Mamata Banerjee’s religious largesse: A sign of desperation?

The West Bengal Chief Minister hikes stipend for Muslim clerics and Hindu priests, offers Rs 280 crore for Puja. Critics call it appeasement politics.

Published : Sep 04, 2023 15:51 IST - 7 MINS READ

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses party workers during the foundation day celebrations in Kolkata on August 28, 2023.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses party workers during the foundation day celebrations in Kolkata on August 28, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections approach, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, one of the principal opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, has shown once again that she has no qualms about playing the religion card while taking on the saffron party. In back-to-back announcements, she increased the stipends of Muslim clerics and Hindu priests on the one hand and announced a budget of a whopping Rs.280 crore for clubs across the State to celebrate the upcoming Durga Puja.

With a section of the Muslim voters apparently shifting away from the ruling Trinamool in favour of the Sanyukta Morcha (the electoral understanding between the Left, the Congress, and the Indian Secular Front or ISF), and the BJP with its share of Hindu votes emerging as the main opposition party in the State, Banerjee’s announcements are being perceived as a careful balancing act to keep intact both her Hindu and Muslim support bases.

On August 21, addressing a large gathering of Muslim clerics and political leaders, Mamata Banerjee announced a hike of Rs.500 in the monthly honorarium extended to imams, muezzins (those who call to prayer), and purohits (Hindu priests). With the increase, the imams will now receive Rs.3,000 per month, while the muezzins and the purohits will get Rs.1,500 each.

When Mamata first announced a stipend to imams and muezzins in 2012, there were around 30,000 Imams and 20,000 muezzins in the State. In September 2020, just ahead of the Assembly election, when she announced a monthly allowance for the purohits, there were around 8,000 names listed by the State government. Mamata Banerjee also promised to give recognition to 700 unaided madrasas in the State and a loan of Rs.5 lakh with the State government as guarantor to any person from the minority community wanting to start a business.

Also Read | Trinamool Congress emerges victorious but at what cost? 

Using the occasion to highlight all the work her government has done over the last 12 years to uplift the condition of the minorities and, at the same time, take a swipe at the BJP, the Left, and the Congress, Mamata Banerjee said, “I have been ridiculed when I do roza during Ramzan; the BJP even changed my name. But I don’t care... They have nothing to say when I dance with Adivasis or when I declare a holiday for the birth anniversary of (Hindu religious leader) Matua Thakur... All their anger is directed against the minorities... Now some BJP leaders are trying to divide the minorities by giving cash to some people... Everybody knows the BJP, CPI(M), and Congress work together in Bengal.”

Referring to ISF, which was formed by the influential Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui of the Furfura Sharif (a holy site), she said, “Now another one has joined the BJP, Congress, and Left. They want to make him (most likely referring to ISF MLA Nawsad Siddiqui) a big leader by using money…”

Mamata also stressed that religious institutions should distance themselves from politics. “We respect Furfura Sharif, and I hope they will not enter into politics. We do not want Belur Math to enter into politics... Our religion is in our hearts and minds. We are the first to react whenever you (Muslims) are hurt. A lot of States have done the NRC, but we did not and we never will,” she said. It may be recalled that soon after coming to power Mamata was in the habit of sharing the dais with influential Muslim religious leaders, who would, on occasion, even dictate terms to her.

The very next day, on August 22, Mamata held a meeting with the representatives of the Durga Puja committees across the State and announced a massive grant of Rs.70,000 each to over 40,000 clubs. According to sources, the total expenditure would be more than Rs.280.19 crore (if the number of clubs has remained the same as last year when the State government had doled out Rs.60,000 to each club).

In 2018, when the State government first started extending grants to clubs for Puja, the total cost to the exchequer was Rs.28 crore. In five years, the amount has increased by more than tenfold. The number of clubs has also increased from the 28,000 that existed at that time.

Also Read | Trinamool Congress struggles to shake off corruption charges in Bengal

For a State government that constantly bemoans the lack of funds to carry out basic infrastructure projects, it came as no surprise that such extravagance elicited sharp reactions not just from the opposition but also sections of the public. Mamata Banerjee, while maintaining that the State’s exchequer was dry, also exempted the Puja committees from paying tax on the advertisements and the entry fees and increased the concession on power in the Puja pandals to 75 per cent from 60 per cent last year.

According to Mamata Banerjee, Durga Puja provides employment to many people, and a study conducted by the British Council a few years ago indicated that the economy around Durga Puja was as much as Rs.32,000 crore. “The figure could now be around Rs.60,000,” she said.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee participates in a rally, organised to thank UNESCO for according the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) tag to Durga Puja in Kolkata on September 1, 2022.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee participates in a rally, organised to thank UNESCO for according the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) tag to Durga Puja in Kolkata on September 1, 2022. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra

While psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty expressed doubts as to whether Mamata Banerjee would have increased the stipend of the imams and muezzins if the recent panchayat election had not indicated a shift of Muslim votes away from her party, he is nevertheless certain that her generosity towards the clubs is a calculated political move.

“Over the years, she has derived enormous political dividends with her Durga Puja grants and other similar strategies, which created a kind of patron-client relationship across the State,” said Chakraborty. “This has successfully helped her mobilise local communities in support of Trinamool by making them dependent on her party.”

Chakraborty added that this is a strategy that the opposition is finding difficult to counter, and it is particularly important for Mamata Banerjee to continue this trend ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, even if it comes at the cost of developing basic infrastructure that is “woefully lacking in the State”.

Also Read | Mamata announces slew of developmental projects for Darjeeling hills

Questioning the timing of increasing the honorarium for imams, muezzins, and purohits, Chakraborty pointed out: “The panchayat election and the Sagardighi by-election were an eye-opener for Trinamool. Clearly, a section of the Muslim community shifted their support to the ISF and the Congress. Our studies have shown a shift in Muslim votes towards the Sanyukta Morcha in Uttar Dinajpur, Murshidabad, North and South 24 Parganas,” he said.

The byelection to the Sagardighi Assembly constituency in March was an early warning for the ruling party. Sagardighi, with its Muslim population of over 68 per cent, had voted overwhelmingly for the Trinamool in the last three elections. This time, however, Congress, supported by the Left and the ISF, won the seat by a margin of nearly 23,000 votes.

Opposition accuses Mamata Banerjee of misleading people

As expected, the opposition parties reacted strongly to the new announcements. BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, said, “She is doing these things to mislead people. She could not provide jobs, she could not bring in industries, and there is corruption everywhere. By increasing the stipend by Rs.500, she is trying to create fresh communal tension. She wants the imam sahibs and muezzin sahibs to say that their religion is in danger…”

ISF’s Nawsad Siddiqui, reacting to Mamata’s allegations against the ISF and the Furfura Sharif, observed that the Trinamool leader had no problems with the Furfura Sharif joining politics when it supported her party in 2011. “But she has not fulfilled a single demand of the minorities, and instead there has been widespread corruption in the State... That is why the Furfura Sharif felt compelled to re-enter the world of politics; and that is bothering her,” he told Frontline.

According to Siddiqui, such stipends to religious leaders should not be restricted to only Hindus and Muslims but should be extended to all communities. “Such overtures to only Hindus and Muslims would give rise to controversy and discord... The reality is that she is not interested in making these people self-sufficient. She’s using them for her political ends,” he said.

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