The first time it was happenstance. The second time it entailed a bit of reflection. But opportunism dictated Babul Supriyo’s decisions to join politics on two occasions: the first on February 28, 2014, when Narendra Modi and the BJP beckoned. The second was on September 18, 2021, when Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) seemed more attractive than the BJP.
On Saturday, when Supriyo, a BJP MP from Asansol, West Bengal, quit the BJP to embrace the TMC in the company of Abhishek Banerjee, Diamond Harbour MP and the party’s general secretary, and Derek O’Brien, Rajya Sabha MP and an old friend of Supriyo, he tangentially admitted to being opportunistic. “If the opportunity comes your way, you should decide and I have decided to take this (opportunity).”
Supriyo’s first big break tumbled in fortuitously, on an aircraft to be precise. Already a celebrity playback singer and a chartbuster in Bollywood, in February 2014, he was seated next to the yoga evangelist Baba Ramdev on a flight. In a tell-all piece he wrote subsequently for a Bangla daily, Supriyo claimed he heard Ramdev discuss the BJP’s ticket distribution for the Lok Sabha polls on phone and piped in to say he too wanted a ticket and if the yoga guru wouldn’t get it for him, he “will tell the world how you are giving tickets to persons”. Spill the beans. It was a veiled threat. Ramdev swung his candidacy in weeks and Supriyo was given the Asansol Lok Sabha seat, which has a good Hindi-speaking population and he spoke Hindi fluently.
From the start, it was apparent that the BJP was fairly in awe of Supriyo’s celebrity status and fandom. Modi campaigned for him and he won, defeating the TMC’s Dola Sen. The BJP laid out the red carpet for Supriyo. For a lateral entrant and a greenhorn MP, he was inducted into Prime Minister Modi’s ministerial council as a junior minister in the urban development and housing ministry with M Venkaiah Naidu as the senior minister. He won again in 2019, this time vanquishing film star Moon Sen of the TMC in Asansol. He again made it to the government but as a junior minister that reportedly irked him because he ostensibly believed a second win entitled him to cabinet status. Luck didn’t stay for long with Supriyo.
He was dropped in the July ministerial overhaul but he was clearly peeved and like most famous men, acted up, saying he was resigning as an MP and leaving politics. The BJP brass intervened and persuaded him to remain an MP which he did. The restiveness had set in and it was apparent that Supriyo was looking for greener pastures.
In West Bengal, where would the quest lead but to the TMC? The Left Front and Congress are not tenable options any longer. Supriyo had one steadfast friend in the TMC and that was O’Brien, who was also a confidant of sorts when Supriyo went through a divorce and then decided to remarry. That was where the camaraderie began and ended. Supriyo dissed Mamata in the strongest language, once described her behavior as “abnormal and bizarre” and in the last assembly elections, declared in a tweet, “Yes, this time we will see off the daughter of Bengal”.
One of the BJP’s big decisions before the assembly polls, marked by a do-or-die approach on its part, was fielding a few MPs as candidates and Supriyo was one of them. His playback signing was considered an attribute when he was fielded from Kolkata’s Tollygunge, which seats the state’s film industry but he lost to the TMC by over 50,000 votes. It seemed as though he never recovered from it. The rise and rise of Suvendu Adhikari, who trounced Mamata in Nandigram, in a sense sealed Supriyo’s future in the West Bengal BJP as it did for others. He, who once aspired to be the BJP’s CM candidate, concluded he ranked below Adhikari who is feted by the central leaders.
Nonetheless, he was signed up as a star canvasser for the Bhabanipur by-poll on September 30, where Mamata and the BJP’s Priyanka Tibrewal are locked in a straight fight, with Smriti Irani and Shahnawaz Hussain. The BJP recognized and valued Supriyo’s ability to pull in the crowds and deliver effective stump speeches. The BJP has pulled in everything at its command for the by-poll. Against an array of central and state campaigners, cherry-picked to address the ethnic and linguistic groups that makeup Bhabanipur, Mamata is her only star vote-catcher, who is expected to do more door-to-door canvassing than hold public rallies.
Supriyo’s departure is a blow for the BJP especially because it had built him big until recently. He was a prize acquisition although the cachet he brought did not translate into anything substantive on the ground. Supriyo won in 2014 and 2019 on the back of the Modi wave but when the wave partially ebbed by the time the assembly elections happened, he had little to show for himself. On a larger canvass, his induction in the TMC is of a piece with Mamata’s calculated strategy to chip away at the BJP. She has spirited away four of its MLAs.
All said and done, the BJP remains the biggest threat to Mamata’s ability to retain her strength in West Bengal and realize her national ambitions. Supriyo is the first big national name she has in her kitty from the BJP, hoping that more MPs would follow suit and enhance her profile as the only sure-fire vote-catcher in the state. Besides, Mamata has slowly expanded her footprints in Tripura and Assam, states which the BJP can ill-afford to let go of.
Bhabanipur will be the next big fight to watch out for in the continuing BJP-Mamata face-off. Would Supriyo be a catalyst? Unlikely, but he has dampened the BJP’s morale.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a consulting editor with Business Standard and a columnist. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.