Is Mamata's Rs 28 crore Durga Puja dole 'appeasement' ploy against BJP?

Durga Puja (File) A Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata in 2016 | Salil Bera

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday warned members of her Trinamool Congress party about a possible social media campaign orchestrated by the BJP during Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, next month.

Over the past two years, Durga Puja festivities were marred by controversies surrounding the clashing dates of Durga Puja and Muharram, an important festivals for Muslims.

But this year, with no date clash controversy, Banerjee has seemingly decided to display her affinity for Hindus at a time when the BJP is making steady political inroads into West Bengal. Banerjee also asked the Trinamool's social media team to be ready to give replies to any trolling by the BJP.

Even as repair work for around 20 'deadly' flyovers in Kolkata is pending due to shortage of money, Banerjee on Monday declared Rs 28 crore would be given to all Durga Puja committees of West Bengal.

According to the West Bengal government's estimates, there are around 25,000 Durga Puja committees in rural or suburban West Bengal, while there are around 2,500 such committees in Kolkata. Each such Durga Puja committee would get Rs 10,000 each.

After announcement of the 'grant' by Banerjee, amounting to Rs 28 crore, questions have been raised whether such Durga Puja committees, which earn money through donations from common people and businessmen, actually need any assistance from taxpayer money. Questions are also being asked about how a secular government could allocate money for a religious festival.

A close look into almost all 2,500 Durga Puja committees in Kolkata would reveal that each such body has a budget of around Rs 50 lakh on average. There are around 200 community pujas in Kolkata, which spend more than Rs 1 crore on the event. Given such expenditure, it remains to be seen how Banerjee's dole of Rs 10,000 can help the committees or whether the assistance was needed at all.

The 'assistance' for Durga Puja celebrations is seen as an attempt at an image makeover by Banerjee. Her perceived 'pro-Muslim image' has made the BJP aggressive in its attempts to build its presence in West Bengal. The BJP, last year, went to court opposing the Banerjee government's ban on Durga Puja idol immersion on Vijaya Dashami. It won the case and the BJP took out a huge rally during the Durga Puja idol immersion.

The BJP celebrated Ramnavami with much fanfare this year, including organising armed rallies that led to a series of riots in West Bengal. It was alleged that Trinamool Congress activists also took part in the riots against the BJP in Ranigunj and Asansol, which took the life of a young boy. Ironically, all the accused in these riots are yet to be nabbed in the absence of proper investigations. Even a police officer almost lost his hand in a bomb attack.

BJP president Amit Shah, while holding a huge rally in Kolkata in September this year, warned Banerjee and said, "I dare Mamatadi to ban Swaraswati Puja or Durga Puja in Bengal again. We will give befitting reply to her."

In such a vitiated atmosphere, Banerjee's financial assistance for Durga Puja in West Bengal, when it was not at all needed, will spark another controversy. Banerjee was earlier criticised for giving money to Muslim clerics. But those doles were given from the Wakf property, which belongs to Muslim community itself. As no similar fund for Hindus exists, the West Bengal chief minister decided to tap public money to assist Durga Puja committees.

The BJP has not responded on Banerjee's announcement so far. A leader said, "We will come out with a statement soon. But she has hurt Hindus in Bengal in a huge way. Such small doles would not help her."