A vendor waits for customers at his stall selling decorative items ahead of Christmas celebrations in Siliguri, West Bengal, on Dec. 22. The state has seen legislators from Trinamool Congress defect to the BJP. (Photo: AFP)
The political one-upmanship being acted out in India is unique, and it only gives a much sharper edge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The recent mass defections in Trinamool Congress, a regional party in West Bengal state in eastern India, marks the weakening of its secularist leader Mamata Banerjee, who has been steadfastly opposing Modi's policies.
As many as six state legislators quit Banerjee's party on Dec. 19 and joined the BJP ahead of the fast-approaching state polls of summer 2021. The BJP expects to mount a major challenge to the state party, which enjoys considerable support among Muslims.
In the 2016 state elections, the BJP won only six seats in the 294-seat state legislature. But in little more than a year, as many as 18 legislative members have joined the BJP, 15 from Trinamool and three from the communists.
Banerjee, popularly known as Didi or elder sister, has been a staunch opponent of Modi and his open tilt towards Hindu groups seeking to establish Hindu hegemony.
In the 2019 national elections, Banerjee had been one of the chief contenders for the prime minister's post. But that became an altogether different story when the BJP won a landslide, returning Modi for a second term.
While the BJP is projected to be ignoring the interests of non-Hindus such as Christians and Muslims, Banerjee's party has been respected for its Muslim-friendly approach.
However, the defection of prominent leaders, including a few Muslims from Trinamool (grassroots) Congress to the BJP, is expected to change West Bengal’s political equations. The BJP has been struggling to have a foothold in the state.
West Bengal has traditionally been a communist bastion where both Congress and the BJP had no base. Communists ruled the state for 34 years until 2011, when Banerjee, a firebrand spinster, ousted the Marxist-led government.
"Lately, the BJP's sectarian agenda has made waves, and the Modi-led party has made deeper penetration, throwing communists and others into the periphery," says educationist Manu Saha.
Thousands attended BJP heavyweight and Home Minister Amit Shah's roadshows on Dec. 19 and 20, making many believe the BJP is poised to wrest power in the erstwhile communist bastion.
Besides the legislators, at least 50 top Trinamool Congress and communists joined the BJP at a public function attended by Shah, a close lieutenant of Modi.
"What is important is that Mamata Banerjee is being deserted and showing glimpses of what will be the outcome. Most of them, including unhappy communists and even Muslim leaders, are joining the BJP. It means is our victory is certain next year," senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya told the media.
Many disgruntled leaders, including some who left Trinamool, allege that Banerjee has been promoting her nephew Abhishek Banerjee, ignoring seniors in the party.
However, Trinamool leaders say their party is stronger now. Madan Mitra, a senior Trinamool leader, said his party would host a function to thank the "traitors" who left and made the party "free of virus."
"There will be no brokers between the BJP and Trinamool. Now it will be a straight fight," he said.
Trinamool leaders like Roba Sen say the BJP, with its sectarian politics, will not make an impact because "secularism is crucial in West Bengal, where 27 to 28 percent voters are Muslims."
According to local observers, the BJP's financial clout and capacity to exercise political authority from New Delhi have also contributed to the defection saga.
Shah, seen as the second most powerful leader in India after Modi, welcomed the defectors. "By the time the election comes next year, Trinamool’s supremo will be left alone," he told the gathering.
While governance gets neglected or ignored amid the spreading Covid-19 pandemic and increasing economic doldrums, Modi and Shah are keeping their focus on electoral victory, and the fresh Bengal saga is a clear testimony to it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.