By Saarthak Anand
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has kicked up a political storm with her decision not to allow immersion of Durga idols on October 1 in order to avoid a clash with Muharram. Taken in a bid to ensure communal cordiality—Durga Puja is a Hindu festival while Muharram is observed by Muslims—this call is being cited by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as yet another incident of minority appeasement.
The BJP calls bias
The decision has allowed the BJP a chance to cry bias against Hindus. It has announced that it would defy the order, while also moving court against it. Criticising the order, state BJP President Dilip Ghosh said, “Why will Hindus be not allowed to celebrate their biggest festival? For the last few years, this has been happening. The decision is completely baseless and unconstitutional. It has been taken to appease the Muslim community of the state.”
This year, Dussehra—the day Durga idol immersions begin—falls on September 30, with Muharram on October 1. While the West Bengal government has banned idol immersion on October 1, it would be allowed to resume the next day.
Mamata’s proximity to the minority
The West Bengal CM has often been accused of minority appeasement by the saffron camp. Taking charge of the state after thirty years of rule by the irreligious Left, she has had no qualms about associating with religious groups. The 27 percent Muslim population of the state provides her with a solid voter base. She routinely shares the stage with Muslim clerics, even as measures such as her active participation in Iftar celebrations and announcing stipends to imams and muezzins have provided the BJP-RSS camp with valuable fodder to attack Banerjee and make inroads into the state.
The BJP’s astonishing progress in Bengal
While Mamata nevertheless continues to remain on terra firma, the decline of the Left Front and the Indian National Congress has allowed BJP to grow in West Bengal. The party won two seats from the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—capturing a 10 percent vote share—but recent Kanthi Dakshin Assembly by-poll has demonstrated how rapidly the political dynamics are shifting. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) grabbed the seat with a healthy 55 percent of the votes, adding 2 percent since the last election. BJP, however, sprung a surprise by finishing clear second with a 31 percent vote share—a leap of more than 20 percent. Its gain was mainly at the expense of the Left, whose candidate lost his deposit.
Notably, the by-poll was held soon after enormous rallies by BJP, RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and their affiliates, on occasion of Ram Navami. Processions of sword-wielding activists exhibited a revival of militant Hinduism that has remained alien to the state in recent memory.
Such measures are aiding the BJP in driving Mamata into a corner. While militant processions like those on Ram Navami will fuel the party’s popularity at a time when it is expanding its nationwide base, a reaction on part of the state administration would allow the saffron party to play the victim card and paint the TMC as being partisan against Hindus.
A clash of identities
The brawl is between an identity of Bengali pride espoused by the CM, and the revival of an aggressive Hindutva championed by the BJP. The Bengali New Year celebrations in April saw an unprecedented participation by the TMC, while the BJP was almost absent from the picture. Regardless, the RSS is expanding briskly in the state, planning to double its membership over the next year. The BJP’s rise in its bastion is making West Bengal’s ruling party nervous. It is now trying to counter the saffron party by showing an increasing affiliation with Hindus; apart from Muslim clerics, Hindu monks are being increasingly invited to government programmes.
West Bengal, with 42 Lok Sabha seats, is crucial to BJP’s 2019 plans. Having already peaked in its traditional spheres of influence in North, West and Central India, the party needs all the seats it can get from the state. Between the Left’s inability to connect with voters through its class-based politics, and the growing perception of Mamata Banerjee being “pro-Muslim”, the BJP sees a window of opportunity. It is no longer a fringe player in the state. For that, it has the West Bengal Chief Minister to thank in large part.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
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