Festive gifts in the wake of disaster
Timing can undermine the most generous of gifts. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has promised a gift of Rs 10,000 to each of the 28,000 Durga Puja committees in West Bengal. Cheering as that sounds, it may be that the Puja is not topmost in the minds of the festival-loving population of the state. The shock of the Majerhat bridge collapse, evoking memories of two other similar collapses in the recent past with their accompanying tragedies, now followed by the unquestionably alarming - and shockingly belated - reports on the state of bridges and flyovers in the city and districts, have prompted criticism of the government's priorities. Maintaining infrastructure and ensuring safety are matters of money too, as well as of monitoring and work ethics. These fall within the serious governing responsibilities of any ruling dispensation, categorically different from the encouragement of festivities.
It is to a degree true that the Durga Puja emanates a spirit of inclusiveness; that is not entirely a myth. The chief minister has referred to the importance of this spirit in the context of the efforts at polarization by right-wing forces, but that does not neutralize the populist thrust of her gesture. Attempts to incite conflict between communities or corner minorities should be fought on the basis of maturely thought out strategies that need dedicated planning, time and energy. An act of largesse cannot be held out as defence against the powers of seduction of opposing forces. It also trivializes the basis of the opposition. Worse, such decisions end up leading precisely to what has become the bane of India today: using religion for political ends. Ms Banerjee has left no doubt that this gift is a way of keeping the Bharatiya Janata Party out of the popular sphere in Bengal. Although it is true that the chief minister has distributed funds to local clubs earlier, encouraging sports, festivals, competitions and social work - that has been criticized too - the Puja gift of Rs 28 crore is exceptional. Is it standing out for desirable reasons?