The Trinamool Congress informed the media on October 8 that the Bengal chief minister had been invited to inaugurate 10,000 Durga Puja pandals this festival season. “It is amply clear that when it comes to Puja inauguration, Mamata Banerjee remains the top favourite of Puja committees,” the ruling party said in a statement.
While visiting 10,000 pandals may not be possible, Banerjee is trying to inaugurate as many as she can. In fact, since October 8, the chief minister’s days have been mostly spent hopping pandals. The visits are recorded, speeches are made, and photos and videos duly shared on social media. There is a purpose to it all.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party has worked to gain a foothold in Bengal, its principal campaign plank has been that the Trinamool appeases Muslims, who are generally seen to vote for the ruling party. Banerjee is seeking to dispel this notion by getting visibly involved with Durga Puja. It is a signal that she is ready to appease not only Muslims but also Hindus in a delicate balancing act.
The Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011 in large part because a significant share of the Muslim vote moved to it from the Left Front. The party has since been careful to nurture its Muslim support.
Bengal has the second-largest Muslim population among India’s states. With every fourth voter being Muslim, the minority community offers a valuable vote bank to the Trinamool. Not surprisingly then, the Banerjee government has made a strong pitch for Muslim symbolism, from supporting the Rohingya refugees to providing a stipend to mosque imams, a decision struck down by the courts in 2013.
In this decade, as the Left has declined precipitously in Bengal, the BJP has tried to fill the Opposition space. In keeping with the saffron party’s electoral strategy of ignoring Muslims in favour of a broad coalition of Hindu castes, the party has been attacking the Trinamool for relying on Muslims voters. In August, BJP chief Amit Shah visited Kolkata and attacked Banerjee’s “appeasement policy”, referring to her government restricting the timings for the immersion of Durga Puja idols last year to manage the simultaneous Muharram processions by Muslims. “For us the country comes before the vote bank,” Shah said, using a dog whistle for the Trinamool’s Muslim support.
To counter the BJP, the Trinamool has resorted to using Hindu symbolism. Last December, Banerjee visited one of Bengal’s major religious fairs, the Ganga Sagar Mela. In January, her party’s president in Birbhum, Anubrata Mondal, organised a Brahmin convention even as Banerjee ensured visuals of her praying at a temple were broadcast on TV news channels.
In March, as the BJP introduced Ram Navami processions to Bengal, the Trinamool, rather than oppose them, joined in, organising its own parades. At the Martyr’s Day rally in July – an annual Trinamool event that mobilises lakhs of party workers – Banerjee emphasised that while “we don’t subscribe to your version of Hinduism”, referring to the BJP, “we believe in our version of Hinduism”. She went on to list a number of Bengali Hindu gods she worships.
The apogee of Banerjee’s Hindu symbolism comes with the autumn festival of Durga Puja, by far the largest religious festival in Bengal. The Trinamool has dominated the festival with Banerjee’s many inaugurations. The chief minister has even written a Puja song which starts off with Sanskrit chants.
Most egregiously, her government is giving away Rs 28 crore to Durga Puja committees across Bengal. When the move was challenged on the grounds of secularism, the government claimed the Puja committees would use the money for road safety measures. This inventive argument was accepted by the Supreme Court on Friday which allowed the disbursement of the funds.
In May’s panchayat elections, while the Trinamool stood first by a significant margin, the BJP made significant gains. This was partly down to the near-absence of the Left on the ground, with the BJP filling the vacuum. But part of the reason was the BJP’s strong, persistent focus on Hindu identity. By ramping up its Hindu symbolism, the Trinamool hopes to attract enough Hindu support to win big in the next Lok Sabha election. A big win in 2019 is essential for Banerjee to stand any chance of fulfilling her ambition of becoming the prime minister.