Assembly Election: West Bengal

All eyes on Nandigram

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Mamata Banerjee addressing an election rally at Saltora in Bankura district on March 16. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

BJP candidate Suvendu Adhikari arrives to file his nomination for the Nandigram seat, at Haldia in Purba Medinipur district on March 12 Photo: PTI

Interesting contests are on the cards in the tribal belts of West Bengal in the first and second phases of the election, and the fight for Nandigram assumes huge importance for Mamata Banerjee who is engaged in a straight showdown with the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari in the constituency.

SIXTY constituencies will go to the polls in the first two phases (March 27 and April 1) of the eight-phase Assembly election in West Bengal, but all eyes are on Nandigram, where the two giants of State politics are locked in a fight to the finish. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is staking it all against Suvendu Adhikari, who left the Trinamool Congress to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in his stronghold in Purba Medinipur district. In this battle of prestige and pride, the unspoken, underlying message is that the outcome of the election may mean the end of the loser’s political career. It is as though the sum and substance of the Assembly election is concentrated in the battle for Nandigram.

At the outset, Nandigram seemed like an easy fight for Suvendu until Mamata Banerjee chose to contest from the seat instead of Bhowanipore in Kolkata district from where she was elected in 2011 and 2016. The Chief Minister’s decision gave rise to speculation that Bhowanipore was no longer secure for her. Suvendu is considered the most influential mass leader in Bengal after Mamata Banerjee. Nandigram is at the core of his Purba Medinipur bastion. For Mamata Banerjee, who has one of the shrewdest political minds in the country, to choose Nandigram, with no alternative constituency to fall back on (at the time of writing this report), is a sign of not just confidence but deep calculations of the ground realities in the region.

Symbolic value

Nandigram has enormous symbolic value for Mamata Banerjee. The prolonged and violent movement launched by her in 2007 when 14 villagers were killed in police firing during an anti-land acquisition protest, paved the way for the election of the Trinamool in 2011. If Mamata Banerjee was the leader of the movement, Suvendu was its architect and ground-level strategist. A scion of one of the most powerful landed gentries of Purba Medinipur, Suvendu has several advantages over Mamata Banerjee. No politician knows the region better than him and few wield as much influence in the region as his family does. Suvendu is projecting himself as bhoomiputra (son of the soil), while the BJP is trying to project Mamata Banerjee as an “outsider” in the region, a strategy she has adopted against the saffron party in other parts of the State. However, the legacy of the Nandigram movement alone may not be enough for Suvendu to win the election.

Also read: Mamata throws a challenge to Suvendu Adhikari, announces her decision to contest from his bastion of Nandigram

Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay, political analyst and professor of sociology, pointed out that for all his influence in the region, it would be incorrect to assume that Suvendu commanded every vote. He said: “The Nandigram movement had a number of other political and social forces, including the Maoists and the disgruntled Left, allying themselves with the Trinamool. They may not side with Suvendu this time.”

While the Trinamool is confident of securing the support of Muslims, who account for around 30 per cent of the population in the constituency, the BJP is counting on the surge in votes in its favour in 2019 and the presence of Suvendu in its camp. In 2016, the Trinamool secured 1,34,118 votes, the BJP 10,696 and the Left, 53,214. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s votes surged to 62,268, a a five-time increase. The Left’s votes fell to 9,353 and the Trinamool’s decreased by 3,459 votes. Since Nandigram does not have a history of communal disharmony, the BJP’s growth can be attributed to the popular response to the reign of terror perpetrated by the Trinamool rather than religious polarisation. But this has not stopped Mamata Banerjee from trying to woo the Hindu voters of the region. “I am the daughter of a Hindu. I recite Chandipath before leaving the house. Let me recite it for those who are talking about 30/70,” she said before embarking on a temple visiting spree in Nandigram.

The Trinamool’s terror tactics in Nandigram to silence the opposition may cause problems for it as well as the BJP, which is now represented by the person under whose leadership the terror was perpetrated. It may be recalled that on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was allowed to open its office in Nandigram after seven years with much fanfare and media hype, had to shut it down within a couple of days. No explanation was given and not even a murmur of protest could surface. At that time, it was Suvendu who had ruled supreme in Nandigram. A BJP worker from Nandigram told Frontline that by joining the BJP, Suvendu may have alienated a section of voters who would want to end the Adhikari family’s sway in the region. Before Suvendu joined the BJP, the Adhikari family had two Members of Parliament, one Minister and a municipal body chief in the region. There is also the fear among BJP activists that a revival of the Left in the region may spell disaster for Suvendu. Minakshi Mukherjee, the young Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) leader, is the candidate of the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front in Nandigram.

