Has the BJP appropriated Netaji and Sardar Patel just as the Congress had appropriated Jawaharlal Nehru?
National icons sustain not just governments but collective belief in governments and on the 122nd anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's birth, the BJP can be credited with pinning its hopes on Bose and Sardar Patel just as the Congress has on Jawaharlal Nehru.
Neither Patel not Bose, notably, ever aligned themselves with the rightwing Hindu or any of the propaganda of the BJP
The Congress, which has relied heavily on the Gandhi-Nehru value when it comes to its own icons, has ostensibly missed the bus when it comes to appropriating the two leaders
The BJP's obsession with both Bose and Patel rests primarily on their own claim that both leaders have been hitherto neglected
National icons sustain not just governments but collective belief in governments and on the 122nd anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's birth, the BJP can be credited with pinning its hopes on the patriot just as the Congress has on Jawaharlal Nehru.
From naming three islands in the Andamans after Bose to declassifying the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose papers to marking the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the provisional Azad Hind government with zealous pomp, the BJP government has now gone on to inaugurate a Subhas Chandra Bose museum at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. Bose's death may have been shrouded in mystery but his brilliant resurgence into the headlines of the day is thanks to the BJP's untiring efforts to flaunt him as their own.
The BJP follows in tradition shown by the Congress which is no stranger to using a single name for political value. From stadiums in New Delhi, Kochi, Coimbatore and Chennai to educational institutions of all kinds, from botanical gardens to bridges, laboratories and public squares, the decades of Congress rule in India have seen prolific utilisation of the name "Jawaharlal Nehru". By 2012, almost half of the nearly 60 institutions and schemes run by the Congress government were named after the Nehru-Gandhi family, reported Business Standard.
Bose is not alone, nor is he the only leader of the Independence movement taken by the BJP. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel has a 597-feet statue of himself, commissioned, built and inaugurated within the rules of BJP's Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat and then the Prime Minister of India. In these two leaders, the BJP may have finally found its answer to the figures of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi that the Congress has always banked on.
Neither, notably, ever aligned themselves with the rightwing Hindutva or any of the present-day propaganda of the BJP.
Sardar Patel, India's first deputy prime minister, was known for his dogged devotion to the Congress, and stepped aside from the top echelons of its leadership three times to enable Jawaharlal Nehru to become Congress president — in 1929, 1937 and 1946 — never challenging Nehru’s leadership because of his faith in Gandhi’s judgement, The Wire illustrated. He had even banned the RSS, the BJP's parent organisation in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination by Nathuram Godse, who is believed to have had links to the Hindu Mahasabha. The RSS supremo, MS Golwalkar, repeatedly pleaded with Patel to lift the ban but he remained firm for a year and a half. The ban was overturned with the caveat that the RSS was to keep away from politics, reported The Telegraph.
In the rebel nationalist hero Bose, who was ousted from the leadership of the pre-Independence Congress party, the BJP finds a ready issue to charge the Congress party within its speeches. At an interaction with BJP workers in October, 2018, the Hindustan Times quotes Modi as having taken quite a few potshots at the Congress over its treatments of the saffron party's new icons.
"History is witness to the fact that they (the Congress) had only disrespect for Sardar Patel in their minds. The same happened with Netaji, Acharya (JB) Kripalani and BR Ambedkar. This list is so long, that I will need the entire night to complete," Modi had said.
"I am honoured to participate in the programme (to commemorate Netaji's Azad Hind government declaration). I know some people will criticise it. Let them do it. Everyone is aware how Netaji gave a challenge to British rulers when he formed his Azad Hind force. One party had ruled Indian for more than 70 years, but it didn’t bother to even make the files public," he had added.
In his annual Dusshera speech, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat too made a reference to Netaji.
The Congress, which has relied heavily on the Gandhi-Nehru value when it comes to its own icons, has ostensibly missed the bus when it comes to appropriating Bose. But the party has alleged that "Netaji was a strong critic of policies and ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha," reported the Indian Express, which quoted Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi.
Its belligerence at the BJP taking up the Sardar Patel cause is even more ironic, seeing that Patel was earlier perceived as having been "their own" leader. Congress general secretary Ajay Maken had said in 2014, "Patel, Indira and Nehru were Congress leaders, the BJP would do well to remember that." The BJP's speed in appropriating the two leaders has led the Congress to abandon whatever middle ground it may have had in repeating Nehru's name, with a new Patel-versus-Nehru debate circulating political speeches, reported The Asian Age.
Bose's unfaltering patriotism, which had him in a corner nearly all through his freedom struggle, offers the BJP a ready recipe to whip up patriotic fervour and translate it into electoral gains. Bose's great grand nephew Chandra Bose also fought and lost as the BJP candidate against Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee in the 2016 Bengal assembly elections.
The BJP's appropriation of both Bose and Patel rests primarily on their own claim that both leaders have been hitherto neglected. Yet, as Livemint notes, in Gujarat alone, the Ahmedabad airport and a major bridge are named after him and a university town carries his name. Many Indian cities have erected his statues and in Mumbai, a major road and a stadium are named after him. In Delhi, the nation’s police academy bears his name and Gujarat’s lifeline, the Narmada River, has the Sardar Sarovar.
The governments preceding Modi's celebrated Bose's birth anniversaries with the Prime Minister's address and in Odisha and Bengal, where Bose was born and grew up, functions and public holidays mark the day. Cuttack even has a Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Museum; Kolkata has its biggest indoor stadium named after him. Long before Modi's publicised declassification of the Netaji papers, former prime minister Manmohan Singh had approved the shifting of Bose's alleged remains from Tokyo’s Renkoji Temple to the Indian embassy but the move was shot down after the external affairs ministry pointed out it would be tantamount to acknowledging the ashes were those of Bose's.
For long, the BJP had been in need of icons. Yet now, however forcibly, it boasts of two.
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