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Bengal’s Durga Puja 2020 is a petri dish of politics and pandemic, a perfect storm for BJP

Durga Puja is West Bengal’s biggest festival — it has also become Mamata Banerjee’s biggest problem now.

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West Bengal’s political mills are agog with the three Ps — pujas, polls, and pandemic.

Assembly elections are six months away and the state’s biggest festival, Durga Puja, has become a petri-dish a potent virus and politics. It has landed Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the dilemma of her life — control Puja and face the wrath of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or risk spreading Covid.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually addressed the state Thursday, talked of Durga and ‘Nari Shakti’ and sounded the conch for the BJP.

And as the festivities continue, with the muted sound of dhaak, the crowds have lessened but not completely gone. The Chief Minister is in no position to put any restriction on the celebrations now, and according to her Trinamool Congress (TMC) colleagues, the decision to prioritise Muharram over Durga idol immersion in 2017, still “haunts” her and has inflicted “irreversible” damage.

And that is why the Durga Puja in 2020 is the ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Fish fries, Honey Singh at pandals, sound of dhaak — Durga Pujo in 2020 is a silent aching

BJP in the wait

The main opposition in Bengal now, the BJP, is in a ‘wait and watch’ mode. Anything Mamata Banerjee does, the BJP will try to use it in its favour.

If she restricted festivities, she would have earned the accusation of being ‘anti-Hindu’, and if Covid cases surge now, the opposition will label it as ‘failure of her governance’.

In this situation, Banerjee chose to be on the right side of the Right-wing and did not curb Durga Puja celebrations. Instead, she doubled the government’s financial assistance to puja committees— from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000. Besides, she gave permission to 37,000 puja committees across the state, at least 9,000 up from last year.

The BJP is quietly expanding its base too. It got some puja committees in its fold when two TMC leaders joined the party last year.

And the Prime Minister’s address this week was definitely advantage BJP. It was the first time, in his six-year tenure, that the PM addressed the people of Bengal ahead of the pujas. He cautiously steered clear of making an overtly political statement and asked people to follow Covid protocols.

Also read: Modi is the only Indian mass leader after Gandhi who has used religious symbolism so well

Calcutta High Court steps in

When all was seemingly lose-lose for the Mamata Banerjee government, the Calcutta High Court stepped in this week to try and control the pandemic.

The Calcutta High Court, in its order, forbid visitors from entering pandals, in order to maintain social distancing, and restricted entry to only organisers, priests and dhaakis (traditional drummers).

The Chief Minister had earlier gone on a puja-inauguration spree at least a week ahead of Sashthi (the day of Bodhon or sixth night of Navratri). Crowds were gathering at some of the major puja pandals in Kolkata, and all guidelines were being blatantly flouted.

The court directed the state government to declare all pandals “no-entry zones”, calling for the erection of barricades around them 10 metres from the entry point for big pandals, and five metres for smaller ones. Even the number of organisers who could enter the pandal was capped.

The order clearly served Mamata’s purpose, throwing her a lifeline of sorts. With lesser or no crowds, the spread of Covid infection can be curbed while her ‘pro-Hindu’ image gets a boost.

Incidentally, two organisations, both having the support of Trinamool Congress, fought against each other in the court. The Forum for Durgotsav — an umbrella organisation of 400 clubs in the city — and the WB Doctors Forum took a stand against each other on restrictions.

Yes, the state government did file a review petition against the Calcutta High Court order; but going by the meek arguments it put forward at the time of review, the die was cast. Mamata took the lifeline she was extended.

Also read: No crowds, no pandal-hopping, no adda — Kolkata gets ready for unusual Durga Puja

Puja, pandemic, politics 

In a year when the chief minister repeatedly claimed that Bengal’s finances are immensely stretched and the Centre is holding up money, her government spent nearly Rs 200 crore to provide financial assistance to 37,000 puja committees. She also subsidised electricity bills and other licence (including civic and fire) costs for the pandals.

