Speaking on the 113th birth anniversary of K Kamaraj, senior BJP leader M Venkaiah Naidu referred to apparent similarities between the former Congress president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both leaders, Naidu said, came from poor backgrounds, and were fiercely committed to the development of their states.
It was an attempt to bring a new icon into the BJP’s nationalist tabernacle, and to replace eulogies to dynasties in Indian politics with new legends.
Kamaraj is the latest in a line of leaders whose legacies the BJP has sought to appropriate. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel has been the first and oldest focus of this project — the Sardar’s disagreements with Nehru fitting well with the anti-Congressism of the Sangh and the ‘Chhote Sardar’ self-image projected first by L K Advani and, subsequently, by Modi.
Later, the BJP claimed ideological affinity with Subhas Chandra Bose, B R Ambedkar, and even the communist revolutionary hero and atheist Bhagat Singh. It helped that the official Congress narrative, focussed on the Nehru-Gandhis, had mostly chosen to keep a majority of these great men in shadow.
For the BJP, born of a political movement with a relatively narrow base and short history, lacking too many visible philosophical links with stalwarts of the national movement but keen to claim an organic affinity with all of India, it is natural to search for history’s icons it can appropriate. Soon after forming the government, the BJP embarked upon the path of an icon renaissance — this included reinstating and reiterating the glory of the Sangh’s own leaders like Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Nanaji Deshmukh, reviving the legacy of centre-right thinkers such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, and moving to claim neglected Congress stalwarts such as Patel and Bose.
In his Vijayadashami address last year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called for “a new and suitable development model that incorporates the vision… and experience of great Bharatiya leaders” — and included in that list, besides traditional Sangh icons such as Upadhyay, Savarkar and Golwalkar, also Tagore, Gandhi, Bose, Ambedkar, Vinoba Bhave, JP and Lohia. It was a straightforward political project: in order to earn the acceptance of voters not traditionally sympathetic to the BJP, lay claim to the legacy of prominent leaders whom they identify as their own.
Thus, leaders of the BJP extolled the contributions of Netaji who continues to evoke fierce pride and passion in West Bengal. And Prime Minister Modi personally attended the 152nd birth anniversary of the Dalit icon Ayyankali, who is otherwise not widely known outside his native Kerala.
In Tamil Nadu recently, the state unit of the BJP observed the anniversaries of freedom fighters Muthuramalinga Thevar, V O Chidambaram and Alagumuthu Kone. Sangh outfits celebrated the centenary year of Rani Ma Gaidinliu — the Naga freedom fighter on whom Nehru bestowed the appellation of Rani in 1937 — with a seminar in Guwahati.
All these states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam — are headed to elections. The BJP is not the first or second party in these states — even though it hopes to occupy political space vacated by a retreating Left and Congress in West Bengal, and has been doing well in parts of Kerala. These states are all crucial to the BJP’s hopes of expanding beyond existing bases.
The BJP’s celebration of Kamaraj is significant in this context. It would like to cash in on the goodwill Kamaraj’s name still evokes in rural Tamil Nadu. With his relentless efforts to uplift the poor, Kamaraj earned a unique place in the socio-political landscape of the state, which was recognised even by opposition leader C N Annadurai.
A claim on the legacy of Kamaraj is also an outreach to the Nadar community, which is part of the BJP’s base in Tamil Nadu, especially in the southern districts where the party has already made inroads. Hindu Nadars have been backing the BJP in a state whose politics has long been dominated by Dravidian parties. Prime Minister Modi’s decision to accommodate P Radhakrishnan, the MP from Kanyakumari, in his Ministry, and BJP president Amit Shah’s appointment of Tamizhisai Soundararajan as state party chief, ignoring the claims of others with RSS backgrounds, is an indication of the community’s importance to the party. Both Radhakrishnan and Soundararajan are Nadars — whose tallest leader was Kamaraj.
To Congress complaints about the ‘theft’ of national icons, the BJP retorts that it took the government of Prime Minister V P Singh to confer the Bharat Ratna on Ambedkar, and that socialists JP and Lohia were in fact closer to the ideology of the RSS. The Sangh sees itself on a mission to correct “misrepresentations” of history. Napoleon’s “What is history after all, it is a fable mutually agreed upon” is, in the Sangh’s view, right in the case of India.