It was a different time and a different India.
The year, 1989. Nine years after it was established, the BJP with 85 seats was now one of the largest parties in the house. The Left Front government in Bengal seemed invincible and its sway over the state was unquestionable. L.K. Advani, the former deputy Prime Minister, had taken charge of the party.
I was on my way to Kolkata for the BJP's national executive meeting in the Kalka Mail, along with former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. At the time, the BJP would book an entire railway coach and all senior leaders and correspondents would travel together.
But why Kalka Mail, why not the more comfortable Rajdhani Express? A query that stemmed from my own journalistic curiosity and I asked former vice president of the BJP Jagdish Prasad Mathur and former MP Krishna Lal Sharma. The two explained to me that the Railway Ministry doesn't give permission to book an entire Rajdhani Express since it was a super-fast, elite and punctual train.
On the journey, as the Kalka Mail chugged along, stopping at different station, Vajpayee would also get off and give small, impromptu speeches at different stations, armed with small portable microphones that have long since been replaced.
I was in Bartaman - a Bangla news daily - at the time and I took this opportunity to interview Vajpayee. He explained that Bengal wasn't a part of the BJP's core area, unlike the Hindi heartland but it was the birth place of the party's founder. "So our goal is to blossom like the lotus in communist Bengal," he had said.
At the time, Jyoti Basu's CPI(M) rule over Bengal was extremely solid. The few chinks in the seemingly impenetrable armour were being explored by Mamata Banerjee, who had defeated CPI(M) MP Somnath Chatterjee in 1984. I asked, "Atalji , I can understand that you want to grow in the east and south. But with a special reference to communist Bengal and Kerala, how do you plan to do this? What is your action plan."
He responded that Bengal had a very different political culture from the rest of India. Not only did it have a high literacy rate, but it was also the first British capital, it was also the birthplace of the Renaissance. Thanks to the introduction of English by Macaulay, he added, it also saw stalwarts like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, among others.
It won't be the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan or political Hindutva that would be the top priority. "We have to address the issue of Bengali chauvinism and the proud legacy of Bengal's cultural nationalism. BJP needs to be linked with Bengali pride," he had said.
L.K. Advani wasn't on that train. But in that party national executive he carved out a plan for Bengal, and later gave the responsibility to the-then general secretary of the party K.N. Govindacharya to finalise it. Govindacharya would speak Bengali and was highly connected within the RSS. It was then that the RSS and the BJP got together to celebrate Netaji's birthday, and later held a seminar on Vande Mataram and Anandamath.
Meanwhile, Advani's Ram Mandir movement started and when V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister, both the Left and the BJP supported the government from outside. BJP had isolated the Congress but in the need for anti-Congressism in the national space, the state party's politics got diluted.
The state BJP was put in an uncomfortable situation and as relations between Mamata Banerjee and the Congress worsened, it was clear that she was more anti-CPI(M) than anti BJP at the time. The BJP, after all, had no presence in the state and her goal was to oust the Left Front government.
Things are different again now. The BJP and Trinamool Congress are at loggerheads and the saffron party is now the key challenger for Mamata Banerjee, occupying the opposition space virtually vacated by the Left.
But historically, I feel that the BJP has remained consistent on the BJP's long-term plan, with some key additions. The party president is Amit Shah, highly energetic with age on his side. His politics is characterized by a strong will, singlemindedness of purpose - what in Hindi is called 'Sankalpa'. Advani's action plan didn't look to pitch the Ram Mandir as the key issue - but that of "infiltration, pseudo-secularism and cultural nationalism." Shah has remained consistent on this front and the RSS has also been very active in Bengal for several decades.
I had the opportunity to interact with K. S. Sudarshan on several occasions, while he was Sarsanghachalak (chief), while he stayed in Kolkata for several years. I'd speak to him in Bangla (a language that interestingly Mohan Bhagwat also knows) and he'd also emphasize the need to meet public intellectuals and different professions, even encouraging workers to go to their homes.
Today, the BJP is singling out the border districts, since it knows that the Muslim population in the state is close to 30 per cent and are key constituents of Mamata Banerjee's votebank. Here, there are Bengali and Urdu speaking Muslims and the party's strategy is to campaign against the Muslim's appeasement policy and the party believes that political polarization can give BJP the edge here
In the past few years, there has been a gradual but increasingly visible change in the Bengali bhadralok mindset. The middle class population has inched towards the cause of Hindutva and there is a growing sentiment towards 'soft Hindutva' in the Bengali community.
Having said that there is also a debate about what the BJP has been doing in Uttar Pradesh, and how it can't be replicated in Bengal. With the state's legendary love for fish, preaching vegetarianism hasn't gone down well. Neither does the state worship Lord Ram or Sankat Mochan Hanuman. They're great devotees of Kali and reformers like Ramakrishna Paramhans. Hinduism here is based more on the liberal ethos of Vedanta and the Upanishads, than devotion for Lord Ram or Lord Krishna. But there are also those in the BJP who are pointing to other changes in Bengal's religiosity - the inclusion of dhanteras in the calendar alongside Kali Puja, the celebration Hanuman Jayanti.
Be that as it may: there is no denying that the BJP is growing in Bengal. With three MLAs in the Assembly from zero earlier and the Congress and Left virtually decimated, the opposition space is ripe for the taking. Past elections have made it clear that there are anti-Trinamool Congress votes in the state and what had been with the Left earlier are steadily going towards the BJP. The Congress and CPI(M) can come together, but even then they can't take on the might of the Trinamool Congress.
So, the Trinamool Congress will do well. Mamata Banerjee's popularity still dominates Bengal politics, which is why - like Chandrababu Naidu - she isn't interested in a pre-poll alliance with the Congress. But the BJP has become the main opposition in the state.
I can't forecast how many seats the BJP will get in Bengal, but it is undeniable that the main battle in Bengal now is between the BJP and Mamata Banerjee and that achievement has been twenty years in the making.