Bengal election: War over Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s legacy hots up

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Lacking a neta for its Bengal campaign, the BJP has decided to resurrect the legacy of Netaji. Its victory plan in Mamata Banerjee’s bastion now involves a classic case of “icon-jacking” after the Centre through a gazette notification declared Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s birthday on January 23 as Parakram Diwas or valour day.

Barely a few months before the crucial polls, the BJP has turned Netaji’s 125th birth anniversary on 23 January into a political launchpad, triggering another round of bitter turf war with the ruling Trinamool Congress.

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LED BY THE PM BJP PREPARES A PUSH

PM Narendra Modi will be on ground zero Kolkata on that day to make the point that if the legacy of Netaji still resonates across Bengal, the BJP is out to make a big splash with an unabashed attempt to co-opt a leader who served as the President of Indian National Congress in 1938 and 1939 and was the leader of the Forward Block.

In the Modi-Shah dictionary, there is no sudden. The duo has been working at subsuming the Netaji legacy and bringing the issue to a boil ahead of the assembly polls.

On January 23, the PM’s Kolkata visit involves a visit to the National Library where an International Conference will be underway. The PM will watch scores of artists making portraits of Netaji in a 4-day camp

Next will be a visit to the iconic Victoria Memorial for the inauguration of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose museum which will be open to the public all year round.

To drive home the political point, the PM will address a gathering. But this is just a fraction of the BJP’s elaborate plan to woo voters in the name of Netaji

The PM’s Netaji connect will be beamed live on every social media platform. The Bengal unit of BJP plans to take the PM’s address to 78,000 booths in Bengal. At each booth, BJP cadres will bring 50-100 people to listen to the PM’s speech and watch the celebrations. For this, TV monitors and tablets are being organised for each polling booth.

The government had gone into a serious planning overdrive for January 23 in December last year by setting up a high-level committee to commemorate the 125thBirth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to decide on the activities for a one-year commemoration starting 23rd January 2021.

The committee was headed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah who is also the master strategist for the BJP’s Bengal campaign.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the intent by saying, “India will always remain grateful to Subhas Chandra Bose for his bravery and indelible contribution to resisting colonialism. He was a stalwart who committed himself towards ensuring every Indian leads a life of dignity. Subhas Babu was also known for his intellectual prowess and organisational skills. We are committed to fulfilling his ideals and creating a strong India.”

The members of the High Level Commemoration Committee included experts, historians, authors, family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, as well as eminent persons associated with Azad Hind Fauj/INA. The footprint of the celebrations was expanded to Delhi, Kolkata and many other places associated with Netaji and Azad Hind Fauj, both in India as well as abroad.

Driven by the committee, several union ministries are working on varied short- and long-duration programmes from the release of a book based on Netaji’s letters, plans for a new Netaji memorial in Neelganj and Cuttack and a heritage walk by the tourism ministry.

The defence ministry in a tribute to Netaji and his Indian National Army will play the INA’s anthem “kadam-kadam badhaye ja” during the beating retreat ceremony at the Rajpath.

While the government had initially announced that Railway would start a new Netaji express train, in the interim the iconic Howrah Kalka Mail has been rechristened “Netaji Express”. National carrier Air India will display pictures of Netaji in its aircraft and terminal offices.

The education ministry has decided to install 5 chairs on Netaji in 5 central universities. A list of INS veterans has been drawn and on Netaji’s birth anniversary they would be felicitated in a high-profile ceremony.

Realising that Netaji resonates among the youth, the sports ministry has plotted a “cyclothan” in February.

A quick look at the plan indicates that the celebrations are not a one-day affair. Instead, there are short- and long-term elements to ensure that the messaging sustains till Bengal starts voting.

A SLOW AND STEADY BUILD-UP

As part of the stated intent to “preserve and conserve the precious heritage of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose”, the government started changing gears in 2015 when it decided to declassify the files relating to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and make them accessible to the public. On October 14, 2015, nearly 50 members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s extended family met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a high-profile event.

The first lot of 33 files were declassified on 4 December 2015. Digital copies of 100 files relating to Netaji were released by Prime Minister Modi on 23 January 2016.

Two days after the Centre declassified 100 files relating to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, his grand-nephew and convenor of Open Platform for Netaji, Chandra Kumar Bose, was inducted in the BJP. He took the political plunge at a rally where then party national president Amit Shah was present.

In 2018, during his visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, PM Modi participated in a programme to mark the 75th anniversary of the hoisting of Tricolour by Netaji Bose. The PM paid tributes to Subhas Chandra Bose’s Provisional Government of Azad Hind, which administered the Islands during World War II.

On that day, the PM announced the renaming of 3 islands in Andaman and Nicobar. The Ross Island was renamed as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep; the Neil Island as Shaheed Dweep; and the Havelock Island as Swaraj Dweep.

