Why BJP is keen to wrest control of Durga Puja from TMC

Why BJP is keen to wrest control of Durga Puja from TMC

BJP and TMC are fighting over the control of the puja committes as it equals direct access to the people.

Come October, new wonders pop up at every turn in the streets in Kolkata. Somewhere a Somnath temple appears, somewhere else an Angkor Wat, somewhere in a park 'Mahishmati' of the film Bahubali, and somewhere else the palace of Tipu Sultan. It will be Durga Puja days come October 4. The planning for making the wonders, however, is in full swing already. From planning for the huge pandals and getting clearances from all the concerned bodies to arranging sponsors, it really calls for a gigantic effort. For the organisers, it is a battle against time.

So it goes every year. But this year, a new battle has begun taking shape. It is a battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for the control of the committees that organise the community pujas.

Millions come down to Koltaka to see the grandeur and the lights of Durga Puja. The number of days of puja, which had traditionally been four (saptamiasthaminavami and dashami), have now extended to ten and even more! So, control of a puja committee means a lot. It enables a politician to directly connect with the masses. That is why people have fought for important positions in the puja committees in the past too. But it was never a contest between two political parties. The outwardly atheist Left leaders were never interested in it, and the Congress leaders, who earlier organised pujas, have all joined the TMC. So, over the last two decades, TMC leaders have acquired a natural monopoly over the community pujas.

But after winning 18 of the 42 seats of Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is determined to challenge the TMC on its own turf. It could help the party in several ways, not least of which is that it will pave the way for it to establish its ‘Bengali’ credentials in a state where it is still seen as a North Indian party. But it does not stop there.

BJP leaders want to establish themselves as the ‘real devotees’ of Ma Durga with the bona fide right to lead the puja committees. In place of gimmick and grandeur that has increasingly been associated with the community pujas, the committees led by BJP leaders are planning to stress the traditional way of worshipping the Mother Goddess. It will be their way of sending a message to the Hindus.

According to reports, it is TMC-turned-BJP leader Mukul Roy who has initiated the process. Roy is at present somewhat cornered in the state BJP on the question of indiscriminate induction of TMC MLAs. But Roy’s suggestion of capturing the pujas was greeted with wholehearted approval. He has since left for Amarnath yatra, but the ball he lobbed has started rolling. But will the BJP succeed? That depends on a lot of factors but they seem to have made a promising start.

The party has managed to take the battle to West Bengal CM and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee’s personal bastion. Sayantan Basu, general secretary of the state BJP, has emerged as the president of Sanghashree puja committee that organises a puja half a kilometre from the CM’s ancestral house. Ms Banerjee’s brother, Kartik Bandopadhyay, who was an influential member of the puja committee till last year, has been dropped from it this time. No wonder, while it was the CM who inaugurated the puja last time, this time it will be BJP President Amit Shah. It will be something to have a top BJP face inaugurating an important puja in South Calcutta, the very Lok Sabha seat that elected ‘Didi’ five times before she became CM.

For the last eight years, the inauguration of pujas was Mamata Banerjee’s exclusive right almost since she was the only VVIP in the state. She had to inaugurate so many pujas last year that she started it on Mahalaya (the day before Navratri begins), which is considered inauspicious. Didi may find herself with more time and competition on her hands this year.

For those still wondering how BJP is going to make the sudden shift from ‘Jai Shri Ram’ – a slogan that came to be associated firmly with the party’s storming of Bengal in the general elections – to ‘Jai Ma Durga’, mythology is always at hand.

Lord Ram is not among the main deities for Bengalis (though another avatar of Vishnu, Shri Krishna, is). So 'Jai Shri Ram' has some limitations in the state. However, according to legend, it was Ram who started the tradition of worshipping the Goddess in early autumn (known as akal-bodhan) instead of spring. BJP is simply planning to utilise this link between ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Maa Durga’ to counter Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Hindi heartland party’ or ‘alien to Bengali culture’ jibes.

The battle for the puja is more pronounced in and around Koltaka that covers about 45-50 assembly seats (1/6th of total 294). This region voted overwhelmingly for the TMC in 2019 Lok Sabha election. If a significant number of pujas are controlled by BJP leaders, and if BJP stalwarts come to inaugurate these pujas, surely a message of Saffron upsurge will be sent successfully. That is why TMC too is keen to cling on to its hold, and the BJP is adamant to break it with all its might.

In all of this, perhaps what has been forgotten is that the Mother Goddess herself is perceived as a supreme warrior. People will be watching and judging the political wrestling taking place around the festival dedicated to her. Will there be a price for going overboard with politicising what is essentially a community celebration, for both sides? Time will tell.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)

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