Mamata Banerjee announces Rs.185 crore dole for Bengal’s Durga Puja committees

Published : September 24, 2020 22:36 IST

In Kolkata, a Durga idol gets finishing touches ahead of the upcoming Durga Puja festival. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

With Assembly elections drawing near, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appears to be leaving no stone unturned to woo Hindu voters, a sizeable section of whom appear to be leaning towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. On September 24, she announced that she would be doling out a massive Rs.185 crore to puja committees across the State for Durga Puja. According to Mamata, there are around 37,000 puja committees in Bengal. “I know the puja committees are in a bad way…. Since this time you are facing more problems, the State government will give each of you Rs.50,000,” said Mamata. Last year Mamata had extended a grant of Rs 25,000 to around 28,000 puja committees and clubs, and the year before that Rs 10,000 to each committee.

Mamata also announced that the fire services department will not be taking any payment from the puja committees this year, nor will any corporation tax be imposed on them. Further, the two power utilities in the State, The Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) and the State-run West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd (WBSEDCL), will charge only 50 per cent of their rates. “With the economic situation so bad, many puja committees have been wondering how it will be possible for them to organise the puja, so I have decided to help out as much as I can,” she said.

Playing the religion card ahead of elections is not a new tactic for Mamata and her Trinamool Congress. On September 11, she had announced that her government would be paying Hindu priests an honorarium of Rs.1,000 a month and build houses for those have no places of their own, under the Bangla Avaash Yojana. While political observers are seeing such overtures as a move to counter the threat the BJP poses in the upcoming election, opposition parties have expressed outrage over what is being perceived as blatant politics of appeasement.

According to Surjya Kanta Mishra, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), both Trinamool and the BJP are following the course set by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). “When the government cannot give the amount of ration it has promised to give, when it cannot provide proper medical support for COVID-19, when it has not been able to do anything for migrant workers who have returned home, this kind of expenditure on religious matters is unthinkable,” said Mishra. He pointed out that during the 34 years of CPI(M)-led Left Front rule in the State, the government maintained equidistance from all religious activities. “We would extend support to clubs for the purpose of developing sports and academic and cultural activities like setting up libraries, etc,” he said.

The BJP is viewing the development as a desperate move to win back Hindu votes. State BJP vice president Ritesh Tiwari told Frontline, “Trinamool’s defeat in the Assembly election is now a certainty. Mamata Banerjee stopped the immersion of the idol for the sake of Muharram, and then, to pacify the Hindus she gave Rs.10,000 to the Durga Puja committees. With the BJP winning 18 (out of 42) Lok Sabha seats, she knows it will be difficult for her to return to power, so she is giving Rs.50,000 this year…. She has done this out of fear of the BJP, but even after all this her defeat is inevitable.”

It is not just the opposition parties that have expressed outrage over Mamata’s announcement. Even those who have been among her traditional supporters have voiced their displeasure. Mohammad Quamaruzzaman, chairman of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation (ABMYF), told Frontline, “The Chief Minister, instead of addressing the problem of lakhs of migrant workers living without money or food, is giving money to construct pandals for puja festivals…. The situation for Muslims in Bengal is like being caught between the tiger on land and crocodile in water… but we can tell you, any illusion we may have had about Trinamool is now broken.”