In the long and acrimonious run-up to the 2014 general election, there were political analysts who discounted the possibility of the Bharatiya Janata Party ever forming a viable government at the Centre. Their scepticism was based on two considerations. First, it was felt that Narendra Modi was too 'polarizing' a figure to be acceptable to the Indian electorate. Secondly, and much more significant, it was believed that the social and geographical spread of the BJP was too narrow to permit any pan-Indian presence.
The belief that the BJP was essentially a Brahmin-Bania or, at best, an upper-caste party confined to northern and western India was a caricature that seems to have been ingrained in the minds of many analysts. 'Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan' was a Hindu Mahasabha formulation of the 1940s that was uncritically applied to, first, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and, subsequently, to the BJP. This was coupled with astonishing social condescension of an elite that regarded itself as cosmopolitan and, consequently, very much superior.
In his novel, The Jewel in the Crown, centred on the twilight years of imperial rule, Paul Scott described the prevailing British attitudes to Hindu nationalists: "Hindu meant Hindu Mahasabha, Hindu nationalism, Hindu narrowness. It meant rich Banias with little education, landowners who spoke worse English than the younger sub-divisional officer his eager but halting Hindi. It meant sitting without shoes and with your feet curled up on the chair, eating only horrible vegetarian dishes and drinking disgusting fruit juice." This stereotype was inherited by the Nehruvian elite after Independence and helped shape its political attitudes. The Congress of those days did contain many Hindu nationalists, some of whom were ministers. To Walter Crocker, an Australian high commissioner to India, these functionaries were markedly different from "Nehru and the upper class Indian nationalists of English education". The non-Nehruvians, he wrote in his reminiscences of his years in India, "were provincial mediocrities, untraveled, ill-educated, narrow-minded, not a few were lazy; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology; some were dishonest".
It is interesting to map when variants of this cultural disdain for anything that smacked of 'Hindu' politics began to make its mark in West Bengal. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, in the period that witnessed the birth and the flowering of Indian nationalism, Hindu-ness (the rough English translation of Hindutva) was an important current in Bengal's intellectual thought and politics. Most nationalist thinkers were concerned with trying to come to terms with the reasons for the loss of national sovereignty and exploring ways of overcoming it. In this scheme of things, the reform and recrafting of Hindu society occupied a key position. Tapan Raychaudhuri's study of Bengal's responses to the West in the 19th century dealt with three intellectual stalwarts - Bhudeb Mukherjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda. All three focused on issues that related to Hindus as Hindus. To them, modernity did not mean discarding the Hindu inheritance but reshaping (and in Bhudeb's case rediscovering) the Hindu inheritance.
In the realms of political activism too, the movement against the Partition of Bengal had explicitly Hindu overtones - take Aurobindo Ghose and Bipin Chandra Pal as foremost examples - and this religio-political aspect was embraced by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore's shift to universal humanism was a subsequent development and his trenchant critique of Mahatma Gandhi's non-cooperation movement did not endear him to most fellow Bengalis. However, his iconic status, particularly after he won the Nobel prize, insulated him from any politically-inspired criticism. Arguably, C.R. Das was an exception but his legacy of communal power-sharing collapsed rapidly after his untimely death. From the late 1920s till Independence, there was often very little to distinguish the Bengal Congress from the Hindu Mahasabha. In spite of the parallel attraction of Marxism, the upper echelons of bhadralok society did not shun explicitly Hindu mobilization. The Hindu Mahasabha boasted of the involvement of intellectual stalwarts such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee and even Ramananda Chatterjee. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh never struck deep roots in Bengali Hindu society but V.D. Savarkar was certainly a national leader of consequence in Bengal. The pressure built up by Shyama Prasad was a key factor in ensuring that the Hindu majority districts of Bengal were not included in East Pakistan.
When Shyama Prasad quit the Hindu Mahasabha after Gandhi's assassination in 1948 and subsequently resigned from Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet in protest against the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950, there was a feeling that Hindu nationalism would remain a potent force in West Bengal, competing with the Communist Party for the anti-Congress space. In the first general election of 1951-52, the newly-formed Jana Sangh won just three Lok Sabha seats. Two of these, including Shyama Prasad's own, were from West Bengal.
There are four possible reasons why the Jana Sangh failed to strike roots in West Bengal. First, there was Shyama Prasad's unfortunate death in a Kashmir jail in 1953 that left the new party orphaned and rudderless. Second, the cultural idiom of Hindu nationalist politics came to be determined by the RSS which, at that time, was dominated by Maharashtrian Brahmins and Arya Samajists. The very distinctive Hindu tradition of Bengal was insufficiently reflected in the cultural face of the Jana Sangh. Till the Ayodhya movement effected a minor electoral tremor, the Jana Sangh and BJP was largely seen in West Bengal as the party of Hindi-speakers in central Calcutta. Third, unlike pre-Independence when the regional grievances of the Hindus played a role in propelling Hindu nationalism, the Jana Sangh failed to link its local politics to Bengal's specific concerns. Anti-cow slaughter movements and the drive for the greater use of Hindi failed to resonate in the state. Finally, whereas the expansion of the Jana Sangh in North India was substantially driven by refugees from West Pakistan, the mobilization of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan became the monopoly of the Communist Party. The natural constituency of Hindu nationalism moved to Left politics without any serious competition.
The Look East policy of the BJP, particularly after the party's success in Assam and its inroads in Odisha, has generated excitement in West Bengal. Coming in the wake of the complete decimation and demoralization of the once mighty Communist Party of India (Marxist), there is an expectation that the BJP could grab the anti-Trinamul Congress mantle. Yet, the possibility of this happening has been discounted by many analysts on the ground that the BJP lacks a local idiom. The controversy over Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti is cited as evidence that the BJP just doesn't get Bengal.
The doubts may well be valid. However, it is pertinent to note that a long spell of Left politics has led to the collapse of the old-style bhadralok ethos that once set the tone of politics. What appears to have replaced it is a plebianization of public life, a variant of what has happened in the Hindi belt but minus the caste. Anecdotal evidence of the recent Hindu mobilization in the state suggests that restlessness over the TMC's perceived pro-Muslim bias has been coupled with an increasing willingness to embrace neo-Hindu cultural forms that have acquired a pan-Indian character thanks to television. The earlier repugnance of cultural forms borrowed from the so-called 'cow belt' has been diluted substantially, along with the decline of bhadralok values. What we may be noticing in Bengal is the silent assertion of non-upper caste Hindus, ironically the same section that was politically empowered by the CPI(M) and TMC.
The BJP space in West Bengal warrants closer observation. The Hindu nationalist tradition isn't alien to the state, and its politics is still in embryo.