A day before the festival of colours, dressed in her trademark white tant sari, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee walked up to a cluster of television cameras and wished “Holi mubarak” to everyone. Maintaining her authoritative tone, in broken Hindi, she added, “Radha-Krishna ko pushpanjali nivedan kijiye… koi Ganpati ko kartein hai (You may offer prayers to Radha-Krishna… some pray to Ganpati).”
Again, at a pre-Holi get-together with Marwari businessmen, she dared Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah to compete with her in reciting Sanskrit shlokas. Mocking the BJP, she said at the same gathering that while the saffron party had failed to keep
its promise of building a Ram temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site in Uttar Pradesh, her government had undertaken development initiatives for Bengal’s Hindu religious sites such as Dakshineshwar, Gangasagar, Tarapith, Tarakeswar and Kalighat.
The message of the Trinamool boss, who at a public meeting in January led a ‘secular’ alliance of 23 parties to oppose the ‘communal’ Narendra Modi, is loud and clear — the battle with the BJP will be fought on religious lines.
“Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry to prove she is more Hindu than Modi,” Kolkata-based political observer, researcher and activist Kumar Rana says. “As BJP started emerging stronger in the state in the past two years, Banerjee has started appeasing Hindus and replicating the BJP’s Hindutva brand of politics. Her approach is not as regressive as the BJP’s, but it is soft Hindutva.”
By giving donations to Durga Puja committees, building temples and holding religious rallies, Banerjee and her party have taken a series of initiatives since last year, with the general elections approaching, to garner Hindu votes that the BJP has been eyeing. Banerjee announced the construction of a Jagannath temple in Digha, 183 kilometres from Kolkata. Mayor of Asansol, Jitendra Kumar Tiwari, has started mobilising funds to build 10 sun temples. A grant of `28 crore was offered to Durga Puja organisers out of state coffers. At a Martyrs’ Day rally on March 23, Banerjee emphasised that her party doesn’t subscribe to the BJP’s version of Hinduism but she rattled off a list of Hindu gods.
Trinamool spokesperson Mahua Moitra denies that these are tactics to appease Hindu voters. “This is a communal narrative which the BJP has been feeding the media,” she says.
The communists call it “competitive communalism”. CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty says, “After all, the Trinamool once was part of the BJP-led NDA (1999). The ideology is the same. It is competing with the BJP on communal lines. It helps both parties to divert attention of the people from real issues of the state — corruption, unemployment, farmers’ distress and free speech.”
That’s the reason, Chakraborty asserts, why the Trinamool is becoming an active participant in communal politics of the BJP instead of resisting it. To counter the saffron party’s Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies, it has started organising its own. Trinamool workers are sprinkling Ganga jal and cow dung, both considered sacred by many Hindus, to “purify” the grounds where the BJP holds rallies. Banerjee’s party has given more space to the BJP and its fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to grow in the state. Over 250 new RSS shakhas have opened in Bengal in the 18 months. There is an upsurge of activities of Hindu radicals too. Soon after the Pulwama terror attack, a Kashmiri Muslim doctor was harassed by Hindu men at a market in Kolkata and they allegedly threatened him to leave the city. Two years ago, two Muslim men were lynched by self-styled cow vigilantes in Jalpaiguri. Such violence was unheard of in Bengal before.
But political scientist Maidul Islam points out that the fundamental difference between the two parties is the BJP has a mission of creating a Hindu Rashtra by subordinating religious minorities while the TMC believes only in public display of all religious festivals.
That distinction doesn’t seem to be strong enough to deter Trinamool leaders from switching loyalties to their “enemy” camp. Three Trinamool members — Arjun Singh, Soumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra — recently joined the BJP. This crossover is happening at the grassroots level too. “A large section of liquid cash holders — cement dealers, illegal sand miners and transporters — fund the Trinamool and they have a huge support base, especially in rural Bengal. These people are largely anti-Muslim and up for the BJP’s brand of petty nationalism. They are switching sides because they are more comfortable with the saffron party’s aggressive Hindutva,” Rana says.
The trend can certainly help the BJP, which aims to win 23 of the state’s 42 parliamentary constituencies, up from the two it bagged in the 2014 general elections. Though some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders appear a bit perturbed to see Banerjee replicating their Hindutva politics, they assert that no amount of Hindu appeasement can help the Trinamool win this election. “Trinamool is adopting such tactics in desperation because it dreads losing the polls,” says Kolkata-based BJP leader Shamik Bhattacharya.
Hindus, he asays, know they were never the “first choice” of Banerjee: after all, she was busy pandering to Muslims all this while. The CM offered a stipend to imams which was eventually struck down by the state high court, postured to offer namaz wearing hijab, and tweaked the schedule of Durga idol immersion to ensure Muharram processions were uninterrupted. All this irked a section of Hindus.
Hindu vs Muslim tension has become the order of the day in the state which was relatively calm earlier. A series of riots have taken place in Dhulagarh, Basirhat and Asansol in the past three years. Bengal seems to be a veritable communal tinderbox now.
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