Is the BJP Losing Momentum in Bengal?

Is the BJP Losing Momentum in Bengal? 

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya : 

Kolkata: On May 6, during Union home minister Amit Shah’s roadshow in support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in West Bengal’s Krishnanagar Lok Sabha, a journalist asked Shah about the sting operation video that dropped like a bomb amidst the election campaign just two days ago.

In the video, Gangadhar Koyal, a BJP leader from Sandeshkhali, is purportedly seen admitting to how the party misled local women to file false rape complaints against Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders under instructions and guidance from the Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari.

Kayal admitted that the person seen was him and the voice was his, but alleged that the video had been edited and the words’ contexts changed. Adhikari alleged the video was created using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and could also be a product of “deep fake” technology. Both demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the ‘sting operation’.

However, Shah did not comment on the video. He told the journalist, “Mamata Banerjee should make one thing clear – does she consider Shajahan Sheikh innocent? She should first clarify this.”

A few hours later, Shah addressed a public rally in Bardhaman district. He tore into Sheikh but maintained complete silence on the video. This prompted the TMC to ask whether the BJP central leadership knew its local leaders had hatched the conspiracy.

Sheikh is a controversial TMC leader from Sandeshkhali who is currently in the custody of the CBI along with two of his close associates – Uttam Sardar and Shibaprasad Hazra – for alleged involvement in a scam and orchestrating an attack on an Enforcement Directorate (ED) team that was going to raid his residence.

As Sheikh went into hiding after the attack on ED officers, local residents, including opposition party supporters and disgruntled TMC workers, started staging agitations demanding his arrest. Hundreds of people, especially women, alleged that they were victims of Sheikh and his aides’ high-handedness, terror and corrupt practices. But the agitations took a new turn when some women started alleging sexual harassment.

Since then, the BJP has carried out a high-pitched campaign accusing the TMC of allowing Muslims to rape and molest Hindu women en masse.

If the sting video dropped like a bomb, more came following. In one video, Rekha Patra, the BJP candidate from Basirhat – of which Sandeshkhali is a part –is seen accusing the BJP of taking “fake victims” to Rashtrapati Bhavan for submitting a complaint to President Droupadi Murmu. Patra herself claims to be a victim.

In this video, she is seen standing next to local BJP leader Piyali alias Mampi Das and they both make the same allegation. This video was likely shot before the BJP named Patra as its candidate. “How dare he (Anup Das, local BJP leader) take to the president ma’am unknown people, passing them off as Sandeshkhali’s victims?” Patra asks in the video.

Then, in yet another video, three women are seen alleging that the BJP’s Piyali Das made them sign blank papers for submitting complaints before National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma, who came to visit Sandeshkhali.

“It was only after we received a notice from the police that we came to know that we have complained of rape. This is false. Nothing of that sort happened with us,” said one woman.

Another woman said they had other complaints like non-payment of MGNREGA work dues and payment for cooking for local TMC leaders. But Piyali Das allegedly got them to sign blank papers and included rape charges in the complaint that they submitted to the police and the NCW on the complainants’ behalf.

Notably, the original sting video has the same allegations – women who came to the BJP with other complaints against Sheikh and his associates were either asked to sign blank papers or complaints written in English, which the complainants did not understand.

“We want Das to be punished for dragging us into her conspiracy and harassing and defaming us,” said the relative of an elderly woman, alleging her aged in-law never suffered any sexual harassment.

These two women subsequently applied to the police seeking to withdraw the rape charges and demanding action against Das.

This series of videos has left the BJP visibly embarrassed. Recently, when the media asked Patra about the allegations, her security guards promptly stopped the interview.

Even during the submission of her nomination on May 9, she skipped all questions by journalists on the videotapes. Piyali Das accompanied her but remained tightlipped.

But Sandeshkhali is not the only embarrassment that has troubled the BJP in the middle of the election campaign. Governor C.V. Ananda Bose, who has followed his predecessor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s tradition of acting as the state government’s critic, faces a molestation charge.

A casual worker at the Raj Bhavan has complained to the police accusing Bose of molestation. Bose alleged it was a political conspiracy to malign him and deter him from criticising the state government. To prevent the state police from investigating the charges, he invoked the immunity from criminal procedures that the President and state Governors enjoy.

The two issues have blunted one of the BJP’s main campaign themes in West Bengal in this election – that chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s rule has turned Bengal into a nightmare for women.

