A season of Puja politics begins in West Bengal

A season of Puja politics begins in West Bengal

The idols of Goddess Durga being prepared in Kanpur by artists, weeks before the festival begins.

The idols of Goddess Durga being prepared in Kanpur by artists, weeks before the festival begins.
| Photo Credit: Special arrangement

With Mahalaya being observed across West Bengal on Saturday, the Durga Puja festival in the State has begun and the next few days will not only mark the onset of festivities but also subtle politics centred around the cultural extravaganza. 

From honorarium to community Durga Puja pandals, to the themes around the Puja, bonus to contractual employees, the literature sold at the puja pandals and a Puja carnival to mark the conclusion, the grand spectacle in West Bengal has over the past several years ceased to be only a religious and cultural phenomenon.

It is not only the Durga Puja organisers who make preparations months before the festival but also the government and ruling establishment. On August 22, when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced a hike in the cash incentive to community Durga Puja Pandals in the State, she had expressed apprehension that some might challenge the government decision before the Calcutta High Court. Though the issue was not challenged before the High Court, the State government increase of cash incentive to ₹70,000 had raised many eyebrows particularly when cash crunch is affecting lot of welfare schemes in the State.

 An artisan gives final touches to an idol of Goddess Durga ahead of Durga Puja festival, in Nadia, on Oct. 14, 2023.

An artisan gives final touches to an idol of Goddess Durga ahead of Durga Puja festival, in Nadia, on Oct. 14, 2023.
| Photo Credit:

There are about 43,000 community Durga Pujas in the State, including 3,000 in Kolkata alone, and with ₹70,000 cash incentives to each of the registered clubs the State government is allocating ₹301 crores to the community Pujas in the State. Since 2013, when the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee decided to give cash incentives, the allocation has been increased every year, and from ₹10,000 the allocation this year peaked to ₹70,000.

This festival season Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has started inaugurating the Durga Puja pandals virtually from October 12, because she is recovering from a knee injury and largely remaining indoors. “Even though I am physically not there, mentally I am with you,” Ms. Banerjee said, as she virtually inaugurated some big-ticket community Pujas in Kolkata, praising the look of the idols at Puja pandals.

The political connection between the community Durga Pujas and the ruling party is hard to miss with Trinamool Congress leaders particularly MLAs and Ministers associated with high profile Durga Puja as patrons. For instance, State’s Minister Firhad Hakim is associated with Chetla Agrani, Minister Sujit Bose is associated with Sreebhumi Sporting Club, Minister Aroop Biswas is associated with Suruchi Sangha and Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya with Hindustan Park.

In December 2021, Durga Puja in Kolkata was included in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Even though the Ministry of Culture was involved in the documentation for the global recognition, Trinamool Congress leadership has taken credit for the UNESCO Heritage tag.

“Durga Puja is the biggest festival of Bengali and it is celebrated by Bengalis not only in the State but across the world. But the credit goes to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to get global recognition for the festival,” Trinamool Congress leader and Baishwanar Chattaopadhyay said.

Mr. Chattopadhyay said what the Trinamool Congress chairperson has done by supporting the community Durga Pujas is to push the economy around the festival. A study by the British Council in September 2021 had pointed out that the creative economy around the Durga Pujas is about ₹32,377 crores.

Political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty that impact of cash honorarium is not limited to Durga Pujas alone. “Not only do these clubs help the ruling party in various political activities but they provide support in political mobilisation and election campaigns of the party,” Mr. Chakraborty said.

Professor Chakraborty, who has been writing on the ‘shrinking opposition space in West Bengal’, says it is difficult for clubs to openly declare allegiance to the Opposition parties since it is not only financial help from the State, but clubs are dependent on the ruling establishment for everything from electricity to fire safety.

“If there are 40,000 clubs who are supporting the ruling establishment there might be about 40 that can openly show allegiance to the Opposition,” the political scientist said.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also willing to cash on the Durga Puja festivities. The State BJP leadership has invited Union Home Minister Amit Shah to inaugurate the Durga Puja at Santosh Mitra square which is being organised by BJP leader Sajal Ghosh. The Puja pandal is being built as a replica of Ram Mandir being constructed at Ayodhya.

The Left parties, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxists) which had for decades maintained a distance with the religiosity of the festival, has not been shy of reaching out to the people that the festival brings. About 700 book stalls of Left-leaning publishing houses will come to various places selling books and literature that is associated with the party’s ideology.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Trinamool Congress, which has been in power in the State for the past 12 years since 2011, is that it is a government of “fairs and festivals”. The successive electoral success of the Trinamool has proved that it has countered the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ pitch by creating a network of beneficiaries around the biggest cultural and religious event of West Bengal.

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