ONE NIGHT IN April 2019, at a nondescript hotel in a bylane of north Bengal’s Cooch Behar, three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders—National General Secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, Joint General Secretary (Organisation) Shiv Prakash and National Secretary Arvind Menon—discussed the party’s political strategy for West Bengal. A narrow staircase led to a 10×10 feet room, the only available one in the heat of Lok Sabha elections. They were meeting local leaders, taking feedback and giving instructions. At about 8PM, BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha seat in Cooch Behar, Nisith Pramanik, who had quit Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) just about a month earlier, walked in after spending the day sitting on a dharna outside the district magistrate’s office demanding that Central forces be deployed at all booths. The leaders, concerned with the ‘outsider’ tag given to BJP by its rivals in a state where the Left and TMC have been in power since 1977, kept away from the limelight, projecting mainly Bengali faces.
Kailash Vijayvargiya was handpicked by Amit Shah to take charge of West Bengal. He has spared no opportunity in reaching out to the Hindu vote bank, accusing the state government of catering only to the Muslim population
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A few metres away, outside a heavily barricaded hotel where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was holding meetings with her party leaders, there was hectic activity. Her candidate Paresh Chandra Adhikari was earlier with the Forward Bloc, which had held a sway in Cooch Behar. Pramanik, a Rajbongshi, an influential community in the region, went on to win by a margin of 54,231 votes from the Cooch Behar seat, which falls along the Bangladesh border. BJP’s performance in north Bengal had surpassed even the expectations of these leaders who had worked on social combinations. Of the eight Lok Sabha seats in the region, the party won seven, losing Malda Dakshin by a little over 8,000 votes. Of the 42 seats in the state, BJP won 18, securing 40.78 per cent of the vote share, gaining from the collapse of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). TMC was down to 22 from 34, though its vote share rose by 3.5 per cent to about 43 per cent. In 2014, BJP had won just two seats, including one—Darjeeling—in north Bengal. In Cooch Behar, it had come third. The party’s performance had worsened in the 2016 Assembly election, with its vote share dropping from 17 per cent in the 2014 parliamentary elections to 10.3 per cent. The challenge before the leaders entrusted with Mission West Bengal had got bigger.
A lot had changed by 2019. The fight turned out to be between TMC and BJP, with the latter capturing the opposition space from the Left. Pramanik recalls how Vijayvargiya, who had been given charge of West Bengal over five years ago, Shiv Prakash, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak lent to the party in 2014 and Menon, made co-charge of the state in October 2018, were instrumental in getting him on board, like several others who quit TMC and joined BJP. While Vijayvargiya is from Indore in Madhya Pradesh (MP), Menon is originally from Kerala’s Guruvayur and Prakash from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Two years after the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP leaders are no longer worried about the ‘outsider’ label, which Pramanik dismisses as propaganda.
KAILASH VIJAYVARGIYA, handpicked by Amit Shah, who was party president in 2015, to take charge of West Bengal, is one of the few general secretaries to have retained the state they were given charge of in the reshuffled team after JP Nadda took over as BJP chief. The party wanted continuity, particularly in West Bengal, which Shah had made his next target after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Things had gone awry for Vijayvargiya in 2019 when his son Akash, a BJP legislator, publicly assaulted an official of the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC) with a cricket bat, protesting against the demolition of a dilapidated building by the IMC. Vijayvargiya’s attempts to defend his son had only added to his discomfiture, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party, had made his disapproval apparent without naming anyone. “I don’t care whose son was behind the incident, it was completely unwarranted and not acceptable,” Modi had said. However, this and some controversial statements by Vijayvargiya did not come in the way of the task cut out for him in West Bengal—to cash in on TMC’s Muslim ‘appeasement’.
To Tamil Nadu, BJP sent its firebrand leader from Karnataka, CT Ravi. He was given the challenging responsibility of building a vote bank for BJP which had managed just a 3.66 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the state
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Vijayvargiya has spared no opportunity in reaching out to the Hindu vote bank, accusing the state government of catering only to the 30 per cent Muslim population. Last year, after his vehicle came under attack in the state, his security was upgraded and he was given a bulletproof car, which was a respite for him after Modi’s admonishment. With neither a Lok Sabha ticket, after the six-time legislator gave up contesting Assembly elections to make way for his son, nor a Rajya Sabha seat, on the pretext of the party’s ‘one family, one ticket’ policy, Vijayvargiya has been spending most of his time in the state, returning home to Indore only for festivals. His office at the BJP headquarters in Delhi is always open to journalists between his frequent trips to West Bengal. He offers hot cups of green tea. At times, former TMC leader Mukul Roy—Vijayvargiya had played a prominent role in his move to BJP—is seen with him. The West Bengal results are likely to shape his political future.
THREE YEARS AGO, just about six months before the Lok Sabha elections, Shah had sent Arvind Menon, an organisation man, to focus on north Bengal and Tribal votes. Menon worked on the ground in his characteristic behind-the-scenes way, going to villages without security, connecting with people, telling them about Central schemes, promising change and conveying that BJP was there to protect them against political violence. “It will be chup chaap kamal chhaap (quietly vote for the lotus),” he tells Open, giving a spin to TMC’s “chup chap phule chhap (quietly vote for the flower)” slogan coined while taking on the Left. Menon, a BJP national secretary, was allegedly attacked by TMC workers at a hotel in Siliguri but he escaped with the help of Central forces. He continues to work unfazed, building the organisation from the grassroots, a strategy he is most known for, particularly in MP. Arvind was moved to Delhi in 2016. “My life revolves around puja and party. I go wherever the party asks me to go. It’s chalte raho pyare for me,” says Menon, whose political career had begun with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
A Malayali by birth, Bangla is one of the five Indian languages he can speak. He attributes it to his education in Kashi where he came across students from all over the country. Counting the alleged TMC scams “from A to Z”, he exudes confidence that the chief minister will herself lose from Nandigram. According to Menon, BJP is counting on a large section of women voters.
Arvind Menon, who speaks Bangla, went to villages without security, connected with people, told them about Central schemes, promised change and protection against political violence
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“Despite there being a woman chief minister, women are turning against Trinamool Congress. This Assembly election is Mamata versus janata (people),” he says.
SHIV PRAKASH—despite the heavy workload of states he is tasked to pay special attention to—has been focusing on West Bengal, one of BJP’s most ambitious projects. The party had to increase its vote share, reaching out to communities where there was a potential vote bank for it. He along with the team set up committees at most of the 78,000 original booths. A quintessential organisation man, he has kept a low profile. The UP Lok Sabha elections of 2014, for which Shah had given him charge of western UP, had provided Prakash with a clue as to why BJP could not surpass its vote share in West Bengal. BJP had swept UP. Prakash explored a similar formula of social engineering to woo the voters of the eastern state.
WHILE BJP’S SHARPEST focus is on West Bengal in the ongoing Assembly polls, it has left no stone unturned to strengthen its presence in other states, where too the party has never been in power. To Tamil Nadu, BJP sent its firebrand leader from Karnataka, CT Ravi, who was made general secretary last year. The four-time MLA from Chikmagalur, a seat from which Indira Gandhi had won the 1978 Lok Sabha by-election post-Emergency, quit as tourism minister in the BS Yediyurappa government to take up his new assignment. Ravi has had the challenging responsibility of building a vote bank for BJP which had managed just a 3.66 per cent vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Shiv Prakash helped set up committees at most of the 78,000 booths. The party’s performance in UP in 2014 had given him a clue as to why it could not earlier surpass its vote share in West Bengal
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Always seen with a vermilion teeka on his forehead, Ravi has often courted controversy with his comments. Last year, he advocated criminalising ‘love jihad’ in Karnataka. But in the hinterland he is known to connect with people, taking time off from Bengaluru to stay in villages. He was still a teenager when he had decided to join BJP. His political journey began at 14, when he participated in a farmers’ strike and got arrested. A year later, as a student leader, he led an agitation demanding buses for students going to colleges. He was arrested again. That was just the beginning. Ravi was at the forefront of several movements—freeing Datta Peetha from the name Bababudan Giri and giving back the right of worship to Hindus, the movement to hoist the national flag at the Idgah Maidan in Hubli, the “Kashmir chalo” project to, again, hoist the national flag. The Datta Peetha agitation, in which BJP’s Uma Bharti played a significant role, consolidated the Hindu votes in a seat that was a Congress stronghold till the early 1980s. The BJP leadership needed someone who could build the organisation in Tamil Nadu and consolidate a vote bank in a state dominated by Dravidian politics. Ravi roped in party functionaries from Karnataka to manage the campaign in Tamil Nadu. On the morning of polling day in Tamil Nadu, Ravi tweeted ‘Dear Tamil Makkal, you have a choice before You in today’s Tamil Nadu Elections DEVELOPMENT or DYNASTY. Choice is Yours’, taking on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the rival of BJP’s ally the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). BJP, which was bargaining for 40 of the 234 assembly seats, however had to settle for 20.
ANOTHER LEADER FROM Karnataka, BJP’s state unit vice president Nirmal Kumar Surana, had been busy trying to build momentum for the All India NR Congress-BJP alliance in Puducherry. The low-profile leader, who like Ravi is considered to have the backing of BJP General Secretary (Organisation) BL Santhosh, also a Kannadiga, was put in charge of Puducherry, a Union territory (UT) that sends just one member to Lok Sabha. That did not make it less challenging for Surana, who has lived in Puducherry since he was given charge in November. BJP, which did not have any elected representative in the 33-member Assembly (to which former Lt Governor Kiran Bedi had nominated three from the party), is hoping to form its first ever government, cashing in on the fall of the V Narayanasamy government and the anti-incumbency against Congress. This time, BJP has contested nine seats while the All India NR Congress put up 16 candidates and AIADMK five. As in Tamil Nadu, the Kannadiga leader has taken the help of party workers and ex-mayors from Karnataka. Besides, corporators of the Bengaluru civic body, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, worked in every constituency.
Nirmal Kumar Surana was busy trying to build momentum for the All India NR Congress-BJP alliance in Puducherry. BJP is hoping to form its first ever government in the Union territory
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When the results of the Assembly elections are declared on May 2nd, these rainmakers for BJP will know where they will be headed next.