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.