How the BJP is trying to regain lost space in Bengal’s Durga puja
The BJP and Trinamool are competing over puja doles and taking credit for the UNESCO ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ tag for Kolkata’s Durga puja
By Romita Datta: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was never in favour of holding Durga puja in West Bengal under the BJP’s banner. But Trinamool Congress (TMC) defectors like Mukul Roy (he is now back in the ruling party), supported by BJP’s Kailash Vijayvargiya, argued in favour of dipping saffron fingers in the puja pie since Mamata Banerjee was seen as going overboard with grant of Durga puja doles to counter the BJP’s attempts at consolidation of Hindu votes.
The times were different then. The BJP, with a 40 per cent vote share and only four seats less than the TMC in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, was aiming to win the 2021 assembly election. The rise in the party’s Hindu vote share, from 21 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 57 per cent in 2019 parliamentary election, gave it the confidence that it could strike higher. It was ready to make ideological adjustments, to the extent of ignoring the RSS’s word of caution.
BJP leaders and workers, who swore by the slogan of Jai Shri Ram, were seen evoking Bengal’s goddesses—Durga and Kali. In 2020, with barely four months left for the Bengal assembly polls, the BJP not only organised Durga puja in Kolkata and elsewhere with much fanfare, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned up at the inauguration of a puja pandal, while many central leaders were seen joining the festivities in traditional Bengali attire. The objective was clear: shake off the ‘outsider’ and ‘Hindi heartland party’ tag that Mamata and her TMC had foisted on the BJP and win the hearts of people.
In the end, it did not pay off in the 2021 assembly polls. The BJP’s Hindu vote share fell by 7 percentage points (to 50 per cent), the votes lost transferring to the TMC. It was becoming evident that Bengal’s electorate was not comfortable with the BJP’s high-pitched Hindutva campaign, which had manifested itself in various forms.
Following the electoral setback last year, BJP leaders’ interest in organising Durga puja witnessed a decline. This year, however, both Union home minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J.P. Nadda see prudence in its continuance. After all, as Bengal’s biggest festival, Durga puja finds appeal across communities and religions.
Even though the BJP has tried to register its presence in the form of sponsor and patron of the big-ticket pujas, it has not worked. Mamata made sure there were no takers for the BJP’s sops by threatening to withdraw all kinds of assistance to community pujas from her party and government. While this did put the BJP on the backfoot, it didn’t give up considering the traction Durga puja gets in Bengal.
Mamata, on her part, has gone drum-beating, taking all the credit for Kolkata’s Durga puja being included by UNESCO in its list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. For the BJP, it was time to remind the people of Bengal that the Modi government too had done its bit to nominate Durga puja for the UNESCO honour. As BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi said, “The state [government] had no role in this achievement. Applications to get the UNESCO tag were made earlier too but those got rejected. A fresh effort was made under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and we got recognition.”
Not just this, the BJP also organised a ceremony on September 24 as a counter to Mamata’s thanksgiving ceremony on September 1 over the UNESCO tag. But unlike the Trinamool event, the BJP’s programme acknowledged the hard work of artisans, idol-makers, dhakis (drummers), and all those who work behind the scenes to give Durga puja its grandeur. Thirty such people were honoured along with members of some heritage Rajbari pujas of Kolkata. ”The idea was to offset the way the Trinamool Congress looks at puja—pomp and show, doles, sponsorship, etc. The BJP wanted to show adherence to traditions and rituals and emphasise on the actual puja part. This could be a valid way to show to people what Durga puja has been reduced to under TMC rule,“ says Prasanta Ray, social scientist and professor emeritus, Presidency University.
This year, Mamata has given ample opportunity for eyebrows to be raised by Durga puja priests and those who are stickers for rituals. By inaugurating a dozen pujas during pitripaksha (considered inauspicious in the almanac), Mamata has kicked up a debate. BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari, who is also leader of the opposition in the West Bengal assembly, has questioned Mamata’s knowledge about Hindu religion and traditions.
There is a strong buzz that Amit Shah may come to Kolkata to inaugurate a few pujas, one of them being that of BJP leader Sajal Ghosh in central Kolkata. Even Mithun Chakraborty is flying down to inaugurate BJP state secretary Sukanta Majumdar’s puja in South Dinajpur. Political analysts are watching this slog-over flurry of activity in the BJP camp with interest. “Mamata Banerjee has already chanted incomplete shlokas in the past. Now, the inauguration of Durga puja during pitripaksha is surely going to snowball into a big issue. Amit Shah will see to that,” says an RSS leader, requesting anonymity.