The ties between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bengal are old. The RSS officially began working in Bengal in 1934 but its unofficial ties with Bengal go back further. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the RSS founder, got his medical education in Bengal in the 1910s. The RSS’s own biographers claim that Hedgewar was associated with the revolutionary organization Asnushilan Samiti and had participated in the uprising under a pseudonym. While the historical documents related to the Freedom Movement do not confirm this claim, what can be accepted is that the RSS founder Hedgewar did have ties with Bengal. When the RSS formed the Bharatiya Janasangh as its political wing, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was appointed its first president. He contested the first General Elections in 1952 from West Bengal and won. The Hindu Mahasabha, a communal party which has been playing a leading role in the politics of Hindutva, also has had a political base in Bengal. But the RSS could not get a foothold in Bengal because of the long rule of the Left Front – this when Bengal has been most suitable and fertile for its politics of hate.
Its weak presence in Bengal has always been a sore point with the RSS. Its fierce opponents, the Congress and the Left, were in power in the state for a long time and then, Trinamool Congress took over. The ideology and cadre of the Trinamool Congress was not in consonance with the politics of the RSS. As it waited to rule the state, the RSS was getting restless. The RSS and other Hindutva forces and organizations continued to enjoy the backing of the big Marwari businessmen of Kolkata. These businessmen who had settled in Bengal took on many soft-Hindutva projects on their own, including massive investments in publishers of low-priced Hindu religious literature such as the Gita Press in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
Since taking over as Sarsangh Sanchalak of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat has expressed his desire for political control from time to time. With names of many people associated with the Sangh cropping up in connection with several cases of violence in the country and the organization coming on the radar of the National Investigation Agency, a terrified RSS, from 2013 onwards, became convinced that it had to grab power by hook or by crook and began playing its role openly.
Under the leadership of Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS threw away the garb of being a cultural organization and devoted itself to direct participation in political activities. It took control of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and projected Narendra Modi as the future prime minister. The BJP could come to power at the centre courtesy of the hard work and the strategy of the RSS. The RSS did not sit quiet after seating one of its swayamsevaks on the throne. It began focusing on the states where it had negligible political dominance. West Bengal was at the top of the list. In 2015, Dilip Ghosh, who was a pracharak in another RSS affiliate, Bajrang Dal, was given the reins of the West Bengal chapter of the BJP and thus began RSS’s mission to conquer the state.
The BJP didn’t get any notable success in 2016 Assembly elections. It could win only three seats, though its share of the votes did go up. The few seats did not cause any disappointment in the RSS camp because its real objective was to win the 2021 elections and it continued towards the goal.
The Bengali Bhadralok perceived the RSS as a communal group of lathi-wielders hostile to the world of cultural intelligentsia. There was a historical reason for the Bengali upper-caste Bhadralok not being drawn to the RSS. The reason is that both the Bhadralok and RSS were hegemonic. Both want to take control of everything around them and even the thought of sharing power and resources with others is an anathema to them. In his writings, Dr Ambedkar has talked about this tendency of the Maharashtrian Brahmins of the Peshwa mindset and the Bengali Bhadralok. Ambedkar’s words remain valid even today.
Flexibility has always been one of the specialties of Brahmanism, forging agreements with anyone when needed. The RSS began using these brahmanical stratagems in West Bengal. That is how RSS invited Pranab Mukherjee, former president of India and the topmost upper-caste face of the Congress party, as the chief guest at its annual function in Nagpur and gave an impetus to its mission to conquer West Bengal. This was akin to killing many birds with one stone. The Congress was shown its place; an unsuccessful attempt was made to free RSS of its communal image; and a secret pact was entered into with this ardent opponent of Mamata Banerjee. The conferring of Bharat Ratna on Mukherjee was also a part of this scheme.
After the 2016 elections, the RSS focused all its strength in West Bengal and drew up a new strategy. In keeping with its practice, it divided the state into five parts. The district and mandal (block) level committees of the BJP were revamped. By 2018, the RSS had deployed 200 vistaraks at the Shakti Kendra level and had appointed 17,500 short-term workers. With their cooperation, around 78,000 booth-level committees were constituted. To aid Dilip Ghosh, the RSS deployed pracharaks like Shivprakash Thakur from Uttarakhand and Arvind Menon from Kerala. People like Sunil Deodhar were sent from the RSS to the BJP and RSS’s subsidiary organizations were activated.
