Bengal & Assam Polls: Does BJP No Longer Need RSS-Backed Leaders?

In choosing turncoats Himanta Biswa Sarma & Suvendhu Adhikari in Assam & Bengal respectively, BJP has ‘deviated’.

6 min read
Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma (L) and BJP Leader of Opposition in Bengal Suvendu Adhikari (R). Image used for representational purposes.

There is a significant connection between 9 May and 11 May 2021, because on both days, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chose two non-RSS functionaries who were turncoats from other political parties in key constitutional positions in Assam and West Bengal.

The BJP, on 9 May, announced that Himanta Biswa Sarma, once a close confidante of former Assam CM and Congress veteran Tarun Gogoi, was to be the chief minister of the state. Two days later, the party announced that Suvendu Adhikari, once a close confidante of Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, was to become BJP’s Leader of Opposition in the state assembly.

Adhikari fought against Banerjee from the high-voltage Nandigram seat and secured a marginal victory in the 2021 Bengal Assembly election. It is indeed rare for the BJP to choose two turncoats who had no connection with its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in such important constitutional posts.

However, Sarma was also part of the last BJP Cabinet of Assam when the CM was Sarbananda Sonowal. Sarma was the finance minister along with other portfolios of the health and education ministry. But Adhikari joined the BJP just months before the election.


BJP’s Tradition of Giving Key Administrative Positions to Sangh Pracharaks

From the time of the Jana Sangh, which merged with the Janata Party and later in 1980 emerged as the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS has played a key role in their politics. On the one hand, the RSS maintains a clear distance from electoral politics but on the other hand, it is well accepted that the organisation plays an important role in the decision-making process of the BJP. This decision-making is mostly restricted to the choice of the leadership and in some areas of policymaking.

An article published in The Print noted: “Of the 53 ministers from the BJP in the Modi government, 38 have a Sangh background — 71 percent of the total. This figure stood at 62 percent in Modi’s first term when 41 of the 66 BJP ministers, who had taken oath in 2014, were from the RSS.”

BJP Ditches ‘Tradition’

As an example of this culture, after the last UP election in 2017, it was all set that Union Minister of State, Manoj Sinha (Now LG of Kashmir), will become the Uttar Pradesh CM, but at the last moment, the decision was changed reportedly to honour the decision of the RSS. The Quint reported, “the script, however, started changing from the morning of 18 March with a call from the RSS top brass, most likely its general secretary Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi to Amit Shah, requesting that the BJP should “consider Yogi Adityanath for the CM’s post”. Shah consulted Modi and a decision was taken to “honour RSS’ advice”.”

In such an orthodox tradition, when BJP’s central leadership is fully aligned with the RSS, then the selection of Himanta Biswa Sarma as CM of Assam and Suvendu Adhikari as Bengal LOP indeed raises questions.

The reason behind choosing these leaders could be many, but most importantly, there was an urgent need to send a message out on BJP’s behalf that when it comes to the expansion of the party, they need not depend on the decisions of the RSS any longer.


BJP’s Method to the Madness in East & Northeast

Both Sarma and Adhikari were turncoats and they had no earlier affiliation with the BJP or the RSS. When Sarma was in the Congress and witnessed that CM Tarun Gogoi was trying to portray his son Gaurav as his successor in Assam politics, he protested and quit the party. Similarly in Bengal, Adhikari witnessed that TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee was trying to ‘portray’ her nephew Abhishek Banerjee as her successor, and so he defected.

This similarity is significant but the more important similarity is that the BJP had no other choice but to accept these leaders into its own folds.

Because the fundamental goal of the BJP was to expand its organisation in these states. The BJP realised that just following the tradition of their politics in the Hindi heartland will not allow them to expand in this part of India.

Certainly, there were inner conflicts between the old guards and the newly joined leader or ideological differences, but to materialise BJP’s dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat, they had no other choice but to accept these leaders by offering key constitutional posts.  In Eastern India and Northeast, the BJP primarily consists of the turncoats of either the Congress or other regional parties like the Trinamool Congress.