In one video released by the TMC on social media platforms, Adhikari is seen losing his temper and hurling abuses at a group of women who were blaming the BJP for the “Sandeshkhali conspiracy” using microphones from an agitation venue.

Adhikari has stopped commenting on the video. Whenever journalists ask, all he says is that TMC all-India general secretary, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee has orchestrated all these with the help of the political consultancy firm Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), which the TMC has employed since 2019.

When the Sandeshkhali agitation was at its peak in February, BJP workers on social media platforms shared one video clip after another showing women accusing TMC of terror and torture. In May, TMC workers are flooding social media platforms with video clips from Sandeshkhali.

The change 

“It seems that the state’s ruling party’s confidence over their electoral prospects has significantly increased from the time the campaign started,” political scientist Sibaji Pratim Basu told The Wire. “The BJP has conceded ground from the time the campaign started.”

He pointed out that the TMC has found relief from two issues causing them great discomfort – the allegations of mass sexual harassment in Sandeshkhali and the school recruitment scam, even though a temporary relief in the case of the latter.

He added that the way Governor Bose invoked immunity to prevent an investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment has also tarnished his image. “Even though he is not part of any political party, in public perception he represents the Union government,” said Basu, a professor at Vidyasagar University in West Midnapore district.

The school recruitment scam, which has been troubling the TMC since September 2021, came as a major blow to the state government in the middle of the electoral campaign. On April 23, the Calcutta high court dismissed 25,753 teachers from their services, saying that the court found segregating the eligible from the ineligible was not feasible.

The court also asked the CBI to investigate the role of the state cabinet and take steps as they deem fit.

The state government, however, has got temporary relief from the Supreme Court, which has restrained the CBI from acting against the cabinet during the election and stayed the loss of jobs of the eligible candidates till the next hearing in July.

While substantial public resentment has been visible over the scam, the high court order left people divided. Many could not agree with the court’s proposition of taking away 20,000-odd rightful jobs for 5,000-odd ineligible and illegal beneficiaries. Parents were also concerned about the fate of their children preparing for class X and class XII exams if so many teachers lost their jobs in one go.

The TMC, in addition, used two comments by BJP leaders to turn the tide against the BJP. Adhikari had said a few days ago that a bomb waiting to explode would shatter the TMC the next week. On the eve of the high court verdict, BJP leader Sanmoy Banerjee wrote on Facebook that he felt bad for the 25,753 teachers who were going to lose their jobs the day after.

Following the verdict, chief minister Banerjee, her nephew Abhishek, and other top leaders of the party alleged that the BJP knew the order in advance because they dictated it. The TMC portrayed the BJP as a party that was after people’s jobs.

To this purpose, the party cited how Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay gave a series of orders against the state government and made a series of political remarks from his chair, only to join the BJP formally when the elections knocked on the door.

Gangopadhyay, before whose bench the recruitment scam hearing started in September 2021, resigned from the high court in March, joined the BJP and is contesting from Tamluk Lok Sabha.

Basu pointed out that several acts of BJP leaders are backfiring. The job loss happened just after Adhikari predicted an explosion. “This is creating a public perception that the BJP is trying to rob people of their jobs,” he said.

Similarly, issues like the Centre withholding payment of MGNREGA work and the complexities in the Citizenship Amendment Rules (CAA) are going against the BJP, he felt.

According to political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, the BJP’s condition in West Bengal has turned unfavourable relative to how it looked some time ago.

“The TMC was on the back foot regarding Sandeshkhali but now they are on the front foot. They are creating a public perception that the BJP is after people’s jobs. The BJP’s local leadership has not been able to fight the perception battle properly,” said Chakraborty, a professor at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.

He pointed out that the national election has no central issue this time and the impact of the BJP’s pet issues like the Ram Temple inauguration has faded.

“The BJP hoped a prolonged election would help them, as Modi will get time to focus sufficiently on every state. However, it seems to actually benefit the opposition, as the resistance from the regional forces is getting tougher with time. This is happening in other states as also West Bengal,” he said.

Elections for West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats are being held in seven phases.

In 2019, in a four-corner contest, the TMC won 22, while the BJP bagged 18 seats and the Congress won two. This time, the contest is three-cornered, as the Left and the Congress have tied up.

source : The Wire 

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