On the evening of 24th July, members of the Swamiji Nagar branch of Dumdum Town Trinamool Congress were commemorating the 34th death anniversary of Uttam Kumar, perhaps Bengali cinema’s most famous star, at a roadside alley. A large photograph of the actor rested on the table and hit songs of his films, from the 1960s and 1970s, were played, as residents of the area congregated. Amid floral tributes, TMC members told people that Didi – West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee – was working tirelessly to restore the glory of Bengal.

“Didi has taught us to respect the cultural icons of Bengal, who were ignored by the previous Communist government,” Uttam Sarkar, a TMC worker in Dumdum, said in a speech on the occasion. “Who can forget that Jyoti Basu did not allow the dead body of Uttam Kumar inside Rabindra Sadan so that others could pay homage to the great actor? Our Didi renamed the Tollygunj metro station to Mahanayak Uttam Kumar when she was the Railway Minister, the first for an actor in India.”

The zeal with which TMC workers observed the death anniversary of a long-departed actor in no way connected with their party is perhaps a unique phenomenon in Indian politics. But it is part of a concerted campaign by Mamata Banerjee that seeks to appropriate the literary and cultural icons of Bengal’s past.

Reviving the past
The Congress party in Bengal sings paeans to the Nehru-Gandhi family. They list the great figures associated with freedom struggle as their own. The West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party has recently started celebrating the birthday of Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, founder of the Jan Sangh, with great fanfare. As the BJP solidifies its resurgence in the state, plans are underway to lionise more Bengali Hindu ideologues, as a means of exciting regional and religious pride today.

When in power, the CPM and other left parties were regularly accused of championing foreign revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and ignoring local heroes. There are streets in Kolkata named after Leon Trotsky and Friedrich Engels and other Communist figures, and busts of Lenin and Stalin.

In his speech, Sarkar continued making this assertion: “CPM called Tagore a bourgeois poet, attacked Netaji Subhash as Tojo’s dog [a reference to Japan’s prime minister during World War II, Hideki Tojo], and denigrated Ramkrishna Paramhansa by terming him mad. We at the Trinomool Congress are proud of such Bengalis and not of any foreigners.”

Calculated manoeuvre
Mamata Banerjee has figured out that staking a claim to prominent Bengalis from the past gives her a political edge. Playing to Bengali pride during her political speeches by repeatedly quoting Tagore and Nazrul helps to establish her party as the true representative of Bengali culture. Her stance is not the hardline parochial ethos of, say, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, but it is a clear attempt to capture political space based on populist sentiments of identity.

Banerjee’s warm welcome to stars of Bengali film, theatre, art, literature and even academia, making them members of parliament and legislators in the state assembly, serves tripartite purpose: she derives direct political benefit from their popularity; it is easier for her to exercise control and quell dissent from members without previous experience in popular politics; and, crucially, she is able to send the message that her party is the modern defender and shaper of Bengali culture.

Many political parties in India extol prominent figures from the past. Though the TMC is claiming that using the memory of Bengali writers, singers and actors is an apolitical act, it is clearly not. During the TMC’s Martyr’s day celebration at Dharmotolla in Kolkata, almost all the leading figures of Tollywood and Bengal’s literary and cultural scene were present at the front stage, sidelining other TMC politicians.

Dissent is growing in the state amongst those who believe that Mamata is harming the rich cultural tradition of Bengal by politicising this sphere. At the huge function organised by the West Bengal government on 24 July in memory of Uttam Kumar, the Mahanayak Best Actor award was given to Dev, who is now a Trinamool MP from Ghatal. Veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta criticised the chief minister for squandering public money. “Why do you seek public money to use it to buy people,” he said. “These are dangerous awards. You must do something to deserve it or these awards are meaningless.”