In April 2017, West Bengal stood witness to scenes like never before. Districts after districts were taken over by men wearing saffron bandanas. They chanted “Jai Shree Ram,” and wielded swords and trishuls—tridents. Cities and townships such as Asansol and Birbhum had thousands of men thronging the streets. The saffron flags were mounted on vehicles, on houses and on shops. In Kolkata, tableaus featuring Hindu gods were taken out from different locations. In a state where Durga Puja is considered to be the biggest cultural-religious function, such gigantic fanfare around Ramnavami—a festival marking the birth of the Hindu deity Ram—was unprecedented. But as state leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh told me, it was not unexpected. This transformation was by design, a result of years of groundwork by the RSS. In the 2021 assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to reap the benefits of this labour.
Similar scenes were witnessed during Ramnavami the next year, during which scuffles led to communal violence in Asansol and Raniganj. Soon, the “Jai Shree Ram” chant became BJP’s primary tool against the Trinamool Congress and the chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In the ongoing assembly elections, polarisation along religious lines appears to be the biggest factor influencing West Bengal’s voters—and the BJP appears to be the top contender against the incumbent TMC government. A decade ago, in the 2011 state assembly polls, the saffron party got a mere four-percent vote share. In the 2016 assembly election, it won only three assembly seats. But in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP surprised everyone by securing 40 percent of the votes in West Bengal.
In the 2021 assembly election, irrespective of the final result, there would be no denying that the BJP turned the tides in its favour. The TMC and Banerjee are facing their toughest electoral battle and opponent. The saffron party is claiming that Bengal is set to witness a BJP-tsunami. Many political pundits believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and the home minister Amit Shah’s electoral strategy are the sole reasons for the party’s rise in the state. But behind the curtains, it was the RSS that laid the ground for these changes years back. Senior RSS functionaries in the state as well as ground-level workers told me the Sangh’s massive mobilisation and recruitment efforts, how it conducted awareness campaigns that focused on Hindu nationalist issues, and the successful expansion of the organisation.
The RSS leaders said that the Sangh Parivar had set a “Mission Bengal” in 2016 itself. In March 2017, the RSS passed a formal resolution to this effect. “Sangh jab nischay kar leta, to uss lakshay ko paane ke liye puri taqat laga deta hai”—Once the RSS decides on a target, it uses all the resources and might at its disposal to achieve it—Shibaji Mandal, an RSS leader, said. “RSS ne Bangal par resolution 2017 mein pass kiya. Tabhi se Bangal ko sudharane ka kaam chalu hua hai.”—The RSS passed a resolution of West Bengal in 2017. Since then, the work to mend Bengal has been going.
Mandal, a 43-year-old school teacher, is the baudhik pramukh—or intellectual head—of the RSS’s Central Bengal state unit. In the Sangh’s organisational framework, until recently, West Bengal was divided into two prants, or state-level divisions—South Bengal and North Bengal. The organisational expansion in districts around the state’s Birbhum district led to the formation of the third state, Central Bengal. The RSS’s Central Bengal unit exercises jurisdiction over five vibhags, which are divisions comprising roughly two or more organisational districts—these vibhags are Birbhum, Bardhaman, Bankura, Hooghly and Nadia. Possibly, the presence of factories and a sizable population from Hindi-speaking states had made the Sangh’s expansion easier specifically in areas such as Asansol, Raniganj, Durgapur and Birbhum.