New Delhi: In a bid to consolidate Bengali Hindus and counter West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s charge of imposing “North Indian nationalism” on the state ahead of next year’s assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to garner the support of prominent Hindu religious sects and their organisations in the state.
The party has formed a special committee to seek the support of these numerically strong religious and social groups — ISKCON, Ramakrishna Mission and Matua community, among others.
These organisations and groups have an influence on over 80 out of the 294 assembly seats, and 3 crore electorate in the state.
The eight-member committee will regularly interact with the leaders of these groups and seek their support for the elections through religious appeal.
Bengal is the first state where the party has formed such a committee for religious outreach. National secretary Anupam Hazra is the convener of the panel while general secretary Rathindra Bose is a member.
Over the last week, the panel has met the leaders of Ramakrishna Mission, Hindu Milan Samaj, Kirtaniya Samaj, ISKCON and Bharat Sevashram Sangha. They also met leaders of the influential Matua community.
During BJP national president J.P. Nadda’s visit to the state on 9 and 10 December, which made headlines for the violence he faced, the panel ensured he visited the Ramakrishna Mission in South 24 Parganas.
Speaking about the political initiative, Hazra said, “There are more than 100 Hindu sects in Bengal but we are concentrating on prominent ones. We have identified 20-22 religious organisations, which have influence on the large Hindu community… Like ISKCON, which has a huge base in Bengal, and Ramakrishna Mission, which has a follower base of over 40 lakh in the state… Vaishnavites have influence in many districts of south Bengal.”
He added, “Our job is to connect with these religious people as they have a huge influence on society. We want their support.”
The BJP’s move appears to stem from the criticism it has often faced that it’s a “north Indian outsider” party that isn’t familiar with Bengali culture.
‘Jai Shree Ram’ to ‘Maa Kali’
In the last two months, senior BJP leaders have visited the Dakshineswar Kali temple 12 times — from Amit Shah to Kailash Vijayvargiya, any central leader who visits Bengal for campaigning first goes to this temple.
But this was not the case in 2017 when the RSS and the VHP organised a mega Ram Navami celebration to make inroads into Bengal. Mamata had then raised the issue of BJP bringing North Indian nationalism to Bengal as Lord Ram is not as worshipped in Bengal as in the north.
The BJP, it appears, understood this later and changed its tack. It organised Durga Puja this year at every booth and Shah started invoking “Maa Kali” during his visits to Bengal.
“When we used to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ during Ram Navami and other programmes, Mamata would dare us to say ‘Jai Maa Kali’. We found our fault line of identity politics and difference of Hindu nationalism in Bengal. We started using Kali Puja, Durga Puja and our supporting organisations started programmes on Bengali icons rather imposing our icons,” said a senior BJP central leader, who did not wish to be named.
Religious meet planned in every district
For the consolidation of Bengali Hindus, the BJP has now planned to reach out to all prominent mathas (mutts) and Hindu bodies. At the mandal level, the party will appeal to these bodies to consolidate Hindus and awaken them about “minority appeasement”.
Bose said there are branches of Bharat Sevashram, Anukul Thakur Ashram, Ramakrishna Mission and other organisations in every district.
“We are meeting the main maharaj of mathas and temples and seeking their support in uniting Bengali Hindus. It is up to them how they can spread that message. They can appeal to devotees or simply meeting also sends the message among voters that we are a party which Bengali Hindus can trust,” said Bose.
In the 2011 assembly elections, ISKCON had appealed to the Bengalis to vote for Mamata and it had a huge impact, BJP Bengal vice-president Joy Majumdar said. “Now, Mamata’s Muslim appeasement is a known story. We are seeking their blessing this time,” he said.
According to the BJP leaders, there are 5,000 religious and social organisations in the state that have a considerable influence on the Bengali society.
“The Ministry of Culture is making a huge celebration of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s 125 birth centenary in Bengal in January. Amit Shah is visiting Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s abode, in January to send Bengali intelligentsia a message that we are a party that has been part of Bengali culture,” said Hazra.
Visits to Dakshineswar, Kalighat, Kankalitala
It was not a coincidence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the famous Dakshineswar Kali temple in Kolkata as a backdrop during his virtual bilateral meeting with Uzbekistan Monday and the 18th century Cooch Behar Palace during his summit with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Thursday.
By doing this, party sources said, Modi sought to counter Mamata Banerjee’s charge that BJP is an “outsider”. Through the symbolism, the PM was sending a message to the 59 per cent Bengali Hindu electorate, they said.
On Monday, BJP’s Bengal co-incharge Arvind Menon visited the Kankalitala Temple, one of the Shaktipeethas, before overseeing preparation for Amit Shah’s proposed rally in Bolpur in Birbhum district.
During his Bengal visit, BJP chief Nadda visited Kolkata’s famous Kalighat temple. In his earlier October visit, he had offered blessings at the Anandamoyee Kali Bari in Siliguri, a tea belt where the party made inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning all seats.
Home Minister Amit Shah also paid a visit to the Dakshineswar Kali temple near Kolkata, besides having lunch at one of Matua refugee homes, when he visited the state in November.
During his Saturday visit too, Shah is set to visit the Ramakrishna Mission and several temples.