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Monday, November 12, 2012

The first post-Independence Hindutva political outfit, Jan Sangh, was forged in Bengal but the state has resolutely kept that historical legacy at bay.

CS Bhattacharjee probes the reasons why India’s third largest state in terms of Lok Sabha seats has never embraced rightwing nationalism

The Bharatiya Janata Party has never been more than a fringe player in West Bengal despite the fact that several Bengali leaders played a crucial role in the evolution of India’s Hindu rightwing. Jan Sangh, BJP’s forerunner, was founded in 1953 by Shyamaprasad Mookerjee, once a member of Nehru’s Cabinet. NC Chatterjee, father of leftist stalwart and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, was a president of the Hindu Mahasabha. But neither his son nor any Shyamaprasad kin ever flirted with a Hindu outfit. The state as a whole has traditionally perceived the BJP and its progenitors with a degree of suspicion.

As a result, the Shyamaprasad legacy hasn’t impacted politics in the state. Experts cite several factors for the inability of Hindutva forces to secure a firm toehold in Bengal. Says Tarun Mondal, SUCI (Communist) MP: “Bengal’s cultural heritage was shaped by freedom fighters and social reformers, towering personalities like Surjya Sen, Pritilata Waddedar and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. They preached true secularism – not the secularism of today’s politics. No single political party can take credit for the state’s progressive secular left-leaning moorings that have kept communalists at bay.”

Barun Dasgupta, former Guwahati bureau chief of The Hindu, cites another reason: “RSS and Hindu Mahasabha never participated in the freedom movement. So their acceptability among the masses has been limited from the outset.” He adds: “After the communal riots triggered by Muslim League's ‘Direct Action Day’ on August 16, 1946, the stream of refugees from East Pakistan came under the influence of the Left. The weak Hindu rightwing parties, neither the dying Hindu Mahasabha nor the rising Jan Sangh, could garner much support among the displaced. Even a popular leader like Shyamaprasad Mookerjee failed to make his party acceptable in Bengal.”

This state, says Professor Tarun Sanyal, president of the pro-change Forum for Intellectuals, Artists and Authors, has always been culturally pluralistic. “Unlike North India, Bengal never supported Brahminism. In the 15th century, during Hussain Shah’s reign, Bengal produced a religious leader like Mahaprabhu Chaitanya Dev. The 18th and 19th centuries produced Indian renaissance leaders like Raja Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and others. Their vision engendered two distinct streams — one nationalistic, the other left-revolutionary. Both regarded Bengal as a separate cultural entity. BJP, preacher of Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan, does not quite fit here,” he adds.

Psephologist and political scientist Biswanath Chakraborty asserts that Bengal’s left-revolutionary culture is a bulwark against BJP. “Bengal’s elite never supported those that were behind the 'Great Calcutta Killings' during Partition. This intellectual class opted either for the Congress or the undivided CPI, different from today’s communists. Bengal was the land of the renaissance in the 18th century and India’s industrial resurgence began in this part during the British period. That is the reason why the concept of both nationhood and class-based politics emerged here first,” he explains.

But that is not to say that Bengal did not send Sangh parivar representatives to the Lok Sabha after Shyamaprasad Mookerjee and NC Chatterjee. Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee were Union ministers under Atal Behari Vajpayee. One of BJP's founders, Vishnukant Shastri, was a Rajya Sabha member in 1992. In 1977, he won the Bengal Assembly elections on a Janata Party ticket. Haripada Bharati was also an MLA at that time. Jan Sangh was dissolved into Janata Party in 1977 and the two leaders rode the wave unleashed by Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Emergency agitation. In this millennium, BJP has won an Assembly seat only on one occasion. Badal Bhattacharya won the Habra seat in the 2001 election with the help of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

The sudden 1991 spike in support for the BJP, which polled 11 per cent vote, says eminent journalist Debasish Bhattacharjee, should be attributed to inner contradictions in the CPM and the people’s disenchantment with a ‘corrupt’ Congress. “Since then, the BJP’s vote share has hovered around 3.5 per cent but the party has not been able to consolidate its support in any single constituency quite to the extent to actually win a seat. Badal Bhattacharjee became a BJP MLA in 2001 only because TMC helped him.”

Analysing the role of Sangh Parivar-BJP politics in Bengal, Professor Chakraborty says BJP’s ‘core’ ideology of ‘Hindutva’ has never spread here since its inception in the 1980s. “In 1991, BJP’s vote percentage went into double digits owing to several factors, including mass disenchantment with both the Left and the Congress. Data shows that the BJP vote influenced the final result in up to 65 Assembly segments, and in most of the cases Left was the gainer,” he said.

In the early 1990s, BJP strengthened its presence in the border region — from North 24-Parganas down south to Jalpaiguri and Cochbehar in north Bengal. “But, the Babri Masjid demolition pulled its vote share down. Muslims, in search of social security, returned to either the Left or the Congress,” says Chakraborty.

Interestingly, BJP increased its tally from 1 to 2 in late 1999, when Tapan Sikdar got himself re-elected and Satyabrata Mukherjee also won. By that time, a breakaway Congress faction became TMC and formed an electoral alliance with BJP. Says Chakraborty: “Left’s departure from class-based politics, the United Front’s failure to rule the nation, and Tapan Sikdar’s handling of the ‘East Bengal refugees’ issue helped the party.” A section of the state did accept Vajpayee’e liberal attitude as an ‘alternative’ to the Nehru-Gandhi politics and supported the BJP. But the 2002 Gujarat riots halted the BJP’s progress in Bengal, he points out.

BJP leaders too are aware of the situation. One of them says on condition of anonymity: “A reason for our diminishing influence is over-dependence on the Marwari and other non-Bengali communities.” BJP leaders like Paras Datta and Colonel Sabyasachi Bagchi have joined TMC. With a sole active warrior in Sikdar, the party seems doomed to be an also-ran in West Bengal.

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