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How the BJP lost the battle of appropriating Netaji's legacy to Mamata

Somi Das | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:42 IST

The BJP has a strange knack of appropriating the legacy of important leaders of the Indian freedom struggle. Right since its general election campaign, it has never hidden its desire to creatively take over the legacy of Congress leaders.

First came Congress leader and the country's first home minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel's massive iron statue - promised by Narendra Modi to 'undo all the injustice done to the stalwart by the Congress'.

Statue of Unity/Videograb

An illustration of Sardar Patel's statue of unity in Gujarat

Then came the grand celebrations of Nehru's 125 birth centenary, in which the Congress and the BJP tried to outdo each other in their respective events for the occasion.

2 October, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, will be the day of stocktaking for Narendra Modi's pet project, the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.

All these developments suggest that there is a consistent effort at play in integrating the value system of leaders of the freedom struggle with the current political and ideological power shift at the centre.

The discontinuing of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi stamps and revamping the Nehru memorial are an extension of the same pattern. A new set of leaders of all political hues -- Deendayal Upadhaya, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Ram Manohar Lohia will feature on the new series of stamps - 'Makers of India' - to be launched by the Modi government.


Nevertheless, it would be unfair to label these changes sinister plans to destroy the Congress legacy or alter history. Political appropriation of leaders is not a new phenomenon. It can be said that the Congress only honoured people within the Gandhi-Nehru fold, leaving a huge vacuum that the BJP swiftly filled.

However, for all the appropriation battles it has won till now, it miserably failed where it was the easiest to score a symbolic and lasting victory.

With Mamata Banerjee taking the lead in releasing the 64 classified documents related to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose that the state government had in its possession, the BJP has lost all claims over the legacy of Netaji.

Changing stance

The BJP was in the forefront in demanding the declassifying of Bose's files during the Congress rule. Even after coming to power, initially it made the right noises to show it genuinely cared about Netaji's contribution to the freedom struggle.

There were reports of conferring the Bharat Ratna to the founder of the Indian National Army, but due to his family's reservations the plan was shelved.

After reports of snooping on Netaji's family during Nehru's regime snowballed into a major political controversy, Narendra Modi sent out a positive message by meeting Netaji's grand nephew, Surya Kumar Bose, during his visit to Berlin. He personally assured him that the matter would be looked into.

However, symbolic gestures can never replace the political will to take decisive actions. In its denial to concede to the demands of declassifying of Netaji files, the BJP sounded exactly like its predecessor and rival Congress - declassifying the documents would hinder Indian's international ties.

In politics, changing one's tune and compromising on principles isn't unusual. But it comes at a price. This is exactly the same price that the RSS feared the BJP would end up paying if it didn't fulfill its promise to implement One-Rank-One-Pension. The cost of leaving political ground for someone else to occupy is rather high.

Mamata Banerjee was shrewd enough to occupy the ground lost by the BJP.

Although, the files that Mamata Banerjee released may not answer all the questions related to Netaji, symbolically she has scored a huge victory.

And Banerjee didn't fall short of playing to the gallery either. In a dramatic press conference much like the Prime Minister's Naga accord press conference, Mamata declared: "We don't make false promises."

Not only did she make the event look grand and special for the people of Bengal, she turned the tables on the Centre for not ordering a probe into the alleged snooping on the Bose family. She demanded with rightful authority now, that the Centre must follow suit and release the rest of the documents in its possession.

West Bengal Chief Minister's full press conference on Netaji files

She won the Bose family's confidence by handing over the documents to them, even before either the general public or the media could view it. Chandra Bose, Netaji's grand nephew while thanking the West Bengal chief minister for "her brave move", didn't forget to send out a terse message to the Centre - the family wants the snooping allegations probed.

Netaji files and the Bengal elections

Much like Shivaji is the son of the soil for the Marathis, for the people of Bengal, Netaji is their ultimate hero. Seventy years after his disappearance, the mystery around his death is still a very sensitive issue for them.

They have long demanded that his birthday, 23 January, be declared a national holiday. Till now, it was the Congress they targeted for not giving Netaji his due. But now the BJP too will be seen in the same light.

With the Bengal Assembly elections in 2016 and Amit Shah trying hard for a foothold in Mamata's bastion, the BJP has lost a golden opportunity to endear itself to the people of Bengal.

First published: 19 September 2015, 3:44 IST
Somi Das @Somi_Das

Somi brings with her the diverse experience of working in a hard news environment with ample exposure to long-form journalism to Catch. She has worked with Yahoo! News, India Legal and Newslaundry. As the Assistant Editor of Catch Live, she intends to bring quality, speed and accuracy to the table. She has a PGD in Print and TV journalism from YMCA, New Delhi, and is a lifelong student of Political Science.