The Poush Mela’, the famous winter festival at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan, was started by Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, in 1894. Over the years, it transformed into a collective celebration of arts, culture, music, craftwork, folk and oral traditions, dance and poetry. It would be held in an open ground on the campus where locals, adivasis, people from rural Bengal, and others, even from abroad, came over to participate, showcase their work, and sell their craftwork. The Mela is an annual event eagerly awaited by all those who celebrate the intrinsic beauty of ‘life and learning under the open sky’.
The current vice-chancellor of this central university, in which the Prime Minister is the chancellor, has stopped the festival. A wall has been constructed on the traditional ground which was open to all those who live in the neighbourhood. There have been protests against the wall by local residents and students of Santiniketan, but the VC has not budged. “It was both a tribute to Tagore as much as a reassertion of Bengali culture,” said Samirul Islam, president of the Bangla Sanskriti Manch, which commands a strong support base among the intelligentsia and locals, especially in this region of Birbhum. “Blocking the festival is an attack on Bengali culture and its secular ethos. This is just not acceptable.”
This refrain finds echo in Mamata Banerjee’s political campaign. You cannot undermine Bengali culture and Tagore in a land where both are deeply revered. On Thursday, the Chief Minister urged people to expel “outsiders” from Bengal. “BJP is a party of Delhi and Gujarat. They should return to those states… If you want to fight elections in Bengal, do it without bringing outsiders,” she said.
The call came hours after BJP president JP Nadda’s convoy had come under attack while he was on his way to Diamond Harbour in Kolkata. He escaped unhurt. The Trinamool Congress called it a stage-managed show. An adverse report by the Governor has triggered a Centre versus State conflict scenario yet again. In the uproar, BJP leaders are pointing fingers at the law and order situation in Bengal and at its ruling party.
Meanwhile, the Bengali-versus-outsider exhortation continues to be played by the TMC. A few recent faux pas made by BJP leaders have only given credence to the campaign. Amit Shah, in one of his recent visit to Bengal, garlanded a tribal’s statue thinking that it belonged to great tribal revolutionary, Birsa Munda, a highly revered figure among the adivasi community in Bengal. The TMC was quick to criticize Shah on this goof-up. Nadda too erroneously posted on a social media site that Tagore was born in Viswa Bharati. Tagore was born in his famous ancestral house Jorasanko in Kolkata, and the whole of Bengal knows it.
Indeed, the TMC’s constant targeting of the BJP proves that the saffron party has moved from the margins into the mainstream, appropriating both CPM and TMC supporters, while trying to position itself as the main opposition force. Some of its top leaders now were big shots in TMC. On December 9, in a typical local street corner rally in the bustling Garia market in South Kolkata, a local BJP leader equated both the CPM and the BJP as birds of the same feather, while glorifying Narendra Modi. He claimed, in a dark irony, that the Indian economy is booming, and so is the GDP and Sensex.
With a strong rhetoric against the minorities, and accusing Mamata Banerjee of appeasement, the BJP is tapping into the incipient communal polarization still festering in the post-Partition political unconscious of Bengal, especially among those who arrived here as refugees from East Bengal. This is a wound which the BJP wants to capitalize in a state which prides itself for its inherited secular, progressive and enlightened ethos.
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The CPM is in a disarray. Its leadership, seems to be living in a warped time zone. Their position is best described in the words of Biplab Mukherjee, social activist, who said: “The theory, which seems to have gone down in its rank and file, is that let the BJP come to power, then the Left will automatically follow. Aage Ram, Pore Baam… (first Ram, then Left). This is a suicidal line. The BJP will totally decimate them.”
The CPM leadership seems to have rejected the appeal by Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation), which did very well in the Bihar assembly polls recently. Bhattacharya declared that the Left should position the BJP as enemy number one, and, thereby, first and foremost, the fight should be against the politics of the BJP. If the BJP comes to power in Bengal, the Left, already extremely fragile, will be finished in the state.
Political observers are sure that the TMC is still the main scaffolding against communal forces in contemporary Bengal. Even on December 9, in a massive rally among the Scheduled Caste community of Matuas, Mamata Banerjee declared her total opposition to the NRC-CAA, and in rally after rally, she has declared support to the farmers’ struggle against the central laws. Her attack on the BJP is frontal and forthright, and despite the BJP’s gains in the last Lok Sabha polls, she remains the most formidable and popular leader in Bengal.
Indeed, among other measures during the pandemic and the lockdown, her scheme of free ration and rice to the poor across the state, and the relief operations in the Sunderbans after the cyclone, has endeared her to the masses, though her ‘Government at your Door’ scheme, apparently a brainchild of Prashant Kishore, is still a work in progress.
In this context, the weak alliance between the Congress and CPM, with the CPM playing second fiddle, is yet again making the tactical mistake of equating both the TMC and the BJP as two sides of the same coin. This is bad politics. By taking this line, the Left is only helping the BJP to gain a stronghold, even while a large chunk of its erstwhile support base is voting and supporting BJP.
The TMC too, despite the strong hold and charisma of Mamata Banerjee, is reportedly full of internal factionalism. The fissures are there for all to see. However, not all its leaders, like Mohua Mitra, for instance, will jump ship to the BJP.
The fissures inside TMC are directly linked to the parallel power apparatus being wielded by Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew. His opulent lifestyle and alleged ‘authoritarian’ behaviour, and his apparent control on the party organization and its resources, with Mamata looking the other way, seems to have alienated sections of the young vanguard, as well as the old guard.
The party’s rebels are calling it ‘dynasty politics’, while choosing to join the BJP, or waiting for a tactical time to jump ship, as its East Midnapur strongman Suvendu Adhikari seems to be doing right now. With Abhishek, without a mass base or a history of political struggle at the grassroots, literally calling the shots, the future of TMC remains a conjecture. However, as of now, Didi is still on a strong wicket, though it might not be all hunky dory for her in these assembly polls.