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.
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.
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.
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.
Views are personal.