” over the years.
The BJP, however, distanced itself from Barla’s comment. Party state president Dilip Ghosh said, “The MP’s views are not in line with the party’s. MPs are talking out of frustration because of lack of development in the region, and the atrocities BJP workers are facing post-election.”
TMC leaders have filed several police complaints against Barla for demanding a separate state or a UT status for North Bengal which may lead to a law-and-order situation.
TMC leader and Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy then told the media, “The people of the state will further isolate the BJP because of its demands calling for the division of Bengal.”
Demands for division or bifurcation of West Bengal have a long history. Carving out a new state or UT has always been a sensitive issue especially because of the decades-long demand of Gorkhaland raised by the political parties of Darjeeling.
Rajbanshi and the other tribal communities, such as Kamtapuri, have been demanding an identity-based representation and the induction of Pramanik and Barla could be seen as the BJP’s strategy to hold its ground in North Bengal by keeping these sentiments alive.
Sarkar’s induction to the council of ministers comes as a surprise to many. The 76-year-old Sarkar is a gynaecologist by profession and has been associated with RSS for decades.
Sarkar contested on BJP’s ticket in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and 2016 assembly election. Both times he lost. He won the Bankura parliamentary seat in 2019.
He is a man of few words but has effectively strengthened the party in the Bankura district. In the assembly election, BJP won eight of 12 seats in the Bankura district.
Soon after the new minister’s list became public, BJP MP from Bishnupur, Saumitra Khan resigned from the position of state youth wing president. Khan slammed BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari and said, “Every few days, he (Adhikari) visits Delhi and manipulates the top leadership. He thinks only he has sacrificed for the party and others have not done anything. I have been sidelined because of my views against the BJP Central leadership.”
In less than five hours, Khan retracted his resignation and said, “I take the opportunity to inform that under the instruction of our BJP leaders B.L. Santhosh Ji, Amit Shah Ji, and Tejasvi Surya Ji, I withdraw my resignation as a mark of respect.”
BJP MP and former minister Babul Supriyo announced his resignation on Wednesday afternoon and said he was asked to resign. In a post on Facebook, the former MoS said, “I am surely sad for myself” but at the same time “extremely happy” that he left the stint “without a spot of corruption…”