RSS grows in West Bengal, but no match for Didi’s outreach during Covid

The recent victory of the BJP in 70 plus seats in the assembly, while emerging as the main opposition, and its stupendous and surprising gain of 19 seats in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019, have been attributed to the effective grassroots mobilization of the RSS in both the electoral and non-electoral arena in the state.

It is believed that the RSS worked quietly, but efficiently, especially during the first pandemic/lockdown, and in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, and its presence was felt in many areas, thus helping the BJP penetrate many new areas electorally. Indeed, the RSS/BJP positioned itself in spaces where the Left had declined decisively, while constantly improvising its tactics. So much so, a sizeable section of the Left support base, which considered the Trinamool Congress as the main enemy, switched over to the BJP.

However, the Trinamool Congress’ landslide victory in the recent assembly polls, despite the BJP’s two ‘Gujarati supermen’ unleashing huge money, muscle and media power to capture Bengal, has exposed the hype about ‘the rise and rise’ of the RSS-BJP in Bengal. While the RSS is credited with providing relief in some areas during the last two years of social, economic and health crisis in the state due to the pandemic and recurrent lockdowns, its efforts have been no match for the Mamata Banerjee government’s highly popular social and economic welfare schemes, especially at the grassroots.

“In West Bengal, the RSS works secretively and in the remote interiors. They remain in the shadows. This was their pattern even when they were not so strong during the Left Front rule. This largely continues to be their pattern now under the rule of the Trinamool Congress, though they are politically more stronger, and have the backing of the Centre.  If they have done relief work during the pandemic, it must have been done secretly, and only in their core areas among their core support base,” said a social activist.

COVID Response Watch LogoThere is no doubt that the RSS has grown in the last few years, after the decline of the Left forces, and especially in the interiors, from Jangalmahal to Cooch Behar. For instance, the RSS has been very active among the tribal communities in Jangalmahal – namely, Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore and Jhargram, close to Jharkhand. Ironically, this area became the hotbed of the Maoists during the last phase of the CPM rule, and in the early days of the Trinamool’s rise. That short phase is now all but over.

The RSS has also successfully made inroads among tea plantation workers and other communities in North Bengal, even while Darjeeling has been their victorious Lok Sabha constituency with remarkable consistency. The BJP had earlier penetrated the Gorkhaland agitation, and despite the splits in the movement, it still retains a stronghold on the ground.

Significantly, after the assembly polls recently, certain BJP leaders have given a contentious call for the division of West Bengal, and the creation of a different state or union territory of North Bengal. Its top leaders in Kolkata and Delhi, while overtly not supporting the demand, have been tacitly playing a double game on this controversial issue.  BJP MP from Alipurduar, John Barla, has demanded that a new union territory should be with certain districts of North Bengal. The BJP won seven of the eight Lok Sabha seats in North Bengal in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

According to a news report, the various fronts of the RSS and Sangh Parivar operated around 40 help desks across Bengal during the first lockdown in the cruel summer of 2020 when the mass exodus of thousands of migrant workers from their work places began – on foot – across the streets and highways of India. Almost 121 unions affiliated to the Sangh Parivar distributed food and sanitisers among 1.60 lakh families at 665 locations in 23 districts, according to reports, while tarpaulins, food and relief material was provided in Amphan-hit areas as well. The National Medicos Organisation (NMO), allegedly aligned to the RSS, along with volunteers, held 80 medical camps in East Midnapore and the South and North 24 Parganas, which were hit by the cyclone. Around 25,000 people got medical care, with the help of 80 doctors, 250 volunteers and the BJP medical cell, while masks and medicines were distributed.

Social activists claim that since the RSS chooses to work in the interiors, often in tribal areas, it is not always easy to document their work. For instance, their schools, known as Shishu Mandirs, are active across North Bengal, and they have made significant inroads into the tea gardens, despite the presence of other mainstream parties in the region, including the CPI-ML (Liberation) and the CPM. They often use social philanthropy and community activity to influence and capture mass support on the ground, even while ideological indoctrination of Hindutva among children starts early.

