The shout of “Jai Sri Ram” reverberating across West Bengal sends shivers down the spines of Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadres. But will it pull off what “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” didn’t quite accomplish in Kerala?
Will the so-called “weaponised” war-cry serve to mobilise the Hindu masses to oppose and overthrow Didi’s regime? Will the assembly elections in 2021 spell the end of “Didi Days” in West Bengal? All these questions boil down to whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can oust Mamata Banerjee from her stronghold in the eastern state, a question that has been on the minds of many after the BJP’s spectacular success in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year.
Let us consider Didi’s dilemma. Obviously, the slogan “Jai Sri Ram” gets her goat. She stops her motorcade, jumps out, admonishes the chanters, even has them arrested. For what? For saying “Jai Sri Ram”? Sounds preposterous? No wonder, soon thereafter, a public-minded advocate files a PIL in the Calcutta High Court seeking an order that it is the “fundamental right of a citizen to worship Lord Rama and to chant ‘Joy Sree Ram.’” The learned bench opines that it is “like searching for a black cat in a dark room, which is not at all there”. In other words, at least as far as I understand it, how can anyone deny an Indian’s right to say “Jai Sri Ram”— where is the question of guaranteeing it when no one can prevent it?
The chanters, of course, must be let off instantly and become unintended and unexpected instant heroes. Next move: even if you don’t chant, you can send postcards. So, the BJP embarks on a “Jai Sri Ram” postcard campaign. I would have suggested placards instead of postcards since the latter can be easily discarded in bulk by underlings. Placards, on the other hand, cannot be erased or blacked out that easily.
Caught in a cleft stick
In any case, Didi ko bahut gussa aata hai. Didi is very angry. But what can she do? Can she get her party workers to shout “Jai Maa Durga” instead? That might risk Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s ire. He was irked into rebuking the errant slogan-shouters that “Jai Sri Ram” isn’t a part of Bengali Hindu culture. But, then, neither is the greeting “Jai Maa Durga,” is it? “Dugga, Dugga” might work better. Or shall we await Sen’s pronunciamento?
Well, since Mamata is so apparently adept at appeasement politics, might she ask her followers to shout “Allah hu Akbar” in place of “Jai Sri Ram”? But what good would that do? She already has most of the Muslim votes and this would further alienate her Hindu vote base. Clearly, Didi is trapped in a cleft stick. If she opposes “Jai Sri Ram”, she stands to risk further Hindu consolidation against her; if she tries a counter-religious slogan, it may backfire on her.
Perhaps, her best bet is to command her troupers to outshout “Jai Sri Ram” with “Didi Zindabad”? After all, Zindabad is Persian (and therefore sufficiently “unHindu”). Furthermore, if there is any goddess that her party bows to, it is surely Mamata Didi — or should I say, Mamata Devi?
Mamata losing the battle
“Jai Sri Ram,” incidentally, was never a Hindu battle-cry. The closest we come to it is “Raja Ramchandra Ki Jai,” voiced by several Rajput and Kshatriya clans. The more popular cries were “Har Har Mahadev,” “Jai Mahakali,” or “Jai Bajarang Bali”. The Sikhs chant, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” Dogras, “Jawala Mata Ki Jai,” Garhwalis, “Badri Vishal Lal Ki Jai,” and Gorkhas, “Ayo Gorkhali!”
But Mamata Banerjee and her LeLi supporters are not worried about any of these. What infuriates, if not terrifies, them is “Jai Sri Ram”. That is because the battle is not so much a conventional war as a political skirmish. And Mamata is losing it, in both senses of the phrase. Jai Sri Ram represents the re-Hinduising, after nearly a hundred years, of the Bengali bhadralok. This will spell doom for the TMC and other secular-minoritarian coalitions, as it will for the old-style anti-centrist regionalism.
In closing, let us return to our initial comparison with Kerala. The Sabarimala agitation, no doubt, did cause a severe backlash and setback to the ruling Communists in the Lok Sabha elections. But the principal beneficiary was the Congress coalition, not the BJP. In West Bengal, however, neither the Congress nor the Communists are in the running as viable challengers. Mamata’s only rivals worth reckoning are the newly-energised and enthused BJP cadres.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe.