Mamata Banerjee has finally broken her silence on the repeated allegations against her about "appeasing the religious minorities" in West Bengal.
"I am hearing that the Hindus in West Bengal are in great distress. Why should they be in distress?" Banerjee asked during an interview to a Bengali news channel on Thursday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned the need for setting up a cremation ground (samshan) for every burial ground (kabristan) in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh election, and Banerjee walked right into the polarising rhetoric last night by mentioning that her government also has plans for setting up more crematoria all over the state.
"We have already set up several burial grounds, and we have also planned to set up many crematoria all over Bengal," she said, hinting at the fact that she was not being biased against the Hindus. If she wanted to counterattack the BJP with examples of equality set by the party's top leadership, she had in fact, hit the bull's eye.
"I am hearing that the Hindus in West Bengal are in great distress. Why should they be in distress?"
Banerjee has a difficult task at hand — she has to stave off allegations that she is favouring Muslims who were making the Hindu majority in the state feel neglected. At the same time, she does not want her dedicated Muslim votebank to desert her or her political stance of being fair and equal to all religious groups to be questioned.
Perhaps this is the first time that Banerjee consciously pitched herself as a devout Hindu – who did her puja and was well aware of the customs associated with the festivals – while clarifying that the government must take up special schemes for minorities.
"In a state, the majority must look at the interests of the minorities. I have grown up learning from my parents that Hindus and Muslims happily co-exist. I cannot forget that lesson," she said.
She mentioned how she was always part of festivals associated with all religions.
"So many Hindus celebrate Christmas with such joy! How can anyone say the Hindus in West Bengal are in distress?" she said.
Significantly, Mamata took on the RSS directly (without mentioning the organisation) and said that Rama was not the only god of the Hindus.
"There is Durga, there is Kali, there are so many other gods and goddesses," she said, and went on to rattle off the names of several avatars of the goddess Kali. In fact, Banerjee has been organising Kali Puja at her home for many years now. The reference was perhaps also to the fact that the RSS will organise massive rallies and meetings throughout West Bengal on April 5 to celebrate Rama Navami, the first time this event is being organised on such a large scale in Bengal.
"If there are celebrations surrounding Rama, there can also be celebrations around Rahim," she said.
Mamata also mentioned a list of government schemes that were benefiting the Hindus and Muslims alike. "Can anyone say that these schemes are only for Hindus or only for Muslims? It is benefiting all, irrespective of religion," she said.
"If there are celebrations surrounding Rama, there can also be celebrations around Rahim."
Also significantly, Banerjee took on Modi again.
"It is too early to say that the 2019 election will be won by the BJP. Just wait and see," she said, adding, "If they (the BJP) challenge us in Bengal, why can't I challenge them nationally?" She was not specific about her plans apart from looking at fielding candidates from states other than West Bengal.
"Whoever is strong in a particular state must fight from there instead of dividing the votes," she said. There have been speculations especially after the UP results that the non-BJP parties might make an alliance to fight the ruling party in the country in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and Banerjee's words were also indicative of a possible move in that direction.
Banerjee's stance and language may be subject to criticism from some quarters due to her mention of herself as a Hindu, for using religion as a political tool to garner support. Instead of outright rejecting the language and political position that the BJP and the RSS are using, she herself has spoken the same language and therefore accepted this as a legitimate idiom for collision with her political adversary.
But perhaps she knows that this is the only way in which she can fight the BJP and the RSS and has therefore, consciously chosen this path.