Faced with the prospect of a spirited challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly polls due next year, the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has loosened its purse strings to extend help to Hindu priests, as it seeks to debunk accusations of minority appeasement.
The Mamata Banerjee government's move to grant Rs 1,000 monthly allowance and free housing to 8000 Brahmin priests is being seen by many as an attempt to shed its pro-Muslim image.
Banerjee, who has repeatedly been accused of 'minority appeasement' by the BJP, had shown her government's benevolence towards the minority community, extending monetary benefits to the Muslim clergy.
The Imams of Mosques and Muezzins, who call the devout Muslims for prayer, get a monthly allowance of Rs 2,500 and Rs 1,500 every month. The arrangement was made in 2012, a year after Banerjee stormed to power defeating the Left Front with the solid backing of Muslims, who constitute around 30 per cent of the state's population.
The Calcutta high court had in 2013 dubbed the government's decision on the Muslim clergy's emoluments as 'unconstitutional and against public interest'.
The Banerjee government, however, did not revoke its decision and created a separate fund under the Wakf Board for the upkeep of the properties that it held. The fund also took care of the emoluments of the Imams and Muezzins.
With the minorities, particularly Muslims, extending unflinching support to her, the Bengal leader now ostensibly wants to court a sizeable section of the Hindu voters.
BJP chief J P Nadda, while addressing BJP workers in West Bengal recently, had called the Mamata government anti-Hindu.
Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist who once helmed the election campaign for Narendra Modi when the latter was the Gujarat chief minister, and later when he made a successful bid for prime ministership, is now advising Banerjee.
Close watchers of West Bengal's political scene say Kishor's team advised Banerjee to hold a 'Brahmin Sammelan' and provide sops to Hindu priests.
"Kishor and his team have diligently worked for spreading information about Mamata Banerjee's commitment to inclusive politics and policies," a senior TMC leader said.
A BJP leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted the TMC government's support for Brahmin priests was aimed at denting the saffron party's Hindu support base, and not out of concern for the majority community.
The TMC, however, rubbished the allegation.
"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.
Some in the TMC, however, said the party's overture to Brahmins was aimed at neutralising the alleged BJP campaign that the state's ruling party was against Hindus.
"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, wanting not to be named.
He acknowledged that the party had suffered as the BJP made deep inroads even in its strongholds in the Lok Sabha polls last year.
"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 impression but, at the same time, we can't alienate the minorities. We need to fix these gaps and regain the lost ground before the 2021 assembly polls," he said.
In a stunning performance the BJP had won 18 of the state's 42 Lok Sabha seats in the last general elections, while the TMC clinched 22. The BJP also bagged an impressive 41 per cent of the vote share. The TMC's tally shrunk from 34 seats in 2014 to just 22.
"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," a top TMC leader said.
West Bengal has been riven by communal strife over the last few years.
Scores of incidents of communal clashes have been reported over the last decade, leading to polarisation of voters along religious lines.
The TMC and the BJP have been the beneficiaries of the communal strife that left the largely secular polity of the state in the dumps, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left front that ruled the state for over three decades, and the Congress, relegated to the margins.
Biswanath Chakraborty, a political analyst, said the TMC, if it retains its minority support base, while also clinching a share of the Hindu votes that would have otherwise gone to the BJP, it could pull off a surprise win, or at least be in an advantageous position against its saffron challenger.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had recently scoffed at the Mamata Banerjee government over efforts to court the influential Brahmin community.
BJP general secretary and its minder for West Bengal Kailash Vijayvargiya had called it a 'poll gimmick' that will not yield any favourable result for the TMC.
"What took the TMC government so long to think about Hindu priests? It is only because assembly polls are approaching that such sops are being distributed. The TMC government, otherwise, works for only 30 per cent of the population in the state," Vijayvargiya had said, apparently referring to the TMC's Muslim support base.