West Bengal: How the defection from TMC to BJP affect the state polls?

Suvendu Adhikari

Dinesh Trivedi, former railway minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader declared his resignation from the upper house of the Parliament on February 12, alleging that he felt ‘suffocated’ within the party. On the very next day, he expressed his gratitude on the offer to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the opposition that has currently spiralled into the spotlight in Bengal’s political centre stage. However, he has asked for some time to settle down first. Should he choose to deflect to the saffron party, he would be the latest addition to the exodus of past TMC leaders who have done so in the last few months.

Close to fifty TMC members have already joined the ranks of its prime opposition upto two months before the polls. This includes extremely prominent TMC strongmen like Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee, who were always seen to be Mamata Banerjee’s close aides. Other prominent MPs to have followed suit include Mukul Roy, Sovan Chatterjee and Mihir Goswami. Experts are of the opinion that the number might further increase in the lead-up to the election scheduled to be in April-May this year. 

Adding to already strained centre-state ties, coupled with shifting loyalties within her own party, and the growing popularity of BJP, people in the poll-bound state doubt how it might turn out for Mamata Banerjee. That the TMC was showing signs of weakness and failing to harness the loyalty of the people first became evident in the 2018 Panchayat elections. The BJP, which was still a burgeoning party and did not even have a proper organisation back then, came second to the ruling party. This was followed by the 2019 general elections, where BJP made its in-road into the state by grabbing nearly half the seats, as compared to only two seats in the previous one. It was around then that the turncoats started appearing first, and went on to increase in numbers as it drew closer to the assembly polls in two years time. This begs the question as to how far such defections within the party might affect the polls, and the electoral benefits or disadvantages associated with it.

While the senior members including chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee have attempted to hold discussions to address discrepancies within the faction, such defections continued to take place. In addition, the influx of influential Bengal politicians into their ranks has been greatly benefiting the BJP as they were lacking familiar faces and still don’t have a projecting face as the chief minister. After the last assembly elections that took place in 2016, the BJP had only three MLAs. But the recent exodus has now granted the party with more than 20 MLAs, which also includes resigned legislators Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee. Experts estimate that leaders like Adhikari and Banerjee, who were prominent TMC faces from the very inception of the party itself, might indeed help turn some seats in favour of the BJP. 

Adhikari, for instance, is known for spearheading the 2007 anti-land acquisition movement in Nandigram that allowed Mamata Bannerjee to leapfrog into the limelight of Bengal politics. He later went on to become the party-in charge of Paschim Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura districts where he not only expanded the party base considerably, but also single handedly turned these parts into TMC strongholds. Similarly, Rajib Banerjee, who holds considerable sway over the district of Howrah, might also help the BJP attain a few more seats in this respect. But defectors like Banasree Maity and Baishali Dalmia, are likely to have negligible contribution in terms of turning votes, according to experts. This is because unlike heavyweights like Adhikari and Banerjee, they were voted in last time owing to the massive popularity of the Mamata Banerjee wave. 

On the other hand, there is also the possibility that these defections might not have a paradigm-shifting impact with regard to TMC’s vote bank either, according to a former student of Jadavpur University. She mentioned that TMC has always been conducting elections by banking on the all-encompassing appeal of Mamata Banerjee, and this time is no different in this regard. 

However, even though Banerjee still holds sway over the state, the TMC seems to be slipping out of her grasp. 

“The mass defections, while operating on a political level, are also personal in the sense that they highlight how the tide has been slowly and gradually turning away from Mamata Banerjee post 2016”, said a person who works with the Indian Action Political Committee (I-PAC), on the condition of anonymity. It is an agency that was set up by Prashant Kishor, who is currently the state’s chief poll strategist and is working closely with TMC to help regain lost ground before the election. 

The person at I-PAC mentioned that Kishor and his team at I-PAC have been actively conducting grass-root level surveys, implementing a number of schemes and are setting up camps in various districts to address issues within the state.

On the other hand, almost all the defecting leaders, including Trivedi last Friday, have cited they are not being able to work or function properly within the party. The I-PAC has evidently also been a bone of contention within the TMC. It was around the time that Kishor was inducted into the state in June 2019 to help turn the game around after the general elections, that leaders first started deserting the party. 

At the same time, Both Kishor and Abhishek Banerjee, who invited him to work with TMC in the first place, are confident that Mamata Banerjee would successfully retain a third term. Kishor took to Twitter to claim that BJP will struggle to cross double digits in the polls, alleging that he would quit Twitter in the event that he gets proven wrong. Banerjee too had gone on record during a public meeting in South 24 Parganas district to say that his party would easily win over 250 seats, and that the BJP would fail to do so.

Srijita Datta is a journalist and photographer based in Kolkata, West Bengal.