All indications suggest that the next big clash between the Hindutva agenda of the saffron Parivar and the secular coalition led by the Congress party will take place in West Bengal. The Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha has been allowed to hold a 1,600 km bike rally across the state. But beyond the legal matter, the political subtext points to an opportunity for the BJP-RSS to push ahead with its version of politics. That the bike rally coincides with the Gangasagar Mela, an important date in the Hindu calendar for those in eastern India, is a case of good timing for the BJP -- it would be naive to suggest that this is just about the BJYM, the youth wing of the party. Typically of the Sangh tactics, they are ready to play the long waiting game to achieve their objectives.
Just like Gujarat, a state with a traditionally strong Congress base, had served as a Sangh Parivar laboratory since the 1980s, West Bengal provides them with another chance to replicate such a scenario. The state does not have a widespread mercantile class like Gujarat to provide a sound base to the saffron family, even though it has been known for entrepreneurship. Against this backdrop, it was perhaps no coincidence that Syama Prasad Mookerjee was India's first industries minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's national government. Much of that entrepreneurial verve ended after Dr BC Roy's chief ministership and the later advent of the Left Front.
However, the likely face-off between the two contending thought processes in West Bengal will be markedly different from what it had been in Gujarat in the 1980s when the Congress party under Indira Gandhi portrayed a strident anti-communal stance. There was no ambiguity in her position on the issue, which she had clarified during the JP movement and criticised Jayaprakash Narayan for joining hands with the RSS and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
In an interview around that time she had said, as quoted in Bipan Chandra’s ‘In the name of democracy, JP movement and the emergency’: “I should like to say that I have not called all the political opponents ‘fascists’ at any time. I have called one group so, which does not call itself a political group, which is the RSS. They follow what is almost, I would say, text-book techniques of Fascism, that is believing in the superiority of one race, having a sort of a private army, even propagating the big lie day in and day out so that people start thinking, well there must be some truth if it is said so many times.” Along with the RSS she also targeted the Jamaat-I-Islami and the Anand Marg for pursuing a communal agenda.
West Bengal 2018, though, is a different setting. There are two questions to ask: first, why is West Bengal likely to provide ground for encouragement to the BJP, and second, why is this going to be difficult.
To the first question. West Bengal has been a fertile ground for conservative Hindu views. The background of partition only added to this. Into the present, the kind of views put forth by Tripura governor Tathagata Roy, who had been West Bengal unit president of the BJP, have a reasonable backing in the state, even though twice he had contested unsuccessfully for the Lok Sabha. The efforts of the BJP to find a toehold in the state began aggressively almost immediately after the eclipse of the Left Front in 2011 when it tried to move into the political vacuum. Since then it has been ramping up its activities there. First, it had Siddharth Nath Singh, a former national secretary of the BJP who is now a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, as the party's in charge for West Bengal and now Kailash Vijayvargiya, the national general secretary of the party. Inroads were made by the BJP, though later they were pushed back by the Trinamool Congress, in the former Left Front stronghold of Burdwan and elsewhere.
The second question: why the state is unlikely to be in a hurry to give a mandate to the saffron Parivar. The answer lies in the Gujarat elections. While Rahul Gandhi's temple politics highlighted soft Hindutva, it also tried to convey another message -- the Congress was from the same cultural stock as the people of the state. As a so-called BJP laboratory, the state had moved on from the Congress times, and it had become necessary to underscore its conservative Hindu moorings. In West Bengal, despite the strong basis for Hindu conservative views, the BJP is sometimes seen to represent an upper Gangetic culture, which is trying to dominate it. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, a canny mass leader, has dipped into this to suggest that the Gangasagar festival, now in progress, should have the same standing as the Kumbh Mela.
The BJP's efforts to ride over this hump by associating itself with Vivekananda might not be enough. West Bengal is one of India's most politically vibrant states and, in the nature of Vivekananda, whom the BJP is trying to espouse, the people seek rigour in thought process. A straightforward agenda of communal polarisation for political gain, which can work in western Uttar Pradesh, will be difficult to find followers in the state. But, the BJP is a party on a roll and in power at the centre while West Bengal needs to get its industrial engine up on the rails. It will be an interesting battle ahead.