KOLKATA: Doles for Hindu priests seem to be a part of TMC's well-crafted strategy to blunt the allegations of minority appeasement, and take the wind out of BJP's sails, as it sets the stage for a neck-and-neck slugfest, ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls in West Bengal.
Political observers have said that the TMC, now desperate to shed the 'anti-Hindu' tag and embrace 'soft Hindutva', is carefully planning its moves, with help from poll strategist Prashant Kishor and team, as is evident from its decisions to organise Brahmin Sammelan, provide sops to Sanatan Brahmins, and financial aid to Durga puja committees.
Although senior leaders of the Mamata Banerjee-led party claimed that the move to provide aid and free housing to 8,000 Sanatan Brahmin priests was a reflection of its "inclusive" policies, the opposition BJP said that it was aimed at denting the saffron camp's Hindu vote base.
"We don't believe in communal politics, unlike the BJP. We aim to help people and communities in distress. The party has no religious agenda," Senior TMC leader and MP Saugato Roy told PTI.
The ruling party's top brass, however, failed to explain why it took eight years to announce financial aid for Hindu priests, given the fact that Imams and Muezzins have been enjoying such benefits over the last eight years.
After the Calcutta High Court had in 2012 rejected the West Bengal government's decision to provide financial assistance to Imams and Muezzins as "unconstitutional and against the public interest", the ruling dispensation routed it through the state's Wakf Board.
A section of TMC members, however, admitted that sops were being extended to the Sanatan Brahmins, as the party looks to gain ground in the Hindu-majority belts, where the BJP have made deep inroads over the past two to three years.
"The BJP has been trying to project us as an anti- Hindu force. Their members have been trying to pitch themselves as champions of Hindutva. So we wanted to reach out to the masses, especially the Hindu community, with the message that we believe in inclusive growth," a senior TMC leader said on the condition of anonymity.
"The allegations that we are anti-Hindu have done a lot of damage to the party during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. We need to change that, but at the same time, we can't alienate the minorities. We need to fix those gaps and regain the lost ground before the 2021 assembly polls," he said.
According to TMC sources, the party's ouster in several pockets of North Bengal and South Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls had been an "eye-opener".
The saffron camp reached its all-time high in Bengal politics last year when it stunned political pundits by bagging 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, four less than the ruling TMC, with a staggering vote share of 41 per cent.
The TMC tally not just came down from 34 seats in 2014 to 22, but the party also fared badly in Junglemahal areas, where the tribal population was found to have shifted its allegiance to the BJP.
Brahmin priests still command respect among the Hindus and could help swing votes, sources in the Mamata Banerjee-led party said.
"I-PAC (Kishor's organisation) has assessed the situation in Bengal and provided inputs for restructuring our strategy. This attempt to reach out to the Brahmins is a part of the revised plan," one of them said.
Bengal has witnessed sharp communal polarisation over the last few years.
According to Union Home Ministry data, released in 2018, the state recorded 27 incidents of communal violence in 2015.
The number doubled by 2017 as 58 such incidents were recorded.
Political experts have claimed that the outcome of 2019 parliamentary polls and sustained attack by the BJP on the TMC's alleged anti Hindu stance has forced the state's ruling party to rethink its strategy.
Noted political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty said the "soft-Hindutva agenda pursued by the TMC" is aimed at winning back the Hindu votes it lost to the BJP.
"Only time will tell if this soft-Hindutva approach can benefit the party. The TMC wants to retain its minority vote bank, while trying to split Hindu votes. If it is successful in splitting Hindu votes with the BJP, the party would be at an advantageous position," Chakraborty said.
The West Bengal unit of the RSS had last week said that the government made a "mockery of the Brahmins" by announcing the doles, and insisted that the existence of Bengali-speaking Hindus is under threat in present-day Bengal.
BJP national general secretary and the party's Bengal minder, Kailash Vijayvargiya said "poll gimmicks" of the TMC government wouldn't yield any result.
"What took the TMC government so long to think about Hindu priests? It is only because assembly polls are approaching, such sops are being distributed.
The TMC government, otherwise, works for only 30 per cent of the population in the state," Vijayvargiya said.
Echoing Vijayvargiya, West Bengal Congress president Adhir Chowdhury said the announcement reflects the "desperation" of the TMC government, which seems to be ready to go to any extent to win votes.
"The TMC has realized that only appeasement of minorities won't work, so they have decided to give doles to Hindu priests. This is nothing but an effort to endorse soft- Hindutva. The TMC is neither interested in the development of Hindus or Muslims," Chowdhury said.
CPI (M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty, however, said that such "dole politics" would further deepen the communal divide in the state and help the BJP gain ground.
Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Bengal in April-May next year.