For almost five months, a female functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has criss-crossed Bengal to address rallies packed to brim, many times overflowing with thousands of ardent fans.
Every time her convoy reaches the venue, women blow conch shells and shower flower petals to welcome her, men stand in rapt attention, children run with her motorcade like crazy fans after filmstars. For them, Bharati Ghosh is indeed special. Her power-packed rallies are indeed unique. Many call her Agni Kanya, which literally translates into Fire Girl. It is the same title Bengal had given to Mamata Banerjee when she swept to power in 2011.
On paper, she is among the many vice presidents of BJP. On the ground, her popularity is sky high but strangely, she hardly figures in the media, both print and electronic. Some say it is because of bitter rivalry within the state unit of the BJP. It has not deterred Ghosh, she has kept the prestige of the party intact by raising issues of both national and local importance in meetings at Hooghly district, east Midnapore, West Midnapore, Jhargram Bardhaman, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Kolkata, Howrah Gramin, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri and Raiganj.
Political cognoscenti in Bengal say Ghosh has huge connectivity with people in Bengal.
In her speeches she raises issues which matter the most in a weak state that shares an important international border and is low on economic growth. Ghosh talks about the per capita expenditure on healthcare by the state government. She quotes the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and reminds everyone that Bengal spends just Rs 988 per capita on healthcare while the average spend by all states stands at Rs 1,482. In short, Bengal allocates just 67 percent of what is the average expenditure of the Indian states and Union Territories. She reminds the masses that health is wealth, the only other state that is worse than Bengal is Bihar, which had spent Rs 781 per capita on healthcare.
She reminds everyone that in Bengal economic activity is near dead and no new investment has come. She says the younger generation is forced to seek gainful employment outside the state. “This needs to change, this will change only if you want. You can bring the change. Stay with the BJP,” says Ghosh.
She reminds people of Bengal that she should protest against the unabated illegal immigration happening from next door Bangladesh.
For the masses, Ghosh is the lamp of Aladdin, many feel only she can turn things around in this intensely politicised state and its political cadre, supported by all sections of administration, police included, now survives on extortion. Ghosh says the state’s Tolabazi or Hafta culture needs to end because it yields no revenue to the exchequer.
A weak administration naturally breeds a weak economy, Ghosh reminds everyone.
A former decorated cop who worked at the United Nations and across strife-torn Africa, Jordan and Kosovo, Ghosh makes several broader points about national politics, explaining why states need to work closely with the government at the Centre. She says courage requires more than words, it requires action. She knows taking action with the full knowledge means there would probably be consequences, both personal and national. For her, true courage means a willingness to live with those consequences.
Ghosh, educated at Harvard and London School of Economics, has travelled across Bengal, a state gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic. She knows these are no ordinary times. She tells people why it is important to prioritise, communicate and support each other. She has a simple, catchy line for her Zoom conversations: Amar Poribar, BJP Poribar which translates into My Family, BJP Family.
She is the only BJP leader who has suffered tremendously at the hands of the rival Trinamool Congress.
Ghosh, who held simultaneous charge as superintendent of police of two Maoist districts of Jhargram and Paschim (West) Midnapore from 2012 to 2017 and initiated the surrender of hundreds of Maoists and restored normalcy in the region. Extremely popular in Junglemahal belt among the Adivasis & SC/ST belt, her relationship with the Bengal CM strained after Sabang bye-elections results were declared on December 24, 2017 when she, as SP was blamed for BJP’s increased vote share which rose from 2000 to 37000. Ghosh applied for VRS on December 26, 2017. The VRS was approved on January 2, 2018. She remembers when she resigned, she was on the verge of becoming a DIG, a very crucial and important rank for an IPS officer. But she did not compromise.
On 31st January 2018, she met BJP leaders in Delhi to join the party. Within 24 hours, her home was raided on February 1, 2018 by cops who did not even carry a FIR. Following the raid, Ghosh was implicated in a series of cases. Shockingly, rapists, criminals and history sheeters who were arrested and charge sheeted during her tenure as SP were invited by the state administration to come over and lodge false complainants against her in what appeared to be a deep rooted conspiracy to malign her image.
She has fought the charges meticulously in various courts.