On October 21, 2018, Modi hoisted the national flag at Red Fort and unveiled the plaque commemorating the 75th anniversary of the formation of Azad Hind Government, by Netaji.

On January 23, 2019, a museum set up on Netaji at Delhi’s Red Fort was inaugurated by the Prime Minister. The dedication to the legendary freedom fighter and his Indian National Army showcased various artifacts related to the wooden chair and sword used by Bose, his medals, uniforms, badges. A permanent exhibition and a Light and Sound show on Netaji at Victoria Memorial was announced

BITTER POLITICAL STORM OVER NETAJI’S LEGACY

The BJP’s Netaji push hasn’t gone down well with West Bengal chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee. After the Centre announced the series of events, she accused the saffron party “of using Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose as a poll prop ahead of assembly election in the state”.

As a political counter to the Centre’s ‘Parakram Diwas’ Mamata Banerjee announced on Tuesday that the day will be observed as ‘Desh Nayak Diwas’ (the day of the national hero). Taking a subtle dig at the BJP, riding on the “outsider” jibe, she said, “I don’t know the exact meaning of ‘Parakram’, maybe there are three to four meanings, so I can’t discuss now.”

Mamata took to Twitter and said, “Today is the 80th anniversary of Netaji’s ‘Great Escape’ from his Elgin Road residence to Europe. He overcame several hardships, to lay the groundwork for his war against the British. His resilience is an inspiration for all.”

Later TMC took to berating the Centre’s move and dubbed it a political “stunt” ahead of the West Bengal assembly polls due this year. TMC Lok Sabha MP Saugata Roy said, “It’s another unilateral decision by the Modi government. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has been demanding for years that January 23 be declared as a national holiday and celebrated as ‘Desh Nayak Diwas’, which is the appropriate name because Rabindranath Tagore called Bose a ‘desh er nayak’ (hero of the nation).”

In an event vs event contest, CM Banerjee announced instituting a national university funded entirely by the state government. The academic centre is proposed to work out tie-ups with foreign universities in the late freedom fighter’s name and also build a monument in Rajarhat. Banerjee has also unveiled a plan under which many Netaji’s writings would be translated into various languages and that the state’s planning commission would be named after one of the tallest freedom fighters.

While the Congress that has squandered the original title to Netaji’s legacy by virtue of him serving as two-time Congress president, the battle is clearly between the TMC and the BJP.

The approaching assembly election in West Bengal is all set to mutate what should be a national event into a game of ugly political slugfest. While the BJP is out to drive home its effort to honour the wronged hero, Mamata Banerjee’s party is dressing her efforts with “Bengali Asmita” (identity) to create a Bengali vs bahari (outsiders) fault line

IS LEGACY A VOTE GETTER?

The BJP assesses that among the Bengalis Netaji’s legacy endures. “Netaji has tremendous appeal among the youth in the state. The question – what happened to Netaji and why there are no questions are still part of discussions,” said a state BJP leader.

Amidst the race for legacy between the BJP and the TMC, Swapan Dasgupta, BJP Rajya Sabha member, interestingly on Thursday backed the TMC’s demand that a book chronicling the history of Azad Hind Fauj (INA) compiled by the history division of the Ministry of Defence several decades ago should be made public. He posted on Twitter that in 1999, he was told by a PMO official that “Jawaharlal Nehru suppressed it because he felt the government version would not be believed. It’s time to get the real story out.”

BJP’s IT cell chief Amit Malviya says, “no one has done as much as the BJP to resurrect the legacy of Netaji. He was denied the rightful place in the annals of history by the perverse politics of Nehru Gandhi parivar of the Congress.”

The TMC is terming the BJP’s bayonet charge on Netaji a poll gimmick.

This is bound to generate friction on the ground between the cadres of the two parties which are already locked in a hostile bloody battle. So tense is the atmosphere that two senior Kolkata resident experts on the history and culture of Bengal preferred to speak off record on Netaji’s legacy issue.

One of them said, “it is not easy to lay claim to the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose as it lays down that majoritarianism is not a democracy, uniformity can’t be a replacement for unity and regionalism can’t be home for Netaji’s nationalism. Both the BJP and TMC are trying but voters aren’t going to be swayed.”

Another prominent authority on Bengali culture said, “Gandhian values can’t be resurrected for polls campaigns. Netaji’s heroism can’t be divorced from harmony. Political parties will try but people of Bengal aren’t going to confuse legacy with propaganda.”

Netaji’s grandson Chandra Bose who had joined BJP was dropped from the party’s state executive council too reacted with caution on the issue. He said, “We welcome the initiatives of the central government. But his birth anniversary was celebrated as deshprem diwas. So Centre should have declared it as Patriots’ Day not parakram diwas. But he was the liberator of India, not just Bengal.”