“Despite Kerala government being able to handle the crisis well initially, its lackadaisical attitude post-Onam brought a second wave. Maharashtra and Delhi restricted Ganesh and Durga puja celebrations. Durga Puja in Bengal is the world’s largest street carnival that prompts lakhs of people to come out on streets. She could not afford a rerun of 2017. So, she risked people to the pandemic,” said Professor Saikat Sinha Roy of Jadavpur University, a political analyst.

Questioning her grants to clubs for holding Durga Puja, he said, “The government could build its Covid infrastructure with this money.”

West Bengal saw a sharp spike in Covid cases since October 1 when Puja shopping started. The number of daily new cases rose from 3,000 per day to more than 4,000. The test positive rate stands at 8.10 per cent, more than double the national average.

Professor Samir Kumar Das of Calcutta University, another political analyst, said Trinamool Congress is heavily dependent on clubs and local politicians for mobilising voters and getting money for the party. Mamata cannot alienate clubs, but she needs to see what she gets in return. The clubs did not play a ‘constructive role’ during the pandemic.

“We saw how Left cadres and clubs came forward during the 1978 floods. This puja assistance to clubs is only for the elections. The national Covid figures are dropping, but Bengal’s figures are rising,” Das said.

A senior Trinamool MP summed up Mamata Banerjee’s situation as ‘critically complex’, but reiterated that the party was not in a position to do away with Durga Puja. “Our decision in 2017 still haunts us. This one decision gave BJP a fillip and we saw the consequences in 2019. The party with no organisation in the state won 18 seats, limiting the ruling party to 22. We cannot repeat the mistake again. So we had to take a chance with Covid,” he added.

Bengal’s biggest festival — the Durga Puja — will be over in a few days, but its impact will show in the elections next year as well as in a few weeks if coronavirus cases spike.

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  1. TMC is clearly between a rock and a hard place. None of its supporters, nor its ideologically aligned media, like The Telegraph, etc could see the results of 2019. Their policy of divide and rule of the Hindus, coupled with rampant minority appeasement is coming undone. 2021 will be interesting.

  2. THE DIDI in her earlier political career learned the politics of ” DIVIDE HINDUS AND RULE ” a technique she has inherited from her earlier political affiliation.

    THE DIDI quotes in her speeches extensively from a religious scripture she reads. This community whose religious scripture she reads and quotes is voting lock stock and barrel for her. She has learned from them the way to rule is
    ” BULLY and CONQUER “.

    However she finds HINDUS who are more interested in education and science and prosperity are resisting her urges of destroying their IDENTITY.

    Hence this sudden bout of respect for HINDUS as well

  3. Mamata has been vocal and critical about BJP’s propaganda from the very beginning. State Governor and Bjp leaders are working in partenership and is making false claims of her to topple the ruling TMC govt. in the state.

    Bjp uses media platforms to woo the people. Just see, 80,000 fake accounts was created in maharastra to malign the govt and mumbai police. The same has been going on in Bengal.
    Ferocious, charming, kind lady has been a victim of character aasasination because of malicious propaganda over social media platforms by right wing groups.
    But karma defenitely strikes back.–The party (GJM) that made BJP win 18 seats has withdrawn its support. Bjp has started loosing its base in North Bengal and in rest of the Bengal it never had.

  4. Another paid oped writer. You think your oped will influence readers, perhaps voters. You are wrong. What made you think that the people of bengal are really concerned about what bjp will behave or how bjp will storm? The recent organized riot that bjp had conducted in Kolkata had infact put bjp itself at a disadvantage. No one can deny that. People are perhaps aware of the hypocrisy of bjp. They behaved as if the hathras incident or the dozens of rape incidents that had occurred before and after that hathras incident had taken place in kolkata. First look into your state and then come to fight bengal. If you are left with an iota of conscience, stop lying about the present political scenario of bengal. And as long as there’s rising unemployment in india, oped writers like you will prevail

    • From your English and knowledge of Bengali names, it seems that you are a paid TMC writer. Madhuparna Das is very much a Bengali name. She likely to be a Bengali. And even if she was not, but from UP, as you insinuate, what difference does it make? Can a journalist from UP not write about West Bengal?

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