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Amit Shah's Birbhum rally to launch BJP's poll campaign in Bengal

BJP's 'best-ever vote-strategist' has lined up back-to-back meetings with party leaders to rejuvenate a state unit that has remained largely ineffective in taking on the Trinamul Congress head-on

Sougata Mukhopadhyay Calcutta Published 13.04.23, 11:03 AM
Union home minister Amit Shah being garlanded during a rally at Shaheed Minar Ground in Calcutta on March 1, 2020.

Union home minister Amit Shah being garlanded during a rally at Shaheed Minar Ground in Calcutta on March 1, 2020. File picture

  • Union Home Minister Amit Shah arrives in West Bengal on a two-day visit to the state, reports PTI

It took home minister Amit Shah 11 months to plan a trip to Bengal as a political leader. The last time Shah was in the state to address a political rally and preside over party meetings was in May, 2022 when the leader held a public meeting in Siliguri and reached the residence of a BJP worker in Cossipore, north Calcutta, whose unnatural death by hanging had initially created a political dust up. That was Shah’s first trip to Bengal since the 2021 assembly polls.

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In December last year, Shah came to Calcutta and also paid his maiden visit to the state BJP headquarters on Muralidhar Sen Lane in central Calcutta where he interacted with state leaders of the party. But that trip was primarily made in his capacity as the Union home minister to attend the Eastern Zonal Security Council meet of chief ministers at the state secretariat, Nabanna, where Shah also had a 10-minute aside with Mamata Banerjee. Evidently, Shah’s visit to the party office the evening before was possible because the leader managed to fit that in his scheduled official trip.

It is in this context that Shah’s two-day visit to the state on Bengali New Year’s-eve (Friday) assumes significance for more reasons than one. First, this would be a political tour for the leader through and through. On Day One, he is scheduled to address a public rally from Suri in Birbhum which is one of the state’s most volatile political hotspots. Shah is expected to sound the BJP poll bugle in Bengal in the wake of the upcoming panchayat elections and the crucial general elections next year.

Secondly, and no less important perhaps, are the back-to-back inner party meetings which the former BJP president is scheduled to hold both in Birbhum and in Calcutta during his two-day stay before he flies off to Maharashtra. Consolidation of the party's functioning in the state and strategizing for the two vastly different electoral challenges that lay ahead for the local BJP leaders are certainly on the cards.

With Anubrata out of the way...

There’s no real surprise, though, in Shah’s choosing Birbhum to kick start an election campaign in the state which he would have to sustain for at least a year, much like he did for the high-stakes assembly polls of 2021. With Trinamul Congress strongman from the district, Anubrata Mondal, currently tucked away in the Tihar jail for his alleged involvement in the multi-crore cattle smuggling case, Birbhum is believed to have opened up politically. The BJP has been targeting the district for quite sometime now and the party sees an opportunity it never found before. If a battle cry has to be sounded, then the air of Birbhum has to be shattered first. Or so, the party believes.

But there’s also an additional message that the home minister would perhaps want to deliver against the state’s ruling Trinamul dispensation which is currently mired in corruption controversies. Shah, obviously, wants to take on Mamata Banerjee directly from a district for which she herself has assumed political charge on behalf of the TMC in the wake of Mondal’s absence. Aiming directly for Banerjee from her own fortress would sweeten the job for Shah, political observers feel.

That said, Shah would also be expected to publicly justify how the party is targeting 25 seats from Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls while improving upon its tally of 18 seats in 2019 despite licking wounds after its disappointing performance in 2021.

Nationwide Pravas campaign

“There are 144 Lok Sabha constituencies across the country where the BJP came second by a narrow margin last time. The party has launched a nation-wide Pravaas campaign to target those seats and make good our deficiencies this time. We lost 24 seats in Bengal last time. Amit Shah and our president JP Nadda would hold 12 public rallies at each of those seats. Birbhum is the first such rally for Shah. Others would soon follow. Naddaji has already held three rallies in the state. We are targeting those seats where our loss margin was 1.5 lakh votes or less,” said Jagannath Chattopadhyay, general secretary, Bengal BJP, who contested from Suri in 2021 state polls and lost.

“Birbhum has witnessed large scale post poll violence and we have been countering Trinamul’s strong arm tactics in the region for a while to strengthen our political foothold. Amit Shah has personally chosen the district to launch his campaign in Bengal because he wants to lead the party from the front where political attacks on us are the worst,” Chattopadhyay added.

Observers closing tracking the state unit of BJP, however, feel that Shah would equally utilize the trip to try and hold party reins in his hands to bring it back on track given the organizational shortcomings it still suffers from. The 11-month absence from Bengal’s political domain, despite previous promises of frequent visits to the state, could be a reflection of “disappointment” of the BJP’s central leadership with their state counterparts, they say.

Why Nadda stayed away

BJP president JP Nadda choosing to stay away from the party’s state executive meeting in Durgapur in January this year despite being in Bengal and holding a public meeting at Bethuadahari in Nadia 48 hours before the commencement of the former hadn’t failed to attract the attention of observers who considered the move significant.

Lack of harmony among top BJP leaders of the state, their differences often getting played out in public domains, and less than satisfactory results in achieving targets for booth consolidation programmes ahead of the panchayat polls have only added to the party’s heart burns as far as its Bengal report card is concerned, these observers opine.

That’s perhaps why stronger messages may come at the inner-party meetings which Shah is scheduled to hold, first with district leaders in Birbhum, and subsequently with state leaders at his hotel in Calcutta. “Shah, I believe, has no choice but to increase his visit frequencies to this state if he wants to keep the BJP on the right political track here,” an observer said.

'Will not repeat mistakes'

Admitting that party’s inner shortcomings are likely to remain the key focus of those meetings, BJP state spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said: “We are expecting directives to come on what we need to do to overcome our lacunae.”

“There has not been a bigger vote-strategist in post-Independent India than Amit Shah. He predicted 23 seats for us last time which most people did not believe. We stopped at 18 seats because of some shortcomings at our end. We would be careful not to repeat those mistakes this time and our count for 2024 would begin from 24 seats,” he added.

Unwilling to attach too much importance to Shah’s visit, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said: “Shah’s visit is good news to us. He paid many visits to Bengal ahead of 2021 polls and we won a landslide victory. The more he comes to Bengal, the more he will widen the Trinamul Congress’s winning margin over the BJP.”

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