As West Bengal gears up for next week's Durga puja festivities, the race to gain political mileage ahead of 2021 Assembly elections seemed to have intensified, with the ruling TMC and its main rival, the BJP, going all out to woo the masses and strengthen vote banks.
The TMC dispensation has already announced a slew of doles for over 37,000 organisers of community pujas, shrugging off criticism by certain sections of the society that questioned the government's move, amid the COVID-19 crisis.
The BJP, on its part, has made arrangements for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's virtual address to people on the occasion of 'Maha Sashti', which, the party feels, will set the tone for the five-day gala.
Although several restrictions have been put in place in the wake of the pandemic, both the parties have made elaborate plans to propagate their message during the annual festival, which has now turned into a political pie, of which every party wants to have a share.
Over the last decade, several top ministers and leaders of the ruling TMC have been seen patronising major puja pandals across the state.
The saffron camp, however, is taking a different route to challenge the decade-long hegemony of the TMC. It has decided to set up medical camps, and stalls to display books on its ideologies and educate masses on the contentious issues of Citizenship (Amendment) Act and farm laws, as part of the efforts to connect with people.
In a first, the women's wing of the West Bengal BJP will be organising Durga puja at the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre (EZCC) in Salt Lake, on the eastern fringes of Kolkata.
"There will be a three-day-long cultural programme at EZCC, which will be streamed live on various online platforms. Due to pandemic, the number of party stalls outside pandals will be fewer this time. Instead, we will organise medical camps," state BJP vice-president Pratap Banerjee told PTI.
According to sources in the saffron camp, the party has set a target to reach out to 14,000 of the 37,000 puja committees in the state. Last year, it had managed to erect only 4,000 stalls across the state.
The BJP, which had been trying to take reins of the puja committees over the last two years, is facing stiff resistance from the TMC, which continues to have an iron fist control over these puja committees.
Asked the reason that makes the Durga Puja panels so lucrative, TMC leaders, who did not wish to be named, said the party, since coming to power in 2011, has been taking control of various unions, school panels, clubs, village committees, by filling these organisations with their men.
"Although the Left Front never actively participated in Durga Puja, its leaders had firm control over the committees. They functioned like local-level extensions of the party. To increase our mass base, our first target was to get hold of these committees. In this endeavour, doles from the government came handy," said a senior TMC leader.
The five-day fest seems to be no longer just about traditions, culture and celebrations, as parties strive to stake claim over the committees -- most of which are controlled by influential locals.
The TMC government, which had last year doled out Rs 25,000 to the associations, has increased the amount to Rs 50,000 this year, along with a complete waiver of municipal and fire department taxes and a 50 per cent waiver on electricity bills.
Apart from that, local clubs also receive an annual sponsorship of Rs 2 lakh from the Mamata Banerjee government.
"Most of these clubs have a local influential TMC leader as patrons. That's the license to get the doles," a member of a puja association in north Kolkata said.
Last year's Lok Sabha polls have, however, changed socio-political equations on the ground.
The TMC, which till 2018 controlled 95 per cent of the puja committees, has lost a few to the BJP, which, with its deep pockets and growing public support, has been partially successful in denting the ruling party's influence on the organisers.
When it comes to inaugurating Durga Pujas, feisty TMC boss and chief minister Mamata Banerjee has no match.
Banerjee, who for the past one decade has been seen inaugurating hundreds of Durga puja pandals every year, was forced to unveil the marquees online due to the pandemic.
She did, however, make it a point to attend a religious ritual at Chetla Agrani pandal, patronised by cabinet minister and her close aide Firhad Hakim.
Amid apprehensions of a possible surge in COVID-19 cases post Durga puja, the CM had said on Thursday that adequate safety measures were being taken by the organisers.
Her party, like every year, will set up stalls of 'Jago-Bangla' -- TMC mouthpiece -- outside various marquees.
Other than books on failures of the Union government and success of the TMC dispensation, the party will also highlight issues such as atrocities on Dalits and the "harmful consequences" of the farm laws.
"This year, too, there will be stalls, albeit fewer in number as compared to the previous years. Instead, we will have COVID awareness kiosks outside every pandal, from where we will distribute free masks and sanitisers to the visitors," a senior TMC leader said.
Partha Chatterjee, state minister and the ruling party's secretary-general, alleged that the BJP, with its "anti-Bengali mindset", has cancelled Durga puja celebrations in states where it is in power.
"In Bengal, as they can't do much, they are trying to politicise the festival. It is not the job of a political party to officially organise a puja. Individuals (from the party) can only be part of it," he said.