Due to defections, the Opposition shrinking in Bengal

Kolkata: With BJP MLA from Kaliganj in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur Soumen Roy on Saturday joining the Trinamool Congress, the number of BJP MLAs who have defected to the ruling party has risen to four in the past four months since the bitterly contested Assembly polls.

Other than the defection of Mukul Roy, who switched sides in June, the defections of Tanmoy Ghosh, MLA from Bishnupur; Biswajit Das, MLA from Bagda and Soumen Roy has taken place over just the last seven days.

These defections reflect a bigger issue of West Bengal politics — that of the disappearing Opposition in the State.

Defection as a political phenomenon was never as commonplace in Bengal as it has been since Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011. In the first term of the Trinamool Congress government (2011- 2016), 23 MLAs from the opposition parties — 17 from Congress and six from the Left Front — joined the ruling party.

The Trinamool Congress and the Congress had contested the 2011 Assembly polls together and had defeated the 34-year Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government. Defections began to rise after the Congress and TMC alliance fell apart in September 2012; and within a couple of months senior Congress leaders from the Congress bastions of Malda and Murshidabad had joined the TMC.

Between 2016 and 2021, 18 Congress and four Left MLAs had switched sides to join the ruling party. This has led to a situation described by political observers as the “shrinking Opposition space” in West Bengal, where not only MLAs, but also councillors and gram panchayat members have jumped ship in large numbers.

Senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who was Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly from 2016 to 2021, said that during the Left regime, there were no attempts to make elected public representatives switch political loyalties.

“In certain areas, the Opposition faced huge challenge from the Left but after winning there was no such attempts neither at the level of gram panachayats nor at Assembly level,” Mr. Mannan said. He added that it was because of the ideological position of the Left that it did not poach on leaders from other parties.

Senior leaders like Mr. Mannan feel that defection of large numbers of MLAs was one of the reasons the marginalised position of the Congress in West Bengal. Both Left parties and Congress have not been able to win a single seat in the 2021 Assembly polls.

No disqualifications
Despite several MLAs having defected over the last few years, there has been no action taken against any of them under the anti-defection law. The most talked-about defection was that of former CPI(M) MLA Dipali Biswas where 23 hearings were held for her disqualification, but no decision could be taken, and the term of the Assembly expired.

In almost all the cases, MLAs who switched to the ruling party remained legislators of their previous party on paper, though they continued to work very blatantly for the ruling party. An interesting example witnessed in the current Assembly session is that of Mukul Roy who has defected to TMC and was elected as chairperson of Public Accounts Committee as an Opposition MLA.

Leader of Opposition and BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, who has issued legal notices to defecting BJP MLAs has, however, insisted that the situation this time will not be like previous assemblies.

“The political parties in Opposition in the past were not serious about defection. We will not allow people to get away with defections,” Mr. Adhikari said.