He added that the Centre must get instituted a special investigating team or sit to look at every aspect behind Netaji’s disappearance and a DNA test must be carried out on his ashes at the Renkoji, a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Even he rejected the assessment that the legacy race may bring electoral dividends in polls.

But most Bengal watchers say that if the hype can bring even a clutch of votes, political parties wouldn’t refrain from using the issue. The BJP according to political commentators is working on an elaborate plan. “Today it is Netaji. Yesterday it was Patel and others. Tomorrow there will be some others. And it has its own logic behind the moves,” said a senior Bengal journalist.

Swapan Dasgupta in a telling comment said, “The controversy (over Netaji’s death or wilful disappearance) has not merely divided the Bose family but has assumed political overtones with the suggestion that the Nehru-Gandhi family was involved in a conspiracy.”

This line is perhaps the core reason for the BJP’s effort to resurrect Netaji’s legacy.

One, Netaji represents India’s anti-colonial nationalism. The BJP’s main political theme song has been robust and aggressive nationalism.

Netaji’s plans for ending the colonial rule didn’t find takers in the Congress and he went on to get allies abroad and formed the Azad hind Fauj, while led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress drove a non-violent struggle for independence.

This is where the BJP is blurring some lines of separation and sending out a message- we did what others didn’t and we are undoing what the Congress and others did.

Netaji fits the need of the day for the BJP in Bengal. The BJP pantheon has only a few famous Bengali surnames including Shyama Prasad Mukherjee the founder of Jana Sangh and Acharya Deva Prasad Ghosh, the longest-serving president of Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

Bengal has been a Congress turf, a left citadel and now a TMC bastion. The BJP lacks icons and leadership in the state. That’s why the party has been indulging in aggressive desertions, artful association and subtle appropriation in Bengal. Last month, the PM used the centenary celebrations of the Vishwa-Bharati University in Shantiniketan through video conferencing.

In May 2018, the PM was at the university founded by “Gurudev” for the 49th convocation as its Chancellor. He had turned up the event’s profile by inviting his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina to attend the event.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Pashchim Midnapore in December last to pay homage to freedom fighter Khudiram Bose at his native village during his two-day visit to West Bengal. The fearless freedom fighter is said to have held a copy of Bhagwad Gita when he was executed by the British in 1908 for his alleged role in the Muzaffarpur conspiracy case.

In May 2015, the PM had visited the Dakshineshwar temple near Kolkata to become the first Indian prime minister to visit the temple dedicated to goddess Kali, on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river.

In November last, the pm unveiled the statues of Swami Vivekananda at JNU considered a citadel of the Left.

ARTFUL ASSOCIATIONS & APPROPRIATION

Post Modi-rise in 2014, the BJP has made sustained bids to turn the focus on what the party calls the “role of icons whose contributions to free India were underplayed by the Congress. Netaji tops the party’s “ignored hero list.”

The BJP for years has kept the guns trained at the Congress for sub-optimal honour accorded to heroes of the freedom struggle and other significant milestones in Indian history. PM Narendra Modi led the BJP to appropriate the legacy of iron man Sardar Patel. It created a campaign with a large footprint to drive home its charge of serious differences between Patel and Nehru and the undermining of Patel’s legacy by the Congress. With the construction of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, the BJP seemed to have created a huge degree of ownership by utilising the congress’ failure to look beyond the party’s first family.

PM Modi pushed for special importance to be accorded to the architect of the Indian Constitution Dr B R Ambedkar. In November 2016, house Number 10 on King Henry road in London was turned into a tourist attraction. PM Modi inaugurated a museum in the house where Dr BR Ambedkar had spent two years between 1921-22 here.

A dozen days after the London event, the government piloted a winter session of Parliament with a two-day special sitting to celebrate Constitution Day in a tribute to BR Ambedkar.

Next year, in April, Modi paid floral tributes to Babasaheb Dr. Ambedkar, at his birthplace (Bhim Janma Bhoomi) in Mhow.

In April 2014, the PM filed his nomination from Varanasi. He started his nomination roadshow after paying floral tributes to freedom fighter and founder of BHU in Varanasi, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. Retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, Justice Girdhar Malviya, the grandson of BHU founder Madan Mohan Malviya, was one of the proposers of Modi’s candidature from Varanasi in the 2014 Lok Saha elections. In 2018, justice Malviya (retd) was appointed as the Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University.

The BJP has faced a lot of criticism from its political opponents for these attempts but the party remains unfazed. If there are heroes who never got their due during decades of Congress rule, the BJP will be out to resurrect their legacies both to honour them and to flag why they weren’t honoured. This Includes the absent-presence of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

READ | Gumanami Baba: Man of mystery

READ | People still believe Subhash Chandra Bose had survived plane crash


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