The unimaginative opposition is giving credence to majoritarianism through short-sighted soft Hindutva.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently announced a dole of Rs 10,000 to each of Bengal’s 28,000 Durga Puja committees, out of which 3,000 are within Kolkata city limits, thus granting a total of Rs 28 crore. This is apart from a waiver of fire licences and Kolkata Municipal Corporation fees for puja committees in the state capital. It is a different matter though that the Kolkata High Court, on a plea from Left labour leader Ashok Ghosh, passed an injunction on this, to prevent the disbursement of this dole for a week until the state government gives all possible sources of this fund and guidelines for its use.
Earlier Banerjee had tried to prevent Durga immersion on the day of Moharram last year, apparently to maintain law and order. This was stuck down by the Kolkata High Court. She had also brought in the policy of “Imam Bhata”, giving stipends to Imams and muezzins, which too was struck down by the High Court. Apart from this, since 2011, when she first came to power, Mamata Banerjee has distributed Rs 600 crore to 15,000 clubs to help them organise festivals and sporting events. But this has been criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India as a wasteful expenditure.
As expected, the Hindu groups of the Sangh Parivar protested against the Imam stipend then and now the Imams are protesting against the Durga Puja dole.
Meanwhile, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, after temple-hopping for the last one year—in Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—is now preparing to participate in Durga Puja celebrations, on camera, in Kolkata.
This competitive majoritarian appeasement by Mamata and Rahul in Bengal has naturally unnerved the original majoritarian party, the BJP, which, for the first time organised Ram Navami rallies in Bengal with swords and maces, something never seen before in this erstwhile Left-oriented state. BJP is now out on the streets of Kolkata, calling out the “communal politics of deceit” being practised by Mamata and Rahul.
It is an irony that even Bengal’s major anti-BJP forces have to tread the same path as the saffron party in spite of the crises in fuel prices and dollar exchange rates, joblessness, fall in exports and rise in commodity prices in the fifth year of the BJP-led NDA government. The irony is compounded by the fact that any hope of demonetisation having a real positive impact has been neutralised by the return of 99% of demonetised notes to the RBI, and through a web of accounts opened under Jan Dhan Yojana. Also, the total volume of the new notes, including that of high value Rs 2,000, injected into the system is more than the value of the earlier demonetised currency. Let’s also not forget that the BJP has been defeated in almost all the Lok Sabha bypolls where there was even a semblance of opposition unity. But the opposition fails to take lessons from any of this.
The other side of the story is that in the Mamata Banerjee-ruled Bengal, the injured in Kolkata’s Majherhat bridge collapse, have not been compensated by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government as announced, and that smaller incidents of bridge collapse and damage have been pouring in ever since. The Bengal government has been complaining of cash crunch due to the Centre’s alleged unfavourable allocation of funds to the states.
The Bengal irony is further compounded by the fact that the Left Front, which ruled the state with an iron hand for four decades before Mamata came to power, is nowhere in the picture today: it does not have any youth force, has no stand against appeasement, and is scared of taking a public stand on the dole to imams and even Durga Puja committees. Sadly enough, the Left’s forces at the grassroots were even colluding with the BJP to resist TMC’s violence during the recently concluded panchayat elections. The Left has failed so far to either organise a movement against the economic woes of the people, or help bring together the secular and democratic forces for the electoral battle of 2019. The only credible work of the Left has been to mainstream the farmers’ woes and agrarian distress through the kisan sabha rallies in some parts of the country.
The Mamata regime, in spite of taking globally appreciated measures like Kanyashree for the welfare of the girl child, or taking some admirable initiatives of public health, education, roads, power, urban beautification etc, has failed to create an atmosphere of communal amity in the state. Corruption by the “Syndicate” in construction, forced fund-raising from small business enterprises by the TMC cadre, and harassment of women in the rural areas have rocked the state repeatedly.
Congress, on its part, is failing to take the onus of creating a strong anti BJP front in spite of there being no dearth of issues. This is because of Congress’ weakened central leadership, arrogant and over-ambitious regional leaders, rampant factionalism, a lack of organisational coherence and a killer instinct to fight it out on the ground.
The poverty of political imagination in the coteries of the two PM hopefuls of Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee, is making them fall prey to the unimaginative strategy of “soft Hindutva” to stay afloat. They have failed to make the breach in social cohesion in the NDA government’s tenure a matter of mass concern through mohalla/local level peace committees. They have failed to take the issue of economic failure of the Centre to every household. They do not have any clear alternative vision for development or a common minimum programme and are lost in the din of who leads the Opposition camp.
Even when it comes to taking on the Hindutva brigade’s favourite slogans on cow protection, Ganga cleaning and Ram Mandir construction, the Opposition is paralysed and lacks innovative positioning. While the nation awaits the Supreme Court decision on the Ram Mandir construction, the Opposition has not been able to point out that the BJP has not done anything on the matter for decades, except for sloganeering. Ganga cleaning too has not been done in any remarkable way in spite of Namami Gange slogan and allocation of funds by the Centre. Even a huge majority of the estimated 3 crore cows is suffering from numerous ailments and lack of fodder. All this makes a mockery of BJP’s slogans around Ganga and the cow. But then an unimaginative opposition does not have a strategy to take up these issues and are instead resorting to BJP’s own Hindutva idiom, thus giving credence to majoritarianism through their short-sighted soft Hindutva.
Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is Dean, School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai, and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.