Modi & Netaji: Why BJP’s Appropriation of Bose Is a Necessity for the Party

The Sangh Parivar doesn't have many nationalist icons of its own as it was largely absent from the freedom struggle.

5 min read
Hindi Female

In the context of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government's iconisation of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, there are two aspects of his politics that require mention in the emerging debate on his place in the discourse on nationalism.

One, the perfectly commendable feature, for which he is much loved, was his insistence on an inclusive polity for India. He firmly believed in India's cultural diversity and did not think that this would hinder the sustainability of a united society.

Bose was also of the view that religion had no public role and actively promoted gender parity (Rani Jhansi Regiment being just one instance of his progressive outlook), besides insisting on a scientific vision for the country.

The second characteristic of his political outlook, however, was ‘problematic’. In being propelled by his belief in the ‘freedom at any cost’ concept, he chose to enter into questionable deals with Axis powers. This association further fortified his militaristic approach to securing independence.


Subhas Chandra Bose's Problematic Decisions

The choices Bose made and the alliances he forged reflected his ambivalent stance on democratic principles and a participative model of governance. But this ambivalence could also have been suggestive of a leaning towards a system in which the executive believes in merely a top-down approach and a highly centralised decision-making process.

Paradoxically, Bose remains equally, if not more, admired for this feature of his politics, demonstrating the seductive but worrisome impact of militaristic nationalism on the public psyche.

Despite being romanticised and staunchly defended by people and the Congress party when put on trial by the British, there was no space for Netaji’s Indian National Army in independent India’s defence forces. Yet, no one protested when this was not done by the first independent government, in which Syama Prasad Mookerjee was a Cabinet Minister.

For over almost eight years, current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, backed by his irshaad (please repeat)-chanting loyalists, has used two 'M's – the memory and mystery of his demise, the first directly and the latter suggestively – to elevate Bose to a nationalistic pedestal. In the process, Modi obfuscated the secular part of Bose’s political viewpoint and skirted past his association with fascist forces, a relationship that would have immensely damaged India’s democratic tradition in the event of Axis powers emerging victorious at the end of the Second World War.

This vacuous, or even romantic, nature of Bose’s memory is promoted by Modi to convey that there was a conspiratorial huddle behind the ‘misfortune’ that after independence, “along with the culture and traditions of the country, the contribution of many great personalities was also tried to be erased”.


'The Congress Neglected Everyone'

Immediately thereafter, the entire saffron brigade, in this case led by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, thanked the Prime Minister for enabling citizens to “find peace” now that Modi had “honoured Netaji’s contribution in the freedom struggle of the country after so many years”.

At the end of the ceremony, party leaders, other members of the Sangh Parivar ecosystem, associates of the Modi fan club, and of course, the ‘mob’, rallied behind the Prime Minister, with fingers pointing towards the Congress and all others who wielded power before 2014.

They forgot that the period prior to this also included the years when the nation was governed by their own for six years. “They neglected all except the Parivar (family/dynasty),” the din rose.

Not having many of their own among nationalist icons due to being largely absent from the anti-colonial movement, taking to politics of appropriation is a compulsion for Modi and his party in order to stake claim to the freedom struggle’s legacy.

The Appropriation of Sardar Patel

The BJP was assisted by the fact that the Congress in the pre- and post-independence period till 1967 was an umbrella organisation. As a result, after Indira Gandhi established dominance over the party and it became more leader-centric in character, the memories and inheritance of some leaders were not promoted with as much zeal as that of ‘their own’.

Modi recognised quite early the benefits of appropriating those who were not the BJP’s own, and was particularly benefited by the fact that Sardar Patel’s memory and place had been visibly underplayed till then. Modi fastened himself to Patel’s name when he was still the Gujarat Chief Minister in the hope that this would legitimise him at a national level, enable him to ‘cleanse’ himself of the stains of 2002 riots, and emerge as the third-most important Gujarati leader after Mahatma Gandhi and Patel.


But There Were Sticky Points in Bose's History

In the case of Netaji, however, Modi and the BJP did not have much to talk about except his heroic but questionable methods to liberate India from the British by collaborating with European fascists and other Axis powers.

But a detailed exposition of Netaji’s trajectory, choices, and associations after he fled from his ‘great escape’ from his Calcutta residence on 17 January 1941, dressed as a Pathan tribesman, would have been immensely ‘problematic’ for Modi and his government. It would have, after all, entailed taking a position on Bose’s decision to align with the Germans and Japanese.

In the past, several ideologues and iconic Hindu nationalist leaders have expressed their admiration for the actions of German and Italian fascist leaders and regimes in the 1930s. Despite this, the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), now steers clear of this part of their heritage.

Consequently, details about how Netaji went about posing a challenge to British-controlled India could have not just backfired but also undermined the public image of Bose, and was thereby unsuitable for the current regime.

Much was made out of declassifying files pertaining to Netaji, but these have not revealed anything substantial and at best remain a muted success without accruing any real ‘benefit’ to the BJP among people.

Unilateral Decisions on History

As part of its strategy to secure monopoly rights over Bose’s legacy, incongruous decisions were taken. For instance, last year, Bose’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations were launched from Victoria Memorial, the most conspicuous colonial memorial in the country. Even the vacant canopy in New Delhi, beneath which Netaji’s statue will be installed in some time, had since 1968 become symbolic of the end of the Raj. It was seen more as a pedestal from where a monarch’s statue was taken down by the Indian government after due deliberation and consultation.

Not just Netaji’s statue, but even the decision to ‘extinguish’ (although it was termed a ‘merger’) of the Amar Jawan Jyoti beneath India Gate and stopping the rendering of the ‘Abide With Me’ hymn during the Beating Retreat ceremony, are all unilateral decisions taken without any consultation.


Bose Crossed Swords With One of BJP's Own

In the process of appropriating Netaji to score points over adversaries, Modi also ignored the fact that Bose crossed swords with several of his own, most notably Syama Prasad Mookerji, founder of the BJP’s preceding party, the Jana Sangh.

Bose may have been the antithesis of the Sangh Parivar despite his tactical embrace of fascists, but this does not prevent Modi from harnessing Netaji’s memory in the hope of benefiting from it, at least in the ‘last frontier’, where it was humbled in May last year.

But now that the appropriation of Bose follows the same trajectory as the takeover of Sardar’s legacy by Modi and the BJP, one hopes that the ‘mystery’ element regarding Netaji’s demise becomes a closed chapter. That is the least ‘good’ that this government can do for the memory of ‘this’ patriot, however questionable his choices may have been.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   Modi   Netaji 

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