- PM Narendra Modi will inaugurate a virtual puja on October 22
- Last year, Amit Shah had inaugurated a Durga Puja in Kolkata's Salt Lake
- Mamata Banerjee virtually inaugurated 69 Durga Puja pandals Wednesday
The Durga Puja is all set to turn into a political battlefield again between Bengal's ruling party Trinamool Congress and its main rival in the state, the BJP. Last year, Amit Shah had inaugurated a Durga Puja in Kolkata's Salt Lake amid much controversy. This time, with assembly elections just months away, the BJP is deploying Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has had the first mover advantage. She virtually inaugurated 69 Durga Puja pandals in 10 districts on Wednesday. The inauguration spree will continue over the next two days, remotely and in person.
On October 22, the Prime Minister will participate virtually in a Durga Puja being organised by the BJP's Mahila Morcha and its cultural wing at EZCC, a cultural centre run by the central government's Ministry of Culture.
October is "Shashti" -- the first day of the Durga Puja and PM Modi will greet the people of Bengal on multiple virtual platforms as they begin five days of worship.
The venue will be decked up as a typical Durga pandal with a full size idol of Goddess Durga.
BJP leader Sambit Patra may recite the "Chandi path" from the scriptures. But that plan may change to avoid Mr Patra being labelled an outsider. It is a label the Trinamool is increasingly using for BJP leaders, so a local Purohit may initiate the worship.
Last year, the BJP had made a concerted effort to make an entry into Durga Puja pandal circuit in Bengal but not, according to sources, with stellar success.
At two major pandals in Kolkata, BJP leaders who were members of Puja organising committees were edged out, the BJP claims, by Trinamool's pressure tactics.
The Trinamool has always denied these charges and Home Minister Amit Shah did inaugurate a puja pandal in BJ Block Salt Lake. But the organising committee and the neighbourhood was divided over it.
The BJP claims the local Trinamool-run civic body even threatened to withdraw services to the pandal.
So this year, the BJP has been left with no alternative but organise its own Durga Puja, sources say. State BJP chief Dilip Ghosh insists the party is not directly getting involved in holding a Durga puja, but if the cultural wing and the women's wing want to do something they are welcome.
Mr Ghosh is clearly picking his battles. The Trinamool has a huge advantage as over the last 10 years, Mamata Banerjee has made her presence at Puja pandals so strong that at some pandals in the past, the Durga idols looked like the chief minister, dressed like her and even wore the trademark hawai chappals.
The BJP is also aware that breaking into the Durga Puja circuit is a challenge given that the government has extended cash incentives to Durga Puja committees. There are some 37,000 Puja pandals in the state today and the Chief Minister has announced a grant of 50,000 rupees to each.
The Durga Puja is such an intrinsic part of Bengali life, culture and psyche, the BJP cannot distance itself from it. It has to compete for space and the prime minister himself seems set to join the battle.