Bengal carnival is over, politics is not

For now, the TMC has managed to push back against the BJP's challenge to its hold over power bases in West Bengal.

Bengal’s most widely celebrated festival, the Durga Puja, is over and with the immersion of the images of the goddess, some of the surface tension over a political tug-of-war too got buried. The fledgling efforts of the rising political force in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to bring the Puja committees within its sway were somewhat quashed and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its party leaders were able to retain their stronghold over them.

The politics of Bengal – especially after the exit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front – focuses on two kinds of power bases – Durga Puja committees, organised by TMC leaders of different shapes, sizes and clouts under the aegis of para (mohalla, or local) clubs, and CPM ‘party offices’ captured by the TMC after the 2011 Assembly elections.

Although the BJP had captured a large number of TMC party offices in the district towns, it was not able to hold on to them either. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her police force managed to recapture these bastions of political clout and have reason to feel safe, for now.

Capturing and keeping these power bases is so important in Bengal that the BJP tried its best before the pujas to get a toehold in the puja committees. But Banerjee used all her resources – men and money – to protect her turf. Obviously, she cannot afford to let the BJP steal the biggest show in Bengal and use it politically.

But the price she paid for the loyalty of puja organisers is not too small for a heavily indebted state government. Even as the Narendra Modi-led government was preparing for a grand televised show to celebrate the success of the Chandrayaan 2, the West Bengal chief minister was busy doling out Rs 25,000 to each of the 28,000 Durga Puja clubs all over the state. The total outgo from the exchequer was Rs 70 crore.

Considering the fat budgets most of these clubs handle, Rs 25,000 was probably the proverbial drop in an ocean, while the money is enough to feed 70 lakh school children for at least a day. A few weeks back, there were reports that a suburban school served only rice and salt under the mid-day meal programme. Banerjee, however, said the Chandrayaan 2 project was a sheer waste of money.  

Why is Banerjee so keen on keeping the clubs happy? Well, the clubs (do not please make mistake them for the traditional recreational clubs of the Brown Sahibs) have been power bases since the advent of ‘terrorist’ outfits during the Raj.  These clubs are generally one-room establishments on a piece of land either donated by a rich sympathiser or simply grabbed by local youth. These are middle-class dens ‒ mostly populated by the youth of a locality ‒ to get together, exchange information and political ideas and while away time in simple adda (gossip is the closest English synonym for this Bengali word, but does not quite capture the essence of these uncharted talk sessions about mostly everything and actually nothing).

At one point in history, these clubs had played an important social and political role. Both before Independence and since, extremists and political outfits created, built and nurtured these local clubs and used them as recruitment grounds, as well as their operational bases. During the freedom struggle, the byayam samitis or gymnasiums – very similar to the modern day gyms, only equipped with more archaic versions of weight-lifting and body-building contraptions – were the hubs where the youth were ordained in the doctrine that the mind cannot be set free without a strong body and that no nation could stand up and be counted if its citizens were not strong and clean.

Today these avatars of the samitis (communities) invest their energy in organising Durga pujas and Kali pujas. When the ‘terrorist’ outfits vanished from Bengal's political scene and ideals of the Congress began to dominate the minds of the youth, the annual activities of these clubs slowly turned toward organising Durga pujas for political contacts with people and social bonding. After Independence, however, most para clubs degenerated into centres of petty politics and hooliganism.

But since they still have control over the local youth – mostly politically uninitiated – Banerjee cannot afford to let them stray into the BJP camp. The clubs have a ready and eager army of unemployed and desperate youth, who come in handy during the polls. For, they can be counted on to do anything their leader commands. With the exit of the Left, the clubs are now under the absolute control of the TMC. And they still wield considerable political clout, being controlled as they are by people in power.

The only year-long activity of some clubs, dominated by right-wing political leaders, is to work toward the puja week. One successful puja season can take care of the needs of the leader and his lackeys for a whole year. Even the communists had begun controlling Durga Puja clubs, popularly known as committees, during the long reign of the Left Front.

The importance of ‘party offices’

The second most important pieces of real estate in Bengal are the party offices. Again, do not mix them up with offices of political parties. These centres are another version of the para clubs that officially belong to a political party. The concept, developed mostly by the CPM, is now popular with the TMC and the BJP, too.

The CPM, during its peak in power, got pieces of land ‘donated’ or scouted out disputed land and took them over to build its party offices, where local leaders and their cadres got together every day to exchange information and mediate in local disputes. The differentiating factor between a ‘party office’ and a para club would be a dusty old bookcase with dustier files containing voters’ lists and some party pamphlets. But these party offices used to ‒ and still do ‒ inspire tremendous awe, somewhat akin to a temple of an angry god.

After that sudden expiry of the long reign of the Left Front, the first thing that the TMC did was to capture these pieces of real estate with clinical precision, repaint them, switch the party flags and throw away the bookcases. But the TMC party offices broadly perform the same role that the erstwhile party offices of the CPM did.

After it captured 18 seats in the recent Parliament elections, the BJP too began capturing the TMC party offices, which were then repainted in saffron. Of course, the party flags were changed too.  An infuriated TMC chief gave an ultimatum to her ministers and leaders to get the party offices back. But the BJP, which by then had formed its own force of strongmen, resisted successfully.

The Bengal chief minister was so desperate that she got the state police involved in recapturing the party offices. Most of the party offices have now come back to the TMC fold. So, a serene Mamata Banerjee was able to officiate over a carnival of floats of the Goddess Durga being led to the immersion ghats at the close the nine-day festival.

(Debjyoti Chakraborty has for many long years held leadership roles in the print, television and online media. He writes on politics

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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