Deserted streets greeted the heavy monsoon rains that lashed Kolkata last weekend, as the city celebrated two religious festivals – Rath Yatra on Sunday, a major Hindu festival in both Bengal and Orissa, and along with the sighting of the new moon, Eid on Monday. While there is absolutely nothing unusual about either event, the festivals or the rains at this time of the year in West Bengal, there was an unexpected development in store. Greetings and wishes for both the Rath Yatra as well Eid from Left leaders in the West Bengal capital.
While this may seem to be a matter of course, fact is this was probably one of the first festivals for which CPI(M) West Bengal Surya Kanta Mishra sent greetings out on Whatsapp. How the threat of being left out in the hearts and minds of people makes Left leaders change.
CPI(M) MLA from Dun Dum Uttar (in North 24 Paraganas district) Tanmay Bhattacharya went to the extent of actually attending a ‘Rath yatra’ as well as Iftar parties in his district. The MLA, one of the few left in the West Bengal assembly, has since been slammed by other sections of the Left parties – the more radical CPI(ML) for instance – for selling its principles in a desperate bid to regain electoral popularity.
The CPI(ML) has also accused it of not only being no longer Communist, but what is worse, of being not very different from non-Communist parties such as the Trinamool Congress and the Indian National Congress.
While Marxism itself rests on the premise of atheism and that religion is the opium of the masses, fact is tmany CPI(M) leaders in the past have lent support to Bengal’s two biggest religious festivals – Durga Puja and Kali puja – but discretely, from behind the scenes. The pujas are held in every ‘para’, or colony, in Kolkata city and in the districts, and local clubs (youth or sports clubs) run mostly by young men have traditionally organized them.
These clubs are a ready-made pool of people to be turned and influenced by the political party of the time – for 34 years the CPI(M) and for the last six, the Trinamool Congress. But while the Trinamool has been unabashed and unapologetic about its support to these pujas, with chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself inaugurating dozens of Pujas across the city and her cabinet ministers following suit and even holding their own pujas — former transport minister and Sarada-accused Madan Mitra, Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim and minister for North Bengal Development Aroop Biswas have three of the most popular and ostentatious Durga pujas in the city — the CPI(M) has had reason to be a lot more careful to not appear “religious” or endorse any religion.
There are stories that are told even to this day about former CPI(M) Transport Minister Subhash Chakraborty being “caught” offering prayers at a neighbourhood Kali temple. Or about former chief minister Jyoti Basu’s wife visiting Tarakeshwar temple often enough.
But visibly, the CPI(M) has always given a wide berth to religious rites and rituals. The extent of it’s involvement in any puja would be the setting up of makeshift stalls in front of or adjacent to puja pandals from which they would sell Marxist literature and biographies of eminent communist leaders from around the world.
The Communists still set up stalls, but these stalls are no longer popular.
In their time, Left leaders much preferred book fairs to connect with the intelligentsia.The CPI(M) began numerous book fairs, in the capital and across the state. The book fairs were secular. Nobody could object to promoting the habit of reading. Soon they became the venues for the rulers to openly mingle and connect with the ruled.
Educational outreach performed more than one goal. The Bangiya Shakharata Prasar Samiti (Bengal education expansion organisations) across the state imparted vocational and other training to youth and organized various camps, including blood donation. These social activities allowed the Left parties to keep in constant touch with the electorate. The BSPS still exists, but only on paper, and these activities are no longer carried out.
The CPI(M) and other Left parties are now left with few or no avenues to reconnect with West Bengal’s population. Religious festivals have therefore become a choice venue. What seems to have spurred the party’s return to religion is its belief that their exit from power has left a vacuum which hasn’t been fully filled by the Trinamool.
Moreover, not wanting to be associated with religious festivals was what gave the Trinamool leaders a foothold to enter the public gaze in the first place. Even when Left leaders would assist pujas behind the scenes, it was the Trinamool leaders who would inaugurate these pujas and participate in and attend its rituals.
The rise of the RSS and the BJP in Bengal, while still nascent, means that this vacuum is once again up for grabs; not surprisingly, Left leaders say the BJP is far more dangerous rival than the TMC. They point out that in Dum Dum Uttar, it was the RSS attempt to take over and “control and patronize” the constituency’s Rath Yatra which propelled former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya to push past the Left’s distaste of religious ceremonies and to assert his presence.
Whatever the reason may be, in a state where the ultimate paradox has been the co-habitation of religion and Communism, both equally important aspects of daily life in Bengal, the softening of the CPI(M)’s stance on religious festivals is not only timely but also shows the party’s ability to not be hemmed in by its once-inflexible rule book.
The journey is long and the destination is far, but if the Left is able to keep alive its ability to transform itself, in keeping with the changing circumstances and the needs of the hour, it may just surprise itself – and the people of West Bengal.