BJP’s quest for acceptance as ‘Bengali’ Janata Party: Battle for Bengal

While the party is making a laughing stock of itself by attacking icons like Amartya Sen, the fact remains that its vote share went up from four to 40 per cent between 2011 and 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Left) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Right).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Left) and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Right).

S N M Abdi

Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda are visiting Kolkata so frequently these days that it is difficult to keep count of how many trips they have made. But before every visit, they invariably instruct Dilip Ghosh, West Bengal BJP president, to organise an interactive session with Bengali intellectuals as they are considered opinion makers capable of making or marring the electoral fortunes of political parties. Ghosh dutifully rings up top writers, poets, dramatists, film and theatre directors, actors, singers and academics and cordially invites them to exchange views with his bosses from Delhi over a cup of tea. But nobody turns up!

The Times of India published a report on February 24, 2021 (Wednesday) headlined ‘BJP chief to meet Kolkata intellectuals on Thursday’. It said that Nadda would meet intellectuals at the Science City auditorium “in an attempt to make the party acceptable to the intelligentsia ahead of the polls”, adding that it was “the third such effort by the Sangh Parivar to win hearts among opinion-makers”. It recalled how Shah had earlier invited them to Mahajati Sadan and ICCR “but city intellectuals had not shown much interest in these meetings”.

Nadda too got a very cold response. The Anand Bazar Partrika reported on February 26, 2021 that among the attendees at the Science City auditorium, the number of persons who are considered eminent (bishishto jon) in the traditional sense, was negligible and the venue was jampacked with BJP workers. The ABP reporter did not spot a single celebrity in the gathering worth mentioning, underlining what a big flop the whole exercise was. The TOI did not print a word on the Science City event on February 26, 2021 as it turned out to be a non-event – and probably regretted the double-column pre-event publicity in its February 24 edition.

Clearly, Bengali intellectuals – generally left-leaning liberal-secular personalities-- abhor Hindutva and exhibit their revulsion and outrage by snubbing and boycotting Sanghis. But will their opposition halt the BJP’s march?

The Hindu-Muslim polarisation is evident from the 10-fold increase in the BJP’s vote-share in nine years. It has rocketed from four per cent in 2011 to 40.6 per cent in 2019. If such blind faith doesn’t suddenly evaporate, the BJP can steamroll any obstacle in its path in the March-April 2021 assembly elections – whether it’s intellectuals’ disapproval of the Hindu Right or the shooting petrol, diesel and cooking gas price for which the Modi government is directly responsible.

But importantly, so far, not a single A-lister from the world of literature, cinema, culture or sports in West Bengal has fallen for BJP. It is desperate to bag author Shankho Ghosh-- who received the 2016 Jnanpith Award – and Prosenjit Chatterjee, Tollywood’s reigning superstar. It passionately wooed actor Soumitra Chatterjee, whom Satyajit Ray cast in many films, until his recent death. The party is also in hot pursuit of Sourav Ganguly. The BJP is dying to enlist them and at least a dozen more in order to penetrate the Bengali middle class, which is known to shape politics in the state. And public intellectuals are the lynchpins of the influential middle class.

The BJP’s seething anger over its failure to win over a single household name in Bengal is evident from its no-holds-barred attacks on Amartya Sen, the greatest living Bengali icon. It has been gunning for him ever since he declared his unhappiness over Modi becoming PM. Recently, the Vice Chancellor of the central Visva Bharati University, Bidyut Chakraborty-- who Mamata Banerjee calls a “BJP man”-- accused Sen of illegally occupying a plot of land in Santiniketan. Even as Sen rubbished the charge and Banerjee came charging to his defence, Dilip Ghosh – state BJP chief who is often tasked by the BJP top brass to organise interactive sessions with intellectuals in Kolkata – branded Sen a jomin chor, or land thief ! The outcome of the elections will reveal whether Ghosh’s mass appeal rose or fell by defaming Sen.

Rebuffed by men of letters, Modi’s Mission Bengal team is trying to project that it is well versed in Bengali language and culture but has become a laughing stock in the bargain. For instance, Shah announced with a flourish that Rabindranath Tagore was born in Santiniketan turning history on its head. The Nobel laureate was born in Jorasanko in Kolkata and the Jorasanko Thakur Bari – Tagore’s ancestral home - is one of the city’s most visited and revered heritage landmarks.

And Nadda’s faux pas left millions in splits. During a visit to Barrackpore, BJP cadres took him to Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s home. The novelist wrote Pather Panchali which inspired Satyajit Ray’s debut film. After the visit, Nadda announced at a public rally that he had just been to the home of a great upanibeshik – which means colonialist in Bengali – instead of ‘upanyasik’ which means novelist.

Far more insidious is the deliberate distortion by BJP of what Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee or Sri Aurobindo stood for. The intellectual heirs of these ‘Bengal Renaissance’ figures in contemporary times are Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray. But BJP is determined to appropriate Bengal’s icons from 19th and early 20th century as its heroes by intentionally misrepresenting them. This strategy drives Modi’s repeated glorification of Tagore’s “nationalism” to justify and promote his Hindu nationalist agenda to win the West Bengal elections.

“What is quite absurd is that the proponents of Hindutva – an ideology of hyper-masculine nationalism – are trying to possess Tagore” says JNU sociology professor Avijit Pathak. “Imagine Tagore’s profound reflections on the dangers of hyper-nationalism and the resultant psychology of violence.

Imagine some of Tagore’s characters – Gora with his existential quest and realisation of India as a maternal/inclusive space without walls of separation; Nandini with her feminine grace questioning the gigantic/hyper-masculine machine; and Nikhilesh seeing the dangers of communalisation of politics in the name of nationalism. The politics that the proponents of Hindutva – an ideology of hyper-masculine nationalism - practice is the negation of almost everything Tagore stood for.”

“Likewise, it is important to realise that Swami Vivekananda, despite his saffron and visibly ‘Hindu’ look, cannot be fitted into the discourse of Hindutva. The monk sought to activate the consciousness of a defeated nation, pleaded for ‘muscles of iron, nerves of steel and gigantic will’, celebrated the idea of a resurgent nation with a ‘soul’, and created an organisation of monks for social/spiritual work. But there is hardly any similarity between this project and what the likes of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar sought to create… Vivekananda wanted to spread the message of love and altruistic action, not hatred and exclusion.”

The BJP pulled off a coup in 1991, fielding Victor Banerjee -- of Ray and David Lean fame—in a parliamentary contest but he lost so badly that he quit politics. Rajya Sabha MP Roopa Ganguly was another good catch because she once played Draupadi in B.R. Chopra’s hit television serial, Mahabharat. In contrast, singer-turned Lok Sabha MP Babul Supriyo has limited appeal. Hence the BJP’s desperation to bag top intellectuals, stars and celebrities who have so far proved elusive.

(The author is an award-winning journalist and commentator. Views are Personal)

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