As Durga Puja comes to 3,780 major pandals and innumerable smaller ones in Kolkata on Monday, the Goddess will be accompanied by politicians in their full festive pomp. Everyone wants a slice of the festival — and leaders of the ruling party seem convinced that nowhere is political stardom — or eclipse — more recognised than at the city’s Pujas.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has written a Puja theme song that will be played across the city. She has started a scheme under which all registered clubs have received Rs 2 lakh for their Puja. And the government will of course honour the best Puja with its Sharad Samman award.
In South Kolkata’s Chetla, Urban Development Minister and Minister for Municipal Affairs Firhad Hakim organises one of the city’s biggest and most opulent Pujas. He has engaged one of Kolkata’s most popular artists, Sanatan Dinda, to design the pandal. “The opulence of Hakim’s Puja shows his ascendancy in politics, as he is considered extremely close to Mamata Banerjee at this point in time,” a senior Left leader said.
In contrast, in Ballygunge, the Agradut Udaya Sangha has removed Transport Minister Madan Mitra from the post of the Puja’s president. Mitra was arrested by the CBI in the Saradha scam, and has been in jail since December 2014. He was removed from the presidentship some 20 days ago at his own request, Puja organiser Swapan Roy said. Mitra’s Puja is modest in scale this year, probably reflecting the current political fortunes of its patron — even though the pandal, made of 350 kg jute, with patterns woven by 40 Midnapore women, is aesthetically stunning.
“There was a lot of pressure on dada (Mitra). The CBI said he was president of too many clubs and wielded a lot of influence, and should not, therefore, be given bail. So dada asked us to remove his name so the Puja happens without problems,” Roy said. The pandal is within Mitra’s personal residential compound, and his personal security guard sits idle, watching the workers apply the final touches.
Roy said Mitra’s Puja has had only one sponsor this year — a TV channel. And the Puja has cost nearly Rs 30 lakh, he said. “Now the money goes to those who are on the rise. Where will we get the money from?” said another club member.
This member pointed to a brilliantly lit pandal down the road. “We have heard that Didi (Mamata) is coming to inaugurate that Puja. We have invited her to ours as always, but we don’t know yet if she will come,” he said.
“Of course Puja is tied in with Bengal’s politics,” said former Congress councillor Pradeep Ghosh, who is now with the BJP. “Earlier, Pujas in Kolkata would be named after clubs and recognised by those names. But for the past few years, they are called by the names of their political patrons — like Pradeep Ghosh’s Puja, or Firhad’s [Hakim] Puja, or Aroop’s [Housing Minister Biswas] Puja, or Madan Mitra’s Puja.
Imagine the recall value, and how important it is for a politician? 15-20 years ago, there was no connection between politics and Puja. Today, it’s the easiest and most direct route to connect with the public and voters outside of campaigning,” Ghosh said.
According to Ghosh, even the Marxists have been trying to get on to the bandwagon. “Earlier, they would put up stalls with red flags, selling Marx. That is not what people want to see now. They have understood that they have lost touch with the people. I have heard that they are trying to make an entry into various Puja committees,” he said.
Swaroop Biswas, younger brother of minister Aroop Biswas and secretary of the Suruchi Sangha Puja in New Alipore, agreed that a Durga Puja is the “the best public relations exercise that a political leader in Bengal can run”.
“This is how we connect to people on an annual basis,” Biswas said. “Each pandal has a theme song, and Suruchi’s theme song is a poem written by the chief minister herself. She has specifically written this song for us and we will be playing it throughout the Pujas.”
For most politicians, Pujas are an occasion to carry out social activities. Biswas said they have set up a blood donation camp. And in Tollygunge, Education Minister and the government’s official spokesperson Partha Chatterjee’s Naktala Udayan Sangha last week handed out 5,000 sets of new clothes to underprivileged children and 1,000 sarees to their mothers.
The president of the club is the singer Ustad Rashid Khan, and CPM leader Kshiti Goswami is a member of the Puja committee. “We are so big now that even those who don’t belong to Naktala claim the Puja as theirs. Parthada is here every evening. He mingles with people, has phuchkas (golgappas) with party workers,” Puja committee secretary Prasenjit Saha said.