From inaugurating museum to declassifying 'Netaji Files', BJP has often appropriated Bose's legacy to make inroads in Bengal

Sukanya Ray

Ever since coming to power in 2014, time and again the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been accused of making a "conspiratorial attempt" to appropriate the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose and other prominent icons of India's struggle for Independence like Sardar Patel and BR Ambedkar. Targeting the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Modi government has often flagged that the contributions of other freedom fighters were downplayed to accommodate the ambitions "one family".

In the last five years, the BJP has been observed actively giving more attention to Bose.

On 23 January, 2019, Modi inaugurated the Subhas Chandra Bose museum at the Red Fort, Delhi, to mark his 122nd birth anniversary.

After the inauguration of the museum, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had highlighted the works done by the Modi government to honour the legacy of Bose, Patel and Ambedkar. Attacking the erstwhile government, Prasad had said that he failed to comprehend why memorials of the three leaders of freedom struggle had not been built earlier.

"Modi government installed the tallest statue of Patel, constructed Ambedkar Centre and now inaugurated a museum after Bose. Memorials have been built for three great leaders of the Indian freedom struggle. I fail to understand why it was not done so far. We also want the memoirs of all prime ministers should be there in the Nehru Museum. Modi government is clear that everybody should be honoured and not only members from one family," Prasad had said.

The Modi govt's remarks drew sharp criticism from the Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi, who alleged that a desperate attempt by the BJP was to create an "imagined rivalry" between Nehru and other leaders of freedom struggle.

Bose and Bengal politics

The Assembly election in West Bengal, scheduled in April-May 2021, will likely be the most important event of Narendra Modi's second term. With the BJP betting high on West Bengal, where Bose is the most revered Indian freedom movement icon, its focus on the nationalist leader has also renewed.

The messaging is not lost on West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee either, who on Thursday reminded the BJP that Netaji had taken people from all communities and races together in forming the Indian National Army (INA). Mamata said Netaji talked of "togetherness and unity of all people of the country".

"Those who want to divide the country into pieces cannot be national leaders," she added.

She also attacked the BJP leadership for not declaring Netaji's birth anniversary as a national holiday.

When the Centre took the decision to declassify Netaji Files from 23 January, 2016 €" raising hopes about solving the seven-decade-old mystery about his disappearance €" political parties in Bengal claimed it was an attempt by the BJP to hijack the legacy of Bose by cashing in on the emotions revolving around him.

Opposition parties, including the Congress and the CPM, accused the prime minister of declassifying the Netaji Files in view of 2016 Assembly polls in the state, a charge denied by the BJP.

While the ruling Trinamool Congress felt the matter was being "politicised" and "stretched", CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim said Modi was trying to grab space occupied by Netaji in the hearts of people as the RSS-BJP did not have any contribution to India's Struggle for Independence.

"We have been demanding for long that the files be declassified. Why didn't they declassify them for the last one and a half years? The main agenda behind the decision to declassify files is to cash in on the sentiments and emotions of people surrounding Netaji before the 2016 Assembly polls," Salim had told PTI.

Many observers believe that the key opponent of TMC, the ruling party in West Bengal, is the BJP and not the traditional rival Left Front. The saffron party has been systematically making in-roads into the state, and Netaji has been a key element of its political strategy.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, TMC won 22 out of the West Bengal's 42 parliamentary seats, down from the 34 it had won in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Whereas, the BJP, which had earlier maintained a minuscule presence in the state, registered a stunning rise from two seats in 2014 to 18 in 2019.

While Trinamool Congress' vote share grew from 39.8 percent in 2014 to 43.3 percent in 2019, the BJP witnessed over 100 percent spike in its vote share from 17 percent to 40.3 percent during the same period. The BJP share came largely at the expense of the Left and Congress votes.

The state will head for Assembly election in 2021 and many in the BJP state unit have expressed confidence over their chances. The Trinamool Congress is not sitting idle either and has roped in political strategist Prashant Kishor to help it with the campaign.

Celebrating 75th anniversary of Azad Hind govt

On 21 October, 2018, at the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the proclamation of the Azad Hind government by Bose, Modi had said that India would have benefited from the guidance of Bose and Patel and that their contributions to the freedom struggle were underplayed to keep "one family" above the rest.

The prime minister's speech, made in front of veterans of the Indian National Army (INA), that helped India secure Independence from the British Empire during the Second World War, was political in nature, with punctuating praises of Bose and INA's historic efforts, and an attack on the Congress.

The event seemed more like a Congress-bashing ceremony than a commemoration of the Azad Hind government.

Attempts to distort the image of Bose, Nehru and Gandhi

Despite not adhering to Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent worldview, Bose recognised the fact that they all shared the same purpose for India €" end of colonial rule.

In fact, Congress leader and the country's first prime minister, Nehru was part of the INA officers' legal defence team, along with party colleague Bhulabhai Desai and barrister Tej Bahadur Sapru, The Print reported.

The recently declassified "Netaji Files" revealed a tale of warmth and care when Nehru sought to take care of the widow and child of his long-lost comrade (or opponent as many would argue).

There has been enough proof to show Bose's reverence for Gandhi and the latter's admiration for Bose as well.

Gandhi once called Bose the "Prince among the Patriots" while it was Bose who first hailed Gandhi as the "Father of the Nation".

Bose and the Hindu Mahasabha

Bose was a critic of Vinayak Savarkar, a man regularly praised by Modi and his government. On many occasions, Bose objected to the worldview of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, which was founded by Madan Mohan Malaviya.

He did not hesitate from criticising the Hindu Mahasabha for showing more interest in the downfall of the Congress than in working for the independence of India.

In a March 1940 editorial, Bose accused the Hindu Mahasabha of colluding with the British during the Calcutta Municipal Election at the expense of Indian parties:

"The tactics employed by some Hindu Mahasabha leaders... have caused us pain and sorrow. The Hindu Mahasabha did not fight a clean fight... [Their] candidates included men who had tried their level best to break the Congress Municipal Association and to that end had formed the United Party in the Corporation in co-operation with British and nominated groups of councillors. Some of them have been re-elected and one could easily anticipate how they would behave in future.

"The Hindu Mahasabha has given evidence of greater desire to down the Congress than to save the Corporation from British domination. It remains to be seen if any other Indian group in the Corporation will show more keenness to resist British domination than to fight the Congress..."

No matter which political ideology one aligns with, an event that seeks to honour a freedom fighter must not be converted into a political campaign. It is unfair to reduce someone of Bose's stature to petty politics, especially when the politics is based on falsehood.

Also See: Parties bicker over Subhash Chandra Bose's legacy on 123rd birth anniversary; TMC advocates Netaji's secularism, BJP says 'don't lecture'

India will always remain grateful to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, says Narendra Modi on freedom fighter's 123rd birth anniversary

Mamata Banerjee says West Bengal to skip NPR meeting on 17 Jan, dares Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar to 'dismiss' state govt

Read more on Politics by Firstpost.