RSS’s Stance on BJP’s ‘Turncoat’ Leadership

Speaking to this reporter, the RSS leadership of Bengal opined that the Sangh does not interfere in day-to-day political affairs and if the BJP has decided that the only way of expanding in these states can happen through turncoats, then it is their own decision.

Interestingly, the Organizer magazine published by the RSS, in its cover story on the Bengal election, noted: “Welcoming members of the adversary party, Trinamool, into its fold, cost the BJP dearly. Also, the impact of COVID-19 had a fallout on the results of the Bengal assembly elections.”

Historically, the Congress survived on the basis of local leadership, however, under Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, the local leaderships have felt neglected. But till today, states like Punjab and Rajasthan, where the Congress is in power, has some credible leaders and grassroots politicians.

What the Congress Survived On

The Congress has survived not on political ideology but on leadership. In the 1950s, right-wing thinkers and activists like Deen Dayal Upadhyay used to believe that the problem of the Congress party was that they do not have any ideology, therefore, they will not be able to survive much longer.

However, the BJP of Modi-Shah is just adopting the same technique as the Congress where ideology is not the fundamental requirement but ‘popularity’. The party is now targeting popular leaders of these states who are not necessarily in agreement with their political philosophy, or have corruption charges against them, and bringing them into the BJP’s fold.

At the grassroots level, despite the work of the RSS, the BJP has a very poor organisation in these states. The RSS has realised that without giving a chance to these turncoats the expansion of the BJP in these regions would either not happen or take a very long time.

BJP’s ‘Real Strength’ in Eastern States

This change clearly shows that the BJP has no grassroots base in the states. In Assam, the BJP has retained power, therefore, the inner conflicts of the party have not emerged in public. But significantly, in the Cabinet of Sarma, the turncoats of the Congress and Asom Gana Parishad have got more importance than the BJP’s leadership of the state.

On the other hand, in Bengal, after the defeat of the BJP, the old guards have been continuously attacking these turncoats.

The expansion of the BJP is not possible without good administrators. The RSS can provide an intellectual base, leadership and groundwork, but it cannot provide administrators, therefore, the BJP grew inclined towards these turncoats who have administrative and also organisational experience.

The BJP’s central leadership believes that people like Sarma and Adhikari can become the face of the BJP on the ground, but the key organisational power will be with the respective RSS-backed leadership of these states.


Politics of Polarisation

One of the major similarities between the politics of Himanta Biswa Sarma and Suvendhu Adhikari is that of polarisation. Both these leaders have campaigned based on polarisation. Adhikari has repeatedly called Mamata Banerjee ‘Mamata Begum’ or said that if a TMC government is formed then Bengal will become ‘Mini Pakistan’. On the other hand, Sarma has directly said that he does not want Muslim votes.

The BJP has made the message clear — that if a leader can polarise and play along the lines of aggressive Hindutva, then the leader will get a space within its folds.

Both Sarma and Adhikari wanted to be the chief minister in their respective states. Sarma has been successful, but Adhikari has been more successful in normalising polarisation in Bengal’s grassroots politics.

What is the Future of BJP-RSS Relationship in States Like Assam & Bengal?

There are mixed views about this question. A section of political analysts believe that this will strengthen the party and another section believes that such decisions have irked the RSS. But one thing is clear — that for the expansion of the party, the RSS has agreed on this new experiment by the BJP.

Unlike Assam, in Bengal, the BJP will face immense backlash for this decision of prioritising turncoats. But making this experiment a success will be the responsibility of the BJP, and if they fail, then the RSS will get the chance of continuing the traditional negotiation but if they eventually succeed, then the BJP can point out that it can work without the direct leadership of the Sangh.

Lastly, there has been a notion that the BJP always ignores ‘outsiders’, and for the expansion of the party today, it has become necessary for the BJP to bust this idea.

(The author is an independent journalist and fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Center who writes on issues of governance and politics. He tweets @sayantan_gh. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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