What is surprising is that Ghosh hardly features in the BJP propaganda machinery, she is not even there in the leaflets issued by the state wing of the party. But that has not deterred Ghosh, she is a strong figure who doesn’t seem to worry much about being disliked, or tries to soften her ways to appear more feminine. She is not completely safe from sexist stereotypes and treatment. She is just a fierce leader who does not hesitate to test the limits of legality and democracy.
Her popularity is growing, she is being noticed by many.
What is extremely surprising is that a nation that is routinely dismissive of its women, diminishing and threatening them in the private sphere, is extremely comfortable with this kind of female power? Why are the crowds filling up her rallies? Many say Ghosh exudes both confidence and hope.
Bestselling author Amish Tripathi told Quartz: “India is one of the last surviving ancient pagan cultures,” Unlike other cultures, he said, Indians still carry the memories of the country’s ancient ways.
“We are one of the last surviving Goddess-worshipping cultures,” he said, noting that India used to be a lot more progressive when it comes to women’s place in society than it is now, maybe even more-so than in the West these days.
“Empowerment can only come from a woman. We once looked to Mamata Banerjee as a goddess. Now we see Bharati Ghosh as a saviour. She is rooted to this region, she knows our pains, sorrows,” Babu Paramanik, a worker at JangalMahal, said in a brief interview.
Another villager, Abhiram Sahu, said when Ghosh was in charge of Midnapur, she cared for the masses. “She was like our mother. If there was a violence free election, she would have won the Lok Sabha seat from Ghatal in 2019.” Ghosh polled 6,09,986 votes but lost to Deepak Adhikary, a filmstar who polled 7,17,959 votes, in a highly violence-marred election when paramilitary forces were repeatedly called to control the situation. She almost got killed but for her CRPF guards who fired to stave off her attackers. The incident happened in Keshpur, an assembly in the Ghatal constituency. Newspapers reported a high level of rigging by TMC in Keshpur.
For the records, political violence and deaths are high in Bengal.
“She cared for us, she was there for everything ranging from wedding to education. She was like our mother,” says Bharat Soren, a resident of Gidhni village. Samir Dhal of Jamboni says Ghosh still retains her grip in the Midnapur region, as also in other parts of the state. “She cared for us, we always remember her.” Satya Malick of Binpur village says people have high hopes from Ghosh, they know she is a rare leader who will always stand with the masses. Words that she would come to address rallies travel like jungle drums, women throng the venue in hordes.
The BJP high command, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, are in full control of developments in Bengal. The duo made several organisational level changes in the state BJP, putting veteran RSS leader Shiv Prakash in total control. BJP wants more ground to connect with the masses in Bengal for the 2021 assembly elections. Ghosh’s popularity with the masses could come in handy for the party in the 2021 assembly elections.
Political experts in Bengal say Ghosh is probably one of the rarest BJP leaders high on the TMC radar. The TMC also knows that only Ghosh has the potential to embarrass Bengal’s ruling party. Ghosh, a no-nonsense person, was once hailed as the daughter of Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. Now, she is labelled as a carpetbagger by the TMC.
She was once the Insider, now she is an Outsider.
The Apex Court has restrained the Bengal government from arresting Ghosh, who has—actually—taken the battle to the trenches. Once she stopped Bengal’s big cow smuggling racket and was privy to many secrets of the state, including the death of Naxalite leader Kishenji on November 24, 2011. The state government had claimed Kishenji was killed in an encounter in Junglemahal though there were conflicting reports which said the Naxalite leader was shot dead after he had surrendered.
If Ghosh offers proof of such a killing, it could cause tremendous embarrassment to the state government. Staged encounters are not uncommon in Bengal; the state witnessed many such killings by cops during the tumultuous Naxalite movement in the 1970s.
Ghosh is now faced with what appears to be a big challenge: To take on the might of important ruling politicians in the state.
Seasoned Kolkata-based lawyer and author Arunabha Ghosh said it will be interesting to see how Ghosh fares in the forthcoming elections. “She has the willpower, she has tremendous grassroot support and she is not worried about any threats. It is clear there is a lot of political vendetta against her.
“Her flats were sealed illegally before she opened it through a court order, her salary account remains frozen without any court order and during the pandemic Covid-19 situation, CID, WB issued notices to Ghosh calling her for interrogation of old cases where she was not called for two years. On one occasion, the officer who examined her was a Covid patient.”
Ghosh has weathered it all.
In a few minutes, the former top cop will be off to one more rally to talk about the BJP and changes that the right-wing party could bring in Bengal.