In election-bound West Bengal, the dominant narrative is one of competitive religiosity, with the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party engaged in a tug of war over Lord Ram and Ma Durga. Can West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee outdo the BJP on its saffron turf?
The CM finds herself willy-nilly engaged in a ‘holier-than-thou’ contest with her chief rival, making the 2021 assembly polls less about development, jobs or anti-incumbency than temple-hopping and coining religious slogans.
The BJP and TMC have fed off each other in this respect; if the BJP borrowed ‘Jai Ma Durga’ and ‘Jai Ma Kali’ from the TMC, the latter now finds itself chanting ‘Hare Krishna Hare Ram’ and ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
A fortnight before the polls open, the chief minister and her cohorts are aggressively countering the BJP’s ‘Hindu card’; Mamata by reeling off Sanskrit shlokas and declaring herself a ‘Hindu girl’, her MLAs by participating in pujas, making donations to religious bodies and visiting temples.
Mamata Banerjee had just wound up a temple run in Nandigram when she was injured while boarding her car. It was at Nandigram earlier this week that she declared, “I do chandipath before stepping out every day”, and proceeded to recite a few lines (according to the BJP, she got it wrong).
The TMC is not the first party to parry the BJP by adopting a ‘soft Hindutva’ policy. The Congress has attempted to do so repeatedly, most recently in the run-up to the Gujarat and Karnataka assembly elections. Rahul Gandhi energetically knocked at the doors of temples and mutts, to no avail.
Like other centre and centre-left parties, the Congress is still stuck in the secular-communal binary and has consistently found itself stumped in the face of the BJP’s cultural nationalism. The TMC, as an unabashedly regional party, has fared better, because it can always fall back on Bengali sub-nationalism.
Thus, the TMC leader cleverly responded to ‘Jai Shri Ram’ sloganeering by harping on important deities of local relevance, i.e., Ma Durga and Ma Kali. But the growing popularity of ‘Ram naam’, particularly in rural areas, soon ensured that she invoked Lord Ram as well.
Engaging with the BJP on its terms is viewed as a mistake by some observers. The rationale being that it not only legitimises religious posturing but gives the Left-Congress-Secular Front combine more traction among the minorities, thereby cutting into the TMC’s votes.
Prima facie, Mamata Banerjee has little choice in the matter. She has to live down the charge of ‘minorityism’, currently the biggest chink in her armour. With enough truth backing it in the form of special schemes for Muslims, the contention that she accords them primacy sounds credible to voters.
The BJP has raked up the fact that, a few years ago, the TMC government refused permission for immersion of Durga idols on Muharram despite a High Court order to the contrary. Added to this is the perception that the government was slow to act against hoodlums who brutalised junior doctors in 2019, because they happened to be Muslims.
The fact that a section of influential Muslims from Kolkata wrote to the CM, urging that erring members of their community be brought to book, underscored her alleged double standards.
The CM’s error lay in underestimating the extent of religious polarisation. The BJP made considerable political capital from her refusal to speak at a function commemorating Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, after slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ were raised. She has been trying to repair the damage ever since.
In the bhakti department, the BJP has a head start. Its leaders have been visiting every temple in sight, even discovering some little-known shrines dedicated to Ma Durga and Ma Kali. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to flag off a new metro route linking the Dakshineswar Kali and Kalighat temples.
Just when it looked as if the BJP’s campaign had peaked and the Hindutva pitch couldn’t get any higher, it has raised the bar another octave, by hinting at a ‘love jihad’ law if it came to power–possibly in reaction to the sympathy for the injured CM, who claims she was a victim of political violence.
The BJP has plenty of ammunition against the TMC, from the “cut money” culture and alleged siphoning of relief funds in the wake of Cyclone Amphan to Mamata Banerjee’s failure to deliver “Sonar Bangla”. But “appeasement politics” clearly has the most emotional appeal.
So the CM must parade her Hindu credentials for all to see. She may not have been a “chunavi Hindu” when the campaign started, but she’s certainly being forced to act like one now. OMG–the expression takes on a whole new meaning in Bengal.