From 'Vietnam' to 'Jai Shri Ram': The Slogan Capturing Bengal's Shift from Left to Right

The 1960's chant of solidarity 'Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam' has today become 'Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram.'

A slogan coined by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) currently doing the WhatsApp rounds – ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram (your name, my name [is], Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram)’ – is symbolic of the political and cultural transformations underway in Bengal. Over the last six decades, the slogan has evolved as political realities have morphed in the state.

That the first part of the slogan (Tomar Naam, Amar Naam) has remained unchanged through these years has, perhaps, to do with the power immanent in those words – the power to create bonds of intimacy with the subject at hand. The second part of the slogan has, however, been swapped out time and again in keeping with the political message speakers want to send.

The original slogan firing the imagination of people in Bengal and ensuring its longevity was: ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’, proclaiming solidarity with the Vietnamese people in their struggle against American imperialism. The first time the streets of Kolkata resounded with ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ was in the 1960s. The world as a whole was, at that time, gripped by a fervour of radical defiance. Bengal, too, was swept up in that tide.

As legendary Communist leader Ho Chi Minh fought invading American troops, the spirit of that fight became a rallying cry for the Left in Bengal, thousands of miles away. Rising as one in protest, the people of Kolkata took to the streets, chanting the words. Coined by Bengal’s Communists, the slogan went a long way in making Ho Chi Minh a household name in the state.

In its original as well as altered forms, the slogan which has come to occupy an indelible place in Bengal’s popular consciousness draws attention to the state’s three distinct political phases.

The first phase related to the many years the Left-dominated Bengali politics, initially as a movement in opposition, and then in the seat of power for more than three decades – from 1977 to 2011. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) defeated the Marxist government and ended uninterrupted Left hegemony in the 2011 assembly polls. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, has since, won a second consecutive term in 2016. And currently, Bengal is in the throes of yet another political churn. The catalyst this time around is the BJP, which, even till five years ago, was an outlier on the state’s political canvas.

The second historical moment when the slogan was used by the masses, the words were changed to ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Nandigram, Nandigram’. This happened when politics in Bengal turned a historic corner. The forcible acquisition of land for Tata’s Nano plant in Singur (2006) was the precursor to a more intense and decisive anti-land acquisition struggle in Nandigram. In 2007, villagers in Nandigram unleashed a militant movement to stop the Left Front government, led by CPI(M) chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, from acquiring 10,000 acres of agricultural land to build a chemical hub.

Also read: In West Bengal, the BJP’s Ambition Outweighs Its Capacity

The spontaneous peasant movement first coalescing under the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (Committee to Resist Land Acquisition), soon assumed a pan-Bengali character, spreading across the state. The impact of the peasant insurgency in a corner of the East Medinipur district was felt even in the city of Kolkata.

Nandigram became a defining moment in the political journey of Mamata Banerjee – and in the political life of Bengal. Having till then fought a dogged and seemingly losing battle against the Left Front government, the TMC leader emerged as the face of resistance against a party that once fought for the rights of peasants – and on whose loyalty the party banked upon to win election after election for more than 30 years.

Posters of Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Reuters

Under those circumstances, ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ transformed into ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Nandigram, Nandigram’. The words reverberating across Kolkata and in Nandigram as well as Singur sounded the death knell of the Left Front government. From then onwards, the Left’s slide began. It lost heavily in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to the TMC and continued to haemorrhage in the general elections five years later, in 2014.

As Narendra Modi rode to victory at the Centre with an overwhelming majority, Bengal entered yet another political phase – this time starkly different from its earlier two phases. BJP’s marginalisation ended with large numbers of CPI(M) workers shifting first to the TMC, and then the BJP, where the grass looked greener. The CPI(M), once a party known for being a vibrant opposition, rapidly retreated, leaving its formerly held political space vacant. The Congress was a spent force long before 2011.

Also read: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Warns of Shift from Left to BJP, but It May Be Too Late

It was easy for the BJP, a pariah in Bengal politics, to make rapid inroads across the state. Mamata was left to fight the Narendra Modi government on her own. Since 2014, each round of election at the local and state level has seen a dramatic jump in the BJP’s vote-share. From the sidelines, the CPI(M) has been watching Bengal’s political ground shift to the Right. It can be argued, given the scenes currently playing out in the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign, that the Communist party even gloated over the danger looming large over Mamata’s government.

This Lok Sabha election is witnessing a bitter face-off between the ruling TMC and BJP, the newly emergent main opposition party in Bengal. The state – once known to be a Communist/Left bastion – is leaning towards the untested saffron party.

Nothing captures this transformative politics, this dramatic shift to the party led by Amit Shah and Narendra Modi – the two most well-known faces of Hindutva politics – better than the slogan ‘Tomaar Naam, Amar Naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram’ circulating on social media. As Bengal heads towards a dramatic political turnabout of sorts, CPI(M) supporters are seen marching alongside BJP leaders, campaigning in the name of Modi.

Perhaps these elections will indeed begin a battle for what political name Bengal chooses to identify with.