The BJP never had an organizational structure in West Bengal, hence the RSS took over the work of building such a structure. It deployed dozens of organizations like Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Vanbandhu Parishad, Vivekananda Kendra, Bajrang Dal, Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, Seva Bharati, Arogya Bharati, Laghu Udyog Bharati, Shrihari Satsang Samiti and Vivekananda Vidya Vikash Parishad on the ground to identify people. Next, under the supervision of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, a major campaign was launched to break up different opposition parties, organizations and social groups. Mohan Bhagwat began touring West Bengal more frequently. He also began wooing the emigrant Bengalis settled in Delhi and Mumbai.
In 2018, the RSS felt that its hard work and strategy had begun paying dividends in West Bengal. It got notable successes in the elections to Panchayati Raj institutions, which served to indicate it had managed to shed its image of an urban Brahmin-Bania party. It focused on the Dalit, Adivasi and backward castes. The RSS began working on the Matua caste, which forms 50 per cent of the Dalit population of West Bengal. It worked towards raising a Dalit leadership and in fact, went a step further and tried its hands at caste identity politics. The RSS is quite adept in the art of causing religious and communal polarization and so it began talking about the various sub-identities of West Bengal. Different affiliates of the RSS became active among the Adivasi communities and the backward castes. The outcome was visible in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP won 18 seats from West Bengal and its vote share rose to 40.64 per cent. The party got the highest votes in 121 assembly segments. The RSS thus became confident that it would easily win the 2021 Assembly Elections.
Emergence of the BJP as the main opposition party in the panchayat elections and its massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections boosted RSS’s morale. Then, the RSS’s so-called “Chanakya Neeti” gave wings to its aspirations.
On his frequent visits to West Bengal, the RSS chief started projecting himself as an intellectual to the Bengali Bhadralok. The RSS persuaded many cultural personalities to join the BJP and nominated them as candidates. Mohan Bhagwat brought together many writers, litterateurs, poets and personalities associated with music and the arts at the Kolkata residence of famed Sarod player Pandit Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar as part of his efforts to reform his image. The RSS wanted to show the Bengali society that it has cultural leanings and intellectuals have a role to play in the organization, and that it is not merely an organization that promotes physical exercises.
The RSS gave the final shape to its mission to conquer West Bengal at its national executive meeting at Gandhinagar in Gujarat in the first week of January 2021. Among the resolutions passed at the meeting, the one on West Bengal elections was the most important. It delineated the final strategy and resolved to get into the election mode with full might. Activities were planned for many levels and the RSS, BJP and other affiliates were directed to work in at full capacity.
Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, was already in the thick of the campaign. In February 2021 he met Mithun Chakraborty, the famous actor and former Rajya Sabha member from the Trinamool Congress, in Mumbai and persuaded him to join the BJP and become its star campaigner. Mithun did accept the invitation and joined the campaign, describing himself as a cobra. Whom the cobra bit is a different story altogether. The RSS brought many leaders into the BJP from the Trinamool Congress and wooed lower-level functionaries of the Congress and Left parties, too.
It seemed that the RSS had drawn up the perfect strategy for conquering West Bengal. An aggressive polarizing campaign was launched on issues like Rohingyas, Muslim appeasement, beef, Bangaldeshi infiltrators, Love Jihad and corruption by Mamata Banerjee. The RSS played an active, direct role in nominating candidates and the canvassing. It also adopted the identity-based politics of caste and religion. It made full use of the power and resources of the central government. But despite all this, the politics of hate and the “Chanakya Neeti” of the RSS fell flat on its face.
This was a state where it has had a century-long presence; where the first chief of its political wing (Shyama Prasad Mukherjee) was elected from; and which was the centre of the activities of RSS’s founder Hedgewar. Yet, this state rejected the script written by the RSS and showed that the RSS is not invincible and its hate-filled “Chanakya Neeti” is not final or invincible either.
The people of West Bengal have ripped off the mask of cultural organization that the RSS wore and exposed its political hunger. It is a purely political organization which controls politics through one of its branches, the BJP. It is high time that the RSS adhered to the advice of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. In March 2018, Gehlot had said, “The RSS has been ruling from behind the curtains. It decides who will be the chief minister and who will be the prime minister. The RSS should now announce that it is a political party. The BJP and the RSS should do politics as a single unit.”
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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