On January 9, the Centre announced a high-level committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on events to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose beginning from January 23.
A few days ago, on January 4, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced her government’s events to celebrate Netaji’s anniversary -- setting up a national university and a monument and printing literature.
As West Bengal assembly elections draw near, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party are putting their best foot forward in appropriating Netaji, one of the most revered Indian freedom movement figures from West Bengal.
For Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, Netaji is an icon representing local Bengali ‘asmita’ or pride. For the BJP, which many observers feel is TMC’s key opponent in the upcoming polls, Netaji is a symbol of national pride whose legacy, the saffron party says, remained neglected to benefit the Nehru-Gandhi family.
The Centre’s panel of 85 members has at least ten ministers, seven chief ministers and many parliamentarians on board, apart from eminent citizens, authors and Netaji’s family members. It has many BJP leaders from West Bengal, including Babul Supriyo, Dilip Ghosh, Roopa Ganguly, to name a few.
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The move is being seen as BJP’s attempt to appropriate Netaji and his legacy, especially since the party has been trying to make inroads in West Bengal politics, so far dominated by the Left, Congress and now the TMC. Mamata Banerjee and senior Congres leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury are also on the Centre’s panel.
For quite some time now, the BJP has been giving more attention to Netaji accusing Congress of downplaying him. The party’s focus in the national leader has renewed ahead of the West Bengal election scheduled in April-May, experts said.
Mamata Banerjee is trying her best too. “A vast majority of Indians have forgotten the great message Netaji’s life had been to his people. The young generation needs to learn from his life,” she said at a virtual meeting attended by members of her government’s committee that include Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Abhijit Banerjee, among others.
The chief minister has announced that January 23 will be celebrated with a grand parade in Kolkata and the Independence Day parade in the city will be dedicated to Netaji. She has also demanded that January 23 be declared as a national holiday.
TMC leaders making references to Netaji is not uncommon. Most of them have invoked ‘local Vs outsider’ argument while targeting BJP leaders.
“North Indians (politicians) have tried to corner Bengalis since the time Subhash Bose lost in Tripuri Congress. The same is being repeated now with Mamata Banerjee. But she continues to fight just like Bose. Should Bengalis accept leaders from other states being imposed on them," West Bengal minister Bratya Basu said recently in an attack on the BJP. Basu is also an acclaimed theatre and film personality.
BJP was quick to hit back suggesting Bose was a national hero. “Those who have lost the trust of people in Bengal are lecturing us about outsiders. I want to ask them did freedom fighters from Bengal sacrifice their lives only for Bengal or for the entire nation.” BJP leader Dilip Ghosh asked.
In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, TMC won 22 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal. It had won 34 seats in the 2014 general elections. The BJP, which had almost no presence in the state in 2014 scripted an improvement by bagging 18 seats in 2019. The saffron party’s vote share went up from 17 percent in 2014 to 40.3 percent in 2019 largely at the expense of the Left and Congress votes.
In 2016 assembly polls, TMC won 211 seats in the 293-member state assembly with 44.91 percent votes. BJP got 3 seats with a vote share of 10.16 percent.
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182-metre tall statue?
The Congress is in the fight too. In a recent interview to a news website, All India Congres Committee’s (AICC) West Bengal in-charge Jitin Prasada accused BJP of trying to alter the state’s culture. He said that Congress would build the tallest statue of Bose if it came to power in the state.
“The BJP doesn’t care for the culture and identity of West Bengal. It is evident in their past dealings. Why haven’t they made a 182-metre tall statue of Subhash Chandra Bose yet? If the Congress comes to power in West Bengal, we will make the tallest statue of Bose,” Prasada said in the interview.