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Mamata Should Avoid Hurting Sentiments

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By Sidharth Mishra

Its Puja time and it’s unfortunate that the celebrations should get mired into a controversy on when to immerse the idol of the Goddess. For us in Delhi, the matter may have got rested with the Kolkata High Court decree and the executive order of the Mamata Banerjee government which followed. But people’s sentiments on such matters of faith do not necessarily ebb and soar with court decrees and executive orders. They become part of the folklore and leave indelible mark on the local psyche.    To buttress my point, let me recall the 1989 Lok Sabha polls, which had come with an unusual dichotomy in the voters’ mood. While there was unanimity in their anger towards the Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, the reason for anger varied from region to region. By 1987-88, the mammoth mandate which Gandhi had received in December 1984 had started to erode, at least in public appreciation if not in the numbers inside Parliament. His Finance and later Defence Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh had walked out on the issue of probity in public life.

Singh was joined by Arif Mohammed Khan, who had decided to quit Rajiv Government after Shah Bano case alleging that Prime Minister had fallen to the diktat of those preaching obscurantism among Muslims. The palace intrigues had led to the exit of Rajiv’s political advisor Arun Nehru too from the coterie.
Rajiv compounded the mess created by Shah Bano case by trying to ‘compensate’ the Hindu votes by the way of opening the gates of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, little realizing that it was going to open a Pandora’s Box. Thus if Delhi during the polls reverberated with alleged corruption in the Bofors deal, up country in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it was Ram Mandir, which resonated in the air.
Here I would like to give example of Bhagalpur, which had witnessed massive Hindu-Muslim riots in 1989. In the polls which followed, a relative lightweight Chunchun Prasad Yadav managed to wrest the seat from Congress veteran Bhagwat Jha Azad (current BJP MP Kirti Azad’s father). Azad was a former Chief Minister of the state.
Yadav ensured during the campaign that he did not hold a single meeting in the pre-dominant Muslim areas. Yadav did not belong to the BJP but Janata Dal and won the seat again in 1991 before losing it to the BJP in 1996. The point I was trying to make here was that Yadav won on ‘Hindu sentiment’ despite being from the Janata Dal as the BJP was still in the process of growing its tentacles into the rural areas of the sprawling constituency which later came to be represented by BJP stalwarts like Sushil Kumar Modi and Shahnawaz Hussain.
One of the reasons for the loss of Bhagalpur to the ‘Hindu’ forces was the ‘hurt’ Hindu sentiments. While there was the macro issue of Ram Mandir at the national level, at the local level there happened the Papri Bose kidnapping case. The victim belonged to the family which organised the most prominent Durga Puja in the town.
There were allegations that the kidnappers enjoyed the patronage of the veteran Congress leader and his son, who was then testing waters in the Congress party. In the polls which followed, in addition to the polarised votes following the Ram Shila Yatra riots, the hurt sentiments of the Durga devotees too added to the misery of the leader, who almost lost his security deposit despite having represented the constituency for several terms since independence.
Azad is long dead; the Bose family since the unfortunate incident left Bhagalpur. Their ‘Bari’ (house) stopped holding the Puja nearly three decades ago. But even today people in Bhagalpur recall how Durga cursed Azad and point to the vacuum symbolized by the vacant verandah of Bose Bari at Post Office Chowk. No wonder Congress never recouped from that defeat and is today visible only in the form of the pre-independence relic – the District Congress Bhawan.
Here is a lesson for Mamata Banerjee to learn. It took the BJP 10 years to capitalize on the hurt Hindu sentiments but it has become a dominant force in Bhagalpur today, and given its present organizational strength it’s going to remain in the position of strength for the times to come.
In the neighbouring West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee may be drawing solace from the fact that BJP hardly has any strength in the state. But she should not forget that the hurt Hindu sentiments live for long and this has been the main sustaining potion for the political growth of the saffron party.
According to the almanac, the most appropriate time for the immersion is on Vijayadashami evening (September 30) until till 1.36 am on October 1. Since the Muharram processions would happen only in the afternoon of October 1, there was little likelihood of a communal face-off as on ‘Ekadashi’ day there was little chance of any Durga immersion procession.
Thus the Government order was more aimed at prohibiting immersions after 6pm on Vijayadashami, which was needless, and only to project Mamata as guardian angel of the minorities. Normal law and order arrangements would have ensured that both Hindus and Shia Muslims observed their faith without rubbing the other the wrong way.
Political commentator Swapan Dasgupta makes a very interesting onservation on Mamata’s move. “By specifically targeting the BJP for the rise in communal feelings, she will achieve two results. First, she will establish herself as a doughty crusader against Hindutva — a position that will appeal to not merely the Muslims but also to the Left-inclined intelligentsia that has been orphaned by the abrupt collapse of the Left. Secondly, Mamata is aware that for its entire boast, the BJP in the State lacks both the organisational wherewithal, the political imagination and the leadership to mount a serious challenge to her. Mamata is happy that the BJP has overtaken the CPI(M) as the number two party in West Bengal. But as long as it remains a poor number two, the Trinamool Congress will reap an electoral bonanza from the first-past-the-post electoral system,” he wrote recently in his column the Usual Suspects.
Well Mamata should know that such moves may yield results in short term but in the long term, it’s the BJP which would gain from the hurt Hindu sentiments.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, New Delhi)

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