Mission Bengal: Lal Salaam to Jai Shri Ram

Smita Gupta | Updated on November 20, 2020

Growing roots: The concept of Hindutva was born in Bengal in the 19th century   -  Bloomberg

A fringe party less than a decade ago, the BJP is now vying for power in West Bengal; its spectacular rise in the state is not without context or history

* Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s “Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment book brings alive the swiftly changing politics of the state

For almost three decades after Independence — and the Partition of India — West Bengal was ruled, like most other states, by the Congress Party; for a brief interregnum between 1967 and 1972, it was replaced by the Bangla Congress, a splinter group. For 34 straight years from 1977, the Left Front presided over the fortunes of the state. In 2011, the front was deposed by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, a breakaway group from the Congress. Five years later, with the Congress confined to a few northern districts and the Left Front in a shambles, it looked as though the Trinamool Congress, too, was set for a long run.

However, a shrinking Congress and the Left Front created a vacuum in the opposition. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) eagerly stepped in to fill it. The party was in power in Delhi under a strong and determined leadership that was looking to expand the BJP’s footprint across the country. More important, the organisation from which it took its ideological inspiration — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — had been working systematically on the ground for decades, rubbing the wounds of the Partition, to carve out a strong Hindu following in a state where 30 per cent of the population is Muslim. The facts that undivided Bengal was ruled by Muslim kings before the arrival of the British, and the concept of Hindutva was born here in the 19th century have come handy for the BJP’s Mission Bengal. In 2013, it was a fringe political party in the state. Three years later, it had won 19 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats. With state elections due in less than a year, it is more than evident that the BJP is working overtime to seize power in West Bengal.

Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment / Snigdhendu Bhattacharya / HarperCollins / Non-fiction / ₹599

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment, therefore, comes at an opportune moment. Blending on-the-ground reportage and research, the book brings alive the swiftly changing politics of the state. Even as it documents the BJP’s spectacular growth, it places this story against the backdrop of the history of Bengal and contemporary politics. In the 19th century, it witnessed parallel strands of Hindu nationalism and Muslim separatism; the Partition further sharpened religious fault lines. Long years of Left rule meant that Hindus who had suffered during the Partition were biding their time; a porous border with Bangladesh saw economic migrants — many of whom were Muslim — streaming in. Some were included in the voters’ lists. Together, this created a fertile ground for the Hindu right wing.

A Bengali and a long-time observer of Bengal politics, Bhattacharya, a Kolkata-based journalist, is not surprised by the rise of the BJP in the state. Three decades of the Left Front’s rule had merely masked the simmering Hindutva sentiments that lurked beneath. One of the most interesting chapters in the bookBengal, Islam, Hindutva captures the historic fault lines between communities and helps the reader better understand the dramatic political changes we are witnessing now — from Lal Salaam to Jai Shri Ram.

The dormant Hindu communal sentiment, which the Left Front had worked skilfully to suppress, was not missed on keen observers. But, perhaps, no one had anticipated such a rapid rise of the BJP. Travelling through the state during the elections in 2019, this writer was shocked to see how swiftly the BJP and its ideology had penetrated even rural Bengal. If the Left Front’s failures in governance, rampant corruption at the lower levels, and simply fatigue brought its rule to an end, no one could have envisaged that its ideology would meet the same fate.

In a way, Banerjee’s arrival did that. In her desperate quest to capture the Muslim vote, she pandered to the most communal elements in the community, providing the BJP an opportunity to play the other side of the game. Bhattacharya has documented this interplay well in the book.

Simultaneously, she launched a campaign against the Left Front — destroying their offices, and unleashing a wave of terror against its cadres. She did so on a smaller scale against the Congress. Her goal was to destroy both parties and force their workers to join the Trinamool. Instead, hordes of Left Front leaders and workers left to swell the ranks of the BJP! These workers had grown up on a diet of anti-Trinamool politics, and saw the BJP as the only party capable of taking it on. Belatedly, Banerjee has realised that her winner takes all style of politics has backfired. Bhattacharya narrates how she is altering her tactics to be more inclusive ahead of the 2021 state polls.

Bhattacharya covers a good deal of ground in this slim volume. He explains, for instance, in great detail the inner workings of the RSS and its 30-odd affiliates that have made the Trinamool’s task that much harder. He compares the manner in which the RSS has penetrated all activities right down to the district-level, with the way the Left Front had placed its party members in panchayats, local youth clubs and committees for public religious festivities, thus entering every aspect of the lives of the people. If the book has a weakness, it is that it has been written in haste — it could have done with better editing — and that it does not touch on policy issues at all. Nonetheless, it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the complicated world of Bengal politics.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

Published on November 20, 2020

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