‘Outsider’ BJP takes battle to cultural core of Bengal

By spending considerable time in Santiniketan, Amit Shah seeks to send message that Tagore mattered equally to BJP

Updated - December 23, 2020 09:22 am IST

Published - December 23, 2020 04:19 am IST - Kolkata

Rural connect: Union Home Minister Amit Shah having lunch at the house of farmers Jhunu Singh and Sanatan Singh at Belijuri village in Midnapore.

Rural connect: Union Home Minister Amit Shah having lunch at the house of farmers Jhunu Singh and Sanatan Singh at Belijuri village in Midnapore.

Bengal wouldn’t be Bengal enough without Rabindranath Tagore, and by spending considerable time in Santiniketan during his recent visit to the election-bound State, Home Minister Amit Shah sought to send a strong message that the poet mattered equally to his Bharatiya Janata Party, labelled as “outsider” by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Swami Vivekananda and Tagore are the two biggest icons of Bengal, and while Mr. Shah’s presence at the former’s birthplace in Kolkata was not unexpected, it was his elaborate schedule at the latter’s workplace that is being seen as an attempt at making inroads into the cultural core of a State set to witness a fierce electoral contest early next year.

Even though his itinerary at the Tagore-established Visva-Bharati and the town where it is situated did not go down very well with many long-time residents, it showed how determined the party is to dislodge Ms. Banerjee — promoted as “Bengal’s pride” — from power. Birbhum district, of which Santiniketan is a part, is a stronghold of the ruling Trinamool Congress.

“The Home Minister has no statutory presence in Visva-Bharati. His coming on an official visit and being honoured is unprecedented in the history of Visva-Bharati,” a top academician, no longer associated with the university but still living in Santiniketan, told The Hindu .

‘Political overtones’

“The most disturbing aspect of his visit [last Saturday] was that it had political overtones — being accompanied by hardcore party workers; naming a road inside the campus, something never done in Tagore’s university; worshipping in a Hanuman temple; and combing the Visva-Bharati visit with a political road show,” said the academician, who did not want to be named.

“And while [Mr. Shah] lauded the positive influence of Tagore on Gandhi and Subhas Bose, he did not mention Nehru, who made umpteen visits here to meet Tagore, who became its first Chancellor, who inaugurated the Hindi Bhavan, and who even sent his daughter to study here,” he said.

But there are also people in Santiniketan who see the Home Minister’s visit in a positive light. “There was a time when Bengalis were ahead of others in almost every field — politics, education, arts, literature. While those days are long gone, when people from all over the country came to Bengal, they still harbour a superiority complex. But the young middle-class Bengali is now realising that Bengal needs a national character,” Chakradhar Tripathi, a professor of Hindi at Visva-Bharati, told The Hindu .

“In no other State people are as politically aware as they are in Bengal. But 80% of those politically active are fence sitters. They go in whichever direction the wind is blowing. And going by the response to the Home Minister’s road show, the common man seems to be in favour of change,” said Prof. Tripathi, himself a member of the rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and who in 2015 started the RSS-associated Visva-Bharati Shaikshik Sangh on the campus.

“Amit Shah has been a member of the RSS from the age of 13. We in the RSS believe in worshipping and seeking the blessings of icons before we set out on a task. That’s what [Mr. Shah] has done — he has sent a message that if the BJP comes to power, Tagore will get more respect than he already enjoys. Tagore is not just a Bengali, he is a national treasure,” he said.

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