Mamata Banerjee’s decision to spend Rs.28 crore on Durga Puja celebrations across West Bengal brings to the fore her proclivity to use the religion card in politics and raises questions about her government’s priorities.
WEST BENGAL Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that her Trinamool Congress government will be doling out a whopping Rs.28 crore to all the community Durga Pujas in the State has sparked off a major political controversy, once again bringing to the fore her proclivity to use the religion card in politics, especially ahead of elections.
Clearly with an eye to stemming the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee has promised to give Rs.10,000 to each of the State’s 28,000 puja committees (3,000 of which are in Kolkata). The government has also waived the licence fee that puja organisers had to pay and increased the concession on electricity bills from 20 per cent to 23 per cent. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the Fire and Emergency Services Department will bear the expenditure for the Kolkata pujas, while the Departments of Tourism, Consumer Affairs, and Self Help Groups, along with the West Bengal Police, will take care of the pujas in the rest of the State.
While calling it a “gift” from the State government to facilitate “community development”, the Chief Minister made no attempt to camouflage the political overtones behind the move. “Out of mischief, a lot of money may be offered to you from outside. Do not succumb to the temptation. There is no need to beg anything from anyone,” she said at a pre-puja coordination meeting with puja organisers. This is being seen as a blatant attempt by Mamata Banerjee to win back into the Trinamool fold those Hindu voters who, disenchanted by her perceived politics of minority appeasement, have begun to lean towards the BJP.
According to Surjya Kanta Mishra, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member and secretary of the West Bengal unit of the party, the State government is engaging in “competitive communalism”. “For the last two years, she tried to compete with the Hindutva forces at their own events: when the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] gave a call for Ram Navami celebrations, she also organised Ram Navami processions; when the RSS celebrated Janmashtami, so did she. This competitive communalism is ultimately leading to political polarisation, a choice between the Trinamool or the BJP,” he told Frontline. Mishra believes that secular democratic forces are still strong in West Bengal, but there is an increasing perception that the main political battle is essentially between the Trinamool and the BJP. “This is an illusion that a section of the media has also helped create, that in Bengal if you want to fight the Trinamool you have to take the side of the BJP, and if you need to take on the BJP, you have to seek help from the Trinamool. It can influence people for some time but not all the time,” he said.
IN A DURGA PUJA PANDAL
The BJP, too, did not miss the opportunity to come down heavily on the government. “In the first place, the State government should not be funding any pujas. For so long they [the Mamata Banerjee government] were trying only to keep the Muslims happy by extending various favours to them. This has angered the Hindus and, as is evident in the elections, resulted in the rise of the BJP, and now in an attempt to take a prohindu step, the government is doing an illegal thing. People are not fools. They are laughing at this gesture,” Dilip Ghosh, president of the BJP’S West Bengal unit, told Frontline.
Mamata Banerjee’s announcement came just six days after the Ma-
Kolkata, a file picture. in