West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s petulant response to cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is by no means a sign of her adherence to ‘secular’ values. Her argument that mention of Ram’s name at a government event amounts to ‘communalism’ shows how far gone she is in sucking up to her chosen electoral base. Perhaps she should have seen the recent swearing-in of the US President to realise how replete an official event can be with religious content.
Those who buy her argument should realise that Ram is not just considered an avatar of Vishnu in Hindu belief; he is also an icon of good governance for Indians. This is why Mahatma Gandhi so often evoked the spirit of ‘Ram Rajya’ in his effort to awaken the Indian people. In fact, the appropriate response to ‘Jai Shri Ram’, particularly for a woman politician should be ‘Jai Siyaram’ to remind that the warrior king is incomplete in Hindu tradition without Sita.
But, of course, she is not really interested in these issues. Following the successes of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections and the spate of desertions from the TMC, she is desperate to be seen as the sole defender of minority (for which read Muslim) rights in the state. In fact, her opposition to the BJP is also being articulated as a rejection of ‘outsiders’, as they would be anti-Bengali. In that sense, Ram is also being projected as a ‘UP-ite’. Defenders of the present day definition of secularism would contest this, but they know this truth as well as anybody.
Unfortunately for her, it is not just the BJP that challenges her politics. Her appeal to the ‘minorities’ could greatly falter should Asaddudin Owaisi of the AIMIM enter the fray. His plank is direct participation of Muslims in politics rather than through ‘secular’ proxies. It has proven to be quite effective in gathering votes.
Ultimately, though, most people will look at her record of governance, which has been quite poor. Instead of working for development, she has focused almost exclusively on consolidating political power. Her TMC has rivaled the communists in the use of muscle power, state power and commission power. In many areas, the party has dominated through the sheer fear it evokes among the ordinary folk. The BJP has lost a large number of its cadre for resisting these tactics. Why would the Bengalis, despite the pride in their heritage, condemn themselves to another five years of such misery?