WEST BENGAL

The monk factor

In Swami Aseemanand, BJP seems to have a potent weapon for the Lok Sabha elections

PTI4_16_2018_000050B New role: Swami Aseemanand at the NIA court in Hyderabad | PTI

The BJP is on a roll in Bengal. It has pushed aside the Congress and the CPI(M) to become the main challenger to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. And, it has been trying every trick in the book to get past the last obstacle. Mamata, however, has proved that she is more than a match. Now the BJP is banking on a communal polarisation in the state to do well in the Lok Sabha elections next year, and it might have been delivered a potent weapon for that. Swami Aseemanand, who was recently acquitted by the National Investigation Agency court in the 2007 Mecca Masjid bomb blast case, could play a key role in the state in the election campaign.

He is such a popular figure among the tribals. He is the son of our soil. Everyone in our party would be happy seeing him. - Dilip Ghosh, BJP president, West Bengal

A former activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and an ideologue of the radical outfit Abhinav Bharat, Aseemanand, or Naba Kumar Sarkar, came to the limelight when he was booked in three bomb blast cases 13 years ago—the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad, the Ajmer Sharif Dargah blast and the Samjhauta Express blast. He is said to have wanted to retaliate in kind to Islamic terror.

Dilip Ghosh, president of the BJP in West Bengal, recently said in a rally that he would be happy if Aseemanand came to Bengal, where he was born, and campaign for the BJP. It is unlikely that he would have said it without the knowledge of the party leadership. Ghosh told THE WEEK that he met Aseemanand shortly after taking over as state BJP president. “He was on bail and came to Kolkata for some work,” he said. “I told him that Bengal was his land, and there was a strong current in favour of the BJP, along with the rise of Hinduism in the state. He told me that he would like to come out of the legal wrangle, and then come to Bengal for campaigning.”

Ghosh did not see anyone in the BJP objecting to his plan. “He is such a popular figure among the tribals. He is the son of our soil. Everyone in our party would be happy seeing him,” he said. Though Ghosh tried to contact Aseemanand after the acquittal, he could not get through. “His phone was not working,” he said.

But, the BJP’s national joint general secretary Shivprakash said he had no idea about what Ghosh said. “The man [Aseemanand] is not in the BJP, and he was embroiled in cases. So, I have no idea how his service could be used for our party,” he said.

Dilip Ghosh | Salil Bera Dilip Ghosh | Salil Bera

Many party leaders, however, believe Aseemanand could make a difference in the Lok Sabha election, especially in blunting the anti-incumbency in the BJP-ruled states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. He has a big following in these states. “He is an influential man among the tribals in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh,” said Vinod Gotiya, vice president of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. “He worked here relentlessly for years. He uplifted a good number of people from extreme poverty.”

BJP leader Pradipta Kumar Naik, who was a minister in Odisha, said Aseemanand’s work among tribals was legendary. “Obviously we would call him to Odisha, to campaign in my belt—Kalahandi and Kandhamal—especially,” he said.

Aseemanand’s father, Bibhuti Bhusan Sarkar, was a confidant of Subhas Chandra Bose when he was in the Congress. “I have heard that my father once ridiculed the first chief minister of West Bengal, Prafulla Chandra Sen, who was a scientist and a freedom fighter, for being power hungry,” said Sushanta Sarkar, Aseemanand’s younger brother. “Sen bowed his head.”

Sushanta, a BJP member, said Aseemanand, 65, decided to become a monk after his master’s in physics from Burdwan University. “In the 1980s, he was distraught after seeing the poverty people were living in. He was an introvert, but he was desperate to do something for poor people,” he said.

Aseemanand started his work in the Andaman Islands, where his father was a prisoner. Then he travelled to northern Uttar Pradesh, and later to Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. “Today, you see decade-old BJP governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. My brother is the reason behind it,” said Sushanta. He got angry when asked about Aseemanand’s terror link. “A true Hindu cannot be a terrorist. My brother cannot kill even a mosquito. This is the ploy of the Gandhi family, who acted under foreign influence to put my brother in jail. The Congress and the CPI(M) were worried that if my brother worked like this, their fake commitments to tribals would get exposed,” he said.

Sushanta, however, is not sure if Aseemanand would be willing to campaign for the BJP. “After becoming a monk he never came to our house, except once in 1986 when our father died. No none had informed him about the death, but he came,” he said.

It remains to be seen if Aseemanand would make another dramatic appearance in India’s political theatre in 2019.