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Row over destruction of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar bust: BJP has been using West Bengal's icons to chip away TMC's sway

At BJP chief Amit Shah's mega rally in Kolkata on Tuesday, clashes broke out and the police had to intervene and tame the crowd with batons. Some students stood at the gates of Vidyasagar College in North Kolkata with ‘Go Back Amit Shah’ posters.

Trinamool Congress (TMC) workers allege that BJP supporters spotted these students and not only broke into the college but also vandalized the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the social reformer the institution is named after. Shah has alleged that since the bust was inside the room and the gate of the college wasn’t damaged, TMC workers themselves vandalized it to accuse the BJP of attacking the bust of Bengal’s social reformer. On the other hand, TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee released a video showing men in saffron T-shirts breaking the bust before smashing it on the ground.

TMC chief and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee didn’t wait too long to call out the BJP for attacking West Bengal’s culture but Modi went a step further to counter her claim. Addressing a rally in Mau district in Uttar Pradesh, the prime minister stated that literary, cultural and political icons of West Bengal were at the core of the philosophy of BJP. “From vedas to Vivekanand to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the BJP government has drawn inspiration from the icons of Bengal to take India to greater heights,” the prime minister stated.

 Row over destruction of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar bust: BJP has been using West Bengals icons to chip away TMCs sway

Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. Reuters

He praised Vidyasagar, who fought for rights of Dalits and the economically backward and spoke about the rights of women. The prime minister said that the life and works of this legend aren’t merely a matter of pride for West Bengal but for the entire nation.

The friction between the two parties has intensified with the Election Commission reacting to the violence and the lawlessness that has ensued from it by making use of its plenary powers, and the invoking of Article 324 to bring all campaigning to a halt 19 hours before scheduled time. But Modi's mention of the inspirations of BJP reflects the efforts the party has been making to keep the narratives behind these ideologies and icons alive.

Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which gave birth to the BJP, was founded by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who was vice-chancellor of the Calcutta University. Since he died in mysterious circumstances in Kashmir, the BJP has named his death anniversary ‘Balidan Diwas’ to keep the icon relevant in the psyche of the Indian voter. The BJP campaign offices display his pictures on saffron walls.

Bose’s military endeavours to liberate India are hailed by the ruling party. His grandnephew is contesting on a BJP ticket from Kolkata South, which goes to polls on 19 May and last August, had penned a three-page letter to Amit Shah stating that he feels it is his personal responsibility to ensure the BJP cadre in the state grows. Last October, the prime minister unfurled the national flag at Red Fort to mark the 75th anniversary of the Azad Hind government.

Vivekanand’s writings have played a key role in shaping Modi's vision. In 2013, he went and meditated in Belur Math in West Bengal. Last September, the prime minister addressed an event that marked the 125th anniversary of Vivekanand’s speech at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago. BJP’s constant invoking of homegrown legends has challenged Banerjee’s style of solitary control over Bengal’s cultural traditions by broadly dismissing BJP as a hindi-bhaashi (Hindi-speaking) party that has crossed over from the Vindhyas to pose a threat to cultural diversity and communalise Bengal.

But along with that, a parallel campaign to resurge the Hindu glory in West Bengal began in 2014. BJP tweeted a video of Mamata Banerjee stepping out of her car, angry at people screaming ‘Jai Shree Ram’.

BJP wove it into its election campaign with most senior leaders, including Modi, questioning Banerjee on why a Hindu can’t chant this phrase fearlessly in her state. BJP's allegation that Banerjee was involved in appeasement of the 28 percent Muslims in the state wasn't unnoticed earlier but thanks to the saffron party's efforts, it seeped into the political narrative this time. Today, the leader who ousted a 34-year-old Communist rule has also been critical of the Ram Navami rallies organised by the BJP in different districts of West Bengal where people were seen holding swords. BJP Bengal state unit head Dilip Ghosh said, "Ram Navami is part of our culture."

The Left Front’s steady decline has ensured that those disappointed with the TMC’s street-fighting and the party head’s autocracy will choose BJP as an alternative. In the 2018 panchayat elections, non-ruling party candidates were barred from even filing nominations in 34 percent of the seats. This stifling of democratic rights is something the BJP is playing up time and again in their West Bengal campaign.

Last year, the West Bengal government had withheld permission for three BJP rath yatras in the state. At his rally in Mau, Modi cited an instance of unruly behaviour of TMC workers at his rally in West Midnapore and also at Thakurnagar where he had to end his speech in 14 minutes after a stampede broke out.

The West Bengal government recently arrested a BJP volunteer for sharing a meme of Banerjee. This has substantiated the saffron party’s claim that TMC workers threaten and beat up BJP volunteers.

Banerjee’s career has been built on street-fighting the Left. Today, she is faced with fighting the Right, which is not only attacking her style of functioning but has been making slow and steady inroads into the realm of philosophies that are central to the pride of Bengali voters.

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Updated Date: May 17, 2019 18:19:27 IST