‘Attack’ on Mamata Banerjee

Amidst all the action and speculation surrounding Nandigram, an alleged attack on Mamata Banerjee has given a new twist to the election narrative. On March 10, on the day she filed her nomination in Nandigram, Mamata Banerjee got injured while greeting her supporters. When the Chief Minister was getting out of her slow-moving car the door suddenly closed on her, causing injury to her left leg. Mamata Banerjee alleged that four or five people had slammed the door in a premeditated attempt to injure her. She claimed that not a single police official was present when the “attack” took place. Incidentally, the Chief Minister has Z Plus security and as Home Minister, controls the State police. While the Trinamool insinuated that it was a “conspiracy” hatched by the BJP, opposition parties, including the BJP and the Left-Congress, labelled it as “drama” to garner “sympathy votes”. Eyewitnesses ruled out the possibility of an attack.

Also read: Mamata files nomination from Nandigram, suffers injuries later in the day and alleges conspiracy behind incident

Mamata Banerjee in a wheelchair, with her leg in plaster, campaigning in district after district despite the apparent pain and trauma, is a powerful image that has the potential to sway the masses. The sight of their injured leader perceptibly added fresh impetus to the flagging morale of Trinamool workers. “The welfare of the people is more important than my own pain,” the Chief Minister has been telling crowds of supporters and makes it a point to emphasise that “a wounded tiger is more dangerous”.

Although the Election Commission dismissed the possibility of a premeditated attempt to hurt Mamata Banerjee, it nevertheless ordered the suspension of two police officers for failing to protect her. This has been interpreted by the Trinamool as an acknowledgement of a “conspiracy”. Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee did not publicly repeat her earlier allegation of a “conspiracy”.

The first two phases of the election will be particularly interesting. Election will be held in four constituencies in South 24 Paraganas and the districts of Purba Medinipur, Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura, which were the strongholds of the ruling party until the BJP began to gain ground at an alarming rate. The Trinamool swept Purba Medinipur in 2016, winning 13 of the 16 seats, and had a lead in 14 Assembly segments in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. However, with Suvendu leaving Trinamool, things will not be easy for the ruling party. Tapasi Mondal, who defected from the CPI(M), will help the BJP in the Haldia seat. In 2016, Tapasi Mondal won the Haldia seat convincingly in the face of a Trinamool storm.

Also read: High-stakes triangular contest in Bengal for the 2021 assembly election

If the Trinamool’s development work and infrastructure building efforts in the erstwhile Maoist-affected tribal districts of Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura had ensured huge margins of victory for it in the 2016 election, corruption at the grass-roots level, high-handedness of local leaders and the lack of industry and employment saw those gains slip through its grasp and fall into the hands of the BJP. In 2016, the Trinamool won 13 of the 15 seats in Paschim Medinipur, all the four seats in Jhargram, seven of the nine seats in Purulia, and eight of the 12 seats in Bankura; but the 2019 election gave the BJP a lead in seven seats in Paschim Medinipur, three in Jhargram, eight in Purulia and all the 12 in Bankura.

The battle is evenly poised in Paschim Medinipur. Two interesting constituencies to watch out for there are Kharagpur Sadar and Debra. The Kharagpur Sadar seat, which the BJP won in 2016, was wrested by the Trinamool in a byelection in 2019, although the BJP had a lead of over 45,000 votes in the Lok Sabha election. This time the BJP has fielded Hiranmay Chattopadhyay, a film star and former Trinamool youth leader. This seat is viewed as a “prestige fight”, with even Union Home Minister Amit Shah campaigning there. The contest for Debra is between two former Indian Police Service officers—Humayun Kabir of the Trinamool and Bharati Ghosh of the BJP. Although the Trinamool won this seat in 2016, Bharati Ghosh had a slight lead in the 2019 election. Paschim Medinipur will see the return of the veteran CPI(M) leader Sushanta Ghosh to the electoral fray. Ghosh, who had spent the past seven years in prison, will be contesting from Salboni.

BJP’s position in Jhargram

Although the 2019 election showed the BJP in a commanding position in Jhargram, it will not be smooth sailing this time. According to local residents, the BJP, in spite of winning the Lok Sabha and winning the panchayats in the region, failed to make a connection with the people, while the Trinamool managed to get back some of the support it had lost with new programmes such as Duare Sarkar (government at the doorstep). A local resident of Binpur pointed out that the anger of the people was not as much against the government as it was against the local leaders. “Didi has done a lot for this region, but the leaders here ruined the party. But the people here are fed up with the BJP at the Centre and their lies. Nobody wants to believe them anymore,” he said. Even top BJP leaders from the Centre are apparently not able to draw crowds at election rallies. According to reports, Amit Shah had to cancel his rally in Jhargram on March 15 as the BJP failed to mobilise crowd. The BJP claimed that the rally was cancelled because of a snag in Amit Shah’s helicopter.

Also read: Bengal BJP: Lotus of borrowed petals

Unemployment, lack of industrial growth and economic backwardness have been major problems in Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia. Traditional artisans from Bankura like stonecutters, Dokra artists and potters have been facing hardship since the lockdown in March last year. Many of them have complained that they did not receive any help from the State government. However, despite the BJP’s success in