The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will stop organising Durga Puja in West Bengal from next year.
While the official reason is the financial crunch the BJP is going through in Bengal, the decision is also believed to be the result of an internal debate within the BJP which wondered if it's appropriate for a political party to organise puja and whether the BJP needs to organise puja to prove its "Bengaliness".
The BJP had become the first political party in West Bengal to organise its own puja in the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections. One of the reaons was that the BJP has been labelled by ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) as an 'outsider' and it had to prove its Bengali credentials. That's no longer the need now.
In a bid to make the final year memorable, the BJP has chosen 28-year-old Sujata Mondal, a non-Brahmin woman priest, to perform its Durga Puja. BJP State President Sukanta Majumdar will inaugurate it on Saturday.
The West Bengal unit of the party started organising the puja at Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre (EZCC) in Kolkata in 2020 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually addressing its inauguration programme. The second edition was held last year.
"As per rituals, a Durga Puja must be organised for at least three consecutive years. So, this will be the last year and we will not be organising it from next year due to financial crunch," Majumdar told PTI.
BJP State General Secretary Agnimitra Paul said that since the puja began, there have been two viewpoints within the party on whether it should organise a puja.
She said, "Maybe the view that the job of a political party is not to organise Durga Puja but conduct mass movements and political programmes gained traction."
The Mahila Morcha and the cultural cell of the BJP were instrumental in the planning and execution of the Durga Puja.
On a woman priest performing the puja this year, Paul said, "The BJP believes in women empowerment. If women can perform puja at home, why not in pandals? And, nowhere in Hindu scripts is mentioned that women can't perform pujas. Also, a person becomes Brahmin by deeds, not by birth."
Unlike leaders of the Congress and TMC, who are associated with big-ticket Durga Pujas in independent capacities, those of the BJP have hardly been part of any major puja, barring a few who jumped the ship from the TMC ahead of last year's assembly elections.
As per BJP sources, the state unit no longer needs to organise a Durga Puja to prove its "Bengali credentials" as this year, the party has received more than 300 invites from various clubs inviting either Majumdar or Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari to inaugurate their community pujas.
Apart from Adhikari and Majumdar, actor-turned-politician Mithun Chakraborty is also a sought-after personality for inaugurating Durga Pujas organised by clubs aligned with the saffron camp.
Reacting to the development, TMC state General Secretary Kunal Ghosh said this shows that the BJP tried to use Durga Puja for political gains ahead of the assembly elections.
"As they failed to achieve the purpose, they have decided to stop the practice. This shows how they have failed to understand the Bengali psyche," he said.
The TMC returned to power for the third consecutive term last year, winning 215 seats. The BJP, while massively improving its tally from three to 77, failed to topple the Mamata Banerjee government from power despite a high-decibel campaign.
Political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty said, "The idea to organise a Durga Puja was to endear the party to the Bengalis through their biggest festival as earlier, BJP leaders hardly used to get invites for puja inauguration. But that situation has changed now and the party feels it does not need to hold a Durga Puja anymore."
The five-day festivities are no longer just about art, culture and celebrations as parties race to stake claim over puja committees — considered a crucial factor in ensuring victory in elections, he said.
The puja committees have been a part and parcel of Bengali social life for several decades and are dominated by influential locals. Control of these comes in handy during polls, Chakraborty said.
Ahead of the 2021 assembly polls, Durga Puja had turned into a political battleground between the TMC and the BJP, with both parties reaching out to the masses during the five-day gala.
(With PTI inputs)