Kolkata: The Narendra Modi government’s decision to induct four new faces from Bengal in the PM’s Council of Ministers reiterates the BJP’s caste calculation in the state with regards to the 2024 general election.
Of the BJP’s 18 MPs in the state, PM Modi picked a representative of the Matua community, a tea garden union leader with strong ties to the tribal population in North Bengal, a Rajbanshi leader who held Coochbehar for the party during the assembly election, and an old BJP hand, representing Jangalmahal’s Bankura Lok Sabha seat.
Santanu Thakur (39 years), John Barla (45 years), Nisith Pramanik (35 years) and Subhas Sarkar (67 years) are representatives of the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities in the state. Two of them, Pramanik and Barla, were turncoats who joined the BJP before the 2019 general election.
While Pramanik defected from the Trinamool Congress, Barla used to head the Adivasi Vikash Parishad (AVP), a non-political organisation for the tribal population in North Bengal. AVP later joined hands with Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in 2016 and was part of Trinamool’s larger alliance in North Bengal.
Speaking to The Print, Dilip Ghosh, BJP’s state president, said the party had chosen “young faces” who represent marginalised communities.
“Modi ji always works with representatives from all communities. He has chosen the young faces from the state … all of them represent marginalised communities like Matua, Rajbanshi and tribal population. The decision will strengthen our organisation in the state.”
In the recently held West Bengal assembly election, the BJP didn’t manage to unseat Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Despite months of targeted campaigning, including high-profile visits from PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP secured 77 of the 292 seats, while the Trinamool Congress won 213 seats.
Matuas, numbering close to 2 crore, account for about 20 per cent of Bengal’s population. They are spread over five districts, including North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Howrah and Dinajpur (north and south). In at least 30 constituencies — across North 24 Parganas, Nadia and some parts of Howrah in south Bengal — the Matuas, on average, comprise over 40 to 50 per cent of the region’s population.
In North Bengal, which has around a dozen assembly seats, refugee Hindus from Bangladesh live here. Primarily SCs, they include Matuas and other namosudhras, the underprivileged classes in the Hindu caste system.
With Santanu Thakur in the Union cabinet, Modi government is hoping to clinch the support of Matuas, which dwindled during the assembly election that took place earlier this year. The BJP lost over a dozen seats in the south Bengal region that has a high Matua population.
Of the 32 seats across North 24 Parganas and Nadia, where Matuas are the deciding or dominating factor, the BJP won 12 and the remaining 20 went to the ruling Trinamool Congress.
The Rajbanshis are a numerically smaller group that partly comprises of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. However, Nisith Pramanik, a representative of the community, supported the BJP in the state polls. The party won nine of 11 seats dominated by this Dalit community in North Bengal.
“I was never told by anyone that I will be given a cabinet berth. I worked for the party and I will keep doing it. I am glad that I will be able to do more for my community and for all living in Coochbehar,” Pramanik told The Print from Delhi.
A surprise entry, the clean image factor
Barla’s induction was a surprise for many. A tribal MP from Alipurduar, he had raised the demand of a separate Union territory to be carved out from four districts of North Bengal. He further alleged there had been “atrocities and inaction” by the state. Barla’s demands had caused significant tension amid party ranks.
“Barla was warned by the central leadership after he raised such separatist demands, which was not supported by the party. But, he holds his base and he has a significant influence over 100 tea gardens in the area and the tribal population there,” said a senior BJP leader.
Subhas Sarkar is among the state BJP leaders with a ‘clean’ image. A doctor by profession, Sarkar has been vocal about the issues being faced by the tribal and Dalit population in Jangalmahal’s Bankura region, said a senior BJP leader.
“We were asked for recommendations from the PMO. We made a list of persons who have been working relentlessly for marginalised people in the state,” said another senior leader of the party.
However, not all party leaders are happy with the selection.
Soumitra Khan, an MP from Jangalmahal region, had been camping in Delhi ahead of the cabinet reshuffle. Khan, who was BJP’s Bengal Yuva Morcha president, criticised the role of state unit chief Ghosh in a Facebook Live video after he was dropped from the list of probables. He also criticised Suvendu Adhikari, who is the Leader of the Opposition in the Bengal legislative assembly.
Khan quit his post but said he would not leave the party. Ghosh said his behaviour was an instance of “frustration led indiscipline”.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)