For instance, in the heart of the Naxalite movement in North Bengal, in Naxalbari, they have set up a flourishing school on a sprawling campus — the Sarada Vidyamandir. From the 1990s, till this day, the school has attracted both parents and children of local communities, even while it is well-known that the RSS runs it. A journalist points out that one can clearly see a pattern – the rise of the school’s prestige often moves in tandem with the RSS-BJP spreading its social and political wings in the area. And its best indicators are their political gains in elections – as much as huge increase in vote percentages. Indeed, in the recent assembly elections, the BJP candidate won the Matigara-Naxalbari constituency in this area with a big margin.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Jangalmahal region of Bengal, which is largely inhabited by tribals, and which, until the Left rule of more than three decades, suffered huge deprivation, stark poverty, underdevelopment and marginalization. This phenomenon has changed in the last 10 years with the Trinamool government at the helm, and the social and human development index has changed for the better.  However, the RSS continues to be active here, though it did not reflect in the elections this time in a decisive manner.

However, for a secretive, ‘cultural organisation’, with a sectarian and polarizing civilizational and political agenda, which reportedly had its first ‘shakha’ in the neighbourhood of Maniktala in Kolkata in March 1939, the high has always been marked with an equally pronounced low. Indeed, its record in public spaces has been very modest, though now it has reportedly around 1,800 shakhas across Bengal.

Since that first ‘shakha’ directly under the physical presence and leadership of its principle ideologue, MS Golwalkar, RSS, the original fountainhead of Hindutva which controls the BJP, and all its fronts, has not really made massive headway in Bengal, especially in urban spaces, or, in the cultural, educational and intellectual terrain. (The BJP, for instance, lost in all the constituencies of Kolkata in the recent assembly polls).

Social activists are of the view that the RSS never really could capture the political, cultural and intellectual imagination of the people in Bengal before and after Partition. Even in the recent assembly polls, the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ just did not click in a state where people are so passionately ‘shakti-worshippers’ (Durga, Kali, Saraswati etc), and followers of the Bhakti-vaishnav tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and the secular spirituality of Ramkrishna Paramhans.

The RSS tried its best to penetrate the refugee colonies of the homeless people who came from across the ‘East Bengal’ border after Partition, during and after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, and, later, in the 1980s. However, they simply could not succeed among these displaced, but stoic and resilient people, who started their life anew from scratch in various refugee colonies in tough and difficult conditions.

These hard working communities remained staunchly secular supporters of the Left in essence and spirit, and the Left protected and helped them find a new beginning in West Bengal. There was never any sectarian division between the people of East and West Bengal historically – instead, there have always been dominant reasons for enduring cultural, linguistic and social unity. Even among smaller sections of the new Hindu refugees, the RSS-BJP’s gains, using hate politics and communal discourse, have been minimal. However, they have succeeded in a big manner in places like Coochbehar which borders Bangladesh.

Political observers also point out that among certain sections of Bengali refugees, including those who have become upwardly mobile and educated, a simmering communal and sectarian feeling continues to remain entrenched. Over the years it could not find social and political expression, especially during the Left rule. Now, with the rise of the BJP, this sectarian instinct has resurfaced and is reflected in the growth of the BJP.

One of the biggest difficulties which the RSS-Sangh Parivar fronts have faced is that since the Trinamool  Congress government has acquired power, the party and the administration has moved in massively and decisively in the social sector, especially in the sectors of health and education, and  especially among women and girls, which has directly helped families and communities in basic sustenance and aspirational growth. Even during the long phases of the lockdown and the pandemic, the West Bengal government has provided ration and food to the working class and low income groups across Bengal. The reporter is witness to people across the rural and small town areas testifying that the state government provided rice, wheat, cooking oil, pulses etc, every month to every family – which helped them cope with longs spells of unemployment during the pandemic.

Said a woman selling puri-sabji near Panchphota in South 24 Pargana, “Me and my husband have started this food cart providing hot breakfast to people. We could only do this because we got ration every month free of cost – given by the government.”

Even in Kolkata, in an area like Kumortuli, which is the epicenter of artists and sculptors who make the famous statues of goddesses during the festivals, there are several very small scale industries, running in ‘little factories’ with extremely low budgets. Almost everyone around this area said that there was organized and regular distribution of ration and food presided over by the local Trinamool MLA even during the most difficult phases of the lockdown when everything was shut. Not only food, during the lockdown, medical help and hospital beds were arranged by the local MLA. No wonder, the popular and accessible MLA, Dr Shashi Panja, has won yet again from the area.

After the formation of the new government in May 2021, food and ration is actually being distributed at the door-step, and this process was on during the lockdown as well even as the second wave surged. This reporter witnessed this promise made by Mamata Banerjee in her last rally in Nandigram before the polls. This also follows the ‘government at your door-step’ scheme which unfolded months before the polls.

The latest popular scheme which has drawn good response among the poor and low income groups in Bengal, especially among women, yet again, is the ‘Lakshmi Bhandar Scheme’, which too was part of the Trinamool Congress Election Manifesto. The welfare scheme, announced by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, allows female heads of economically weak families to receive a monthly allowance of Rs 500. Families belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities are eligible to receive Rs 1,000 per month. The scheme is run by the Department of Women & Child Development and Social Welfare.

Indeed, among the several welfare programmes run by the West Bengal government, those involving women, and especially in the health and education sectors, have been a roaring success. For instance, all district government hospitals have given free medical treatment during and before Covid. The specialized hospitals like MS Bangur and Beleghata Infectious Diseases (ID) Hospital in Kolkata too have provided state-of-the-art medical treatment free of cost.

Indeed, their remarkable work during the first and second wave has drawn international attention for these two hospitals, especially for the Beleghata ID hospital, which has outstretched its brilliant record in terms of research and professional expertise in dealing with Covid in just about two years. Besides, both the hospitals are being credited with the most dedicated doctors, nurses and frontline health and sanitation staff, along with medical services, perhaps among the best in India. In fact, the daily meals provided to Covid patients in Beleghata hospital is a good example of its outstanding record: Tea and biscuits twice in the morning and evening, eggs, toast, apples and bananas for breakfast, fish, egg curry, rice, chapattis, vegetables and fruits for lunch and dinner. Plus, filtered water, hair oil, soap, comb, washing powder and sets of new cotton pyjamas and shirts, among other things.

In the health sector, the Swasthya Sathi health insurance scheme has been a big success, especially in rural Bengal and among economically weaker sections, though it covers the entire population.  It’s a basic health cover of Rs 5 lakh for the secondary and tertiary care for every family, per annum. Women who are guardians or are heading the family, will be given the insurance card, though it will cover the entire family, including her own parents if she is married and has shifted to another household. All government and private hospitals are included in this scheme whereby patients will get free, cashless treatment. This has been a huge relief for women in rural Bengal, and among the poor, even while the card is held by the women guardians of the family.

Said a Dalit woman in Nandigram, “Not only me, you can check out across the village here. All women have got this card. It’s a big help and a big security for people like us, especially during such uncertain and insecure times like the pandemic.”

Besides, two other famous social sector schemes continue to help and inspire girl students across rural and small town Bengal, though schools have not opened. One is ‘Kanyashree’, which is one of the original flagship programmes started by Mamata Banerjee, and which has got international recognition. It helps girls financially over a long period of time, to go through primary, secondary, and, finally, higher education, and thereby get out of the trap of marriage, social bondage or compulsive child labour. This has been clearly reflected in the higher enrolment of girls in schools with their drop-out rates decreasing rapidly. Indeed, Bengal has a very high literacy rate, and, now, girls are one of the biggest catalysts in this upward swing.

Besides, the ‘Sabooj Sathi’ scheme has been a roaring hit — thousands of cycles have been distribute to girl students from Class 9 and 12. Indeed, 90 lakh plus cycles have been distributed for girl students. Hence, it is a normal sight in villages and small towns of Bengal to see girls and working women on cycles, which is a big step forward in terms of mobility and empowerment.

“Yes, my daughter too has a cycle gifted by the Trinamool government. Like the other school girls here, she loves her cycle. We are happy when she goes out to school cycling,” said a BJP supporter of the Namashudra Matua community in Thakurbari in North 24 Pargana.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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