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Party gets whiff of mass ‘opium’
- Ministers no longer shy of pandal presence

Circa 1964: “Bhukha manush, dhoro boi, ota hatiyar (Hungry masses, take to the book, it’s your weapon).”

Circa 2002: “Comrade, koro puja, ota hatiyar (Comrade, take to the pujas, it’s your weapon).”

Thirty-eight years after the CPM split from the undivided Communist Party, the brains behind the party ruling the state for the past 25 years seem to have realised that the pujas afford — literally — a heaven-sent opportunity to connect with the masses and grab their votes.

So, for the first time in its existence, the CPM has officially given the green signal to its comrades to join in the serious activity of organising pujas.

Religious activities like arati and anjali are still a strict no-no. But the official bar — less and less followed by the grassroots-level workers as the years in power have rolled by — on involving themselves in the “more secular” activites — like collecting subscription, overseeing erection of pandals, liaising with the police for the route to be taken to immersion — has been lifted.

“Our party has decided not to stand in the way of those members who wish to associate themselves with the festival,” state CPM secretary Anil Biswas said on Tuesday. “This is, after all, the most important festival in Bengal and we should not cut ourselves off. That would amount to isolating ourselves from the masses,” he added.

Biswas, thus, became the first CPM state secretary to speak the language of realpolitik. Though party activists, who double as members of para clubs, have taken part in the festivities all along, the leadership always frowned on such activities, or looked the other way.

Biswas’ public statement, therefore, is a marked departure from the posturings of the past. Other CPM functionaries admitted that the “New Left” was treading in a direction that the party had avoided in the past.

The various puja committees, too, have detected the winds of change blowing across Alimuddin Street. As a result, several CPM ministers, including the chief himself, have been receiving formal invitations from puja committees across the city and elsewhere in the state.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has received invitations from two of the city’s most high-profile pujas (Mohammad Ali Park and College Square), say CPM leaders. But Bhattacharjee initially refused both invitations, saying he could “consider” them afresh if they were for the inauguration of Sarodatsob and not Durga Puja. The former sounded “more secular”, CPM leaders explained.

The “more secular-sounding” invitations have come in since then but the chief minister’s office is now tight-lipped.

Bhattacharjee’s predecessor, Jyoti Basu, can still be a crowd-puller. He has received an invitation to be chief patron of a puja close to his former Hindustan Park residence. Basu, however, has turned away the organisers. “We are with the masses and the festivals they love but I won’t be associated in any direct capacity with such festivities,” was how he refused politely.

Urban development and municipal affairs department minister Asok Bhattacharya, reportedly, has no such qualms. A big draw in his constituency (Siliguri), he has “not rejected” invitations to do the ribbon-cutting honours for three pujas in the north Bengal town, say his party colleagues.

Sunderbans affairs minister Kanti Ganguly and state commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen, too, have been flooded with requests to inaugurate pujas in Calcutta as well as their areas of influence, South 24-Parganas and Burdwan. According to CPM functionaries, things have undergone a “sea-change” since even a few years ago, when state transport minister Subhas Chakraborty was the only one visible near a pandal.

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