The battle for Bengal's grandest festival

An artist paints a graffiti of Hindu goddess Durga on a wall, part of a campaign ahead of upcoming Durga Puja festival, in Kolkata, on August 13, 2019. PTI

Durga Puja, arguably the biggest annual festival of Bengal, has been the hallmark of the state’s culture and tradition. But with the changing political equations after the Lok Sabha elections, the apolitical grand festival has become a political tool for both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and a resurgent BJP.

Both sides have used Durga Puja to score political brownie points over each other in terms of public outreach and upholding themselves as the champion of Bengali pride.

The tussle over Durga Pujas, time-tested means of public outreach utilised by all political parties in the state barring the CPM, started with the BJP trying to wrest control of big-ticket Durga Puja committees from the TMC. The move was aimed at countering TMC supremo and state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s allegation against the saffron party of being “anti-Bengali” and trying to impose an alien culture on the state.

Trying to take out a page from TMC’s book of utilising Durga Puja as an effective means of public outreach, the state BJP leadership reached out to several major committees and tried to convince them to come out of the TMC fold.

The BJP achieved partial success in this regard with party vice president Sayantan Basu becoming the Secretary of the Saghasree Puja committee at the Kalighat area of South Kolkata, which happens to be Mamata's neighbourhood.

However, BJP’s success was short-lived as not only the related puja committee was dissolved soon after but several other such organisers, who were approached by the BJP, decided to went back to the TMC fold.

Known for her ability to gauge the public mood the mercurial chief minister has also put the BJP in a spot over the issue of alleged Income Tax (I-T) notices to several Durga Puja committees. Even after the I-T Department issued a statement denying media reports about I-T notices to several Durga Puja committees, Mamata accused them of trying to create confusion among people.

Mamata in a Facebook post even went to the extent of accusing the Central Board of Direct Taxes of imposing “Puja Jijia Tax”. (Jijia is a tax often imposed on non-Muslim subjects in a state governed by Islamic law).

Her strategy has seemingly put the BJP on the defensive with several state BJP leaders now trying to distance themselves from the issue.

Apart from taking on the TMC on the cultural front, the BJP’s push for gaining influence over major Durga Pujas is its apparent realisation that apart from provoking Mamata the slogan of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ will not have much of an impact on the Bengali psyche.

Instead, if it can wrest control of major Durga Pujas from the TMC, then it will be able to strike a chord with a large number of people from across the political spectrum.

At least 28,000 Durga Pujas are held across the state every year out of which 200 Durga Pujas take place in Kolkata. Several of these pujas have massive budgets running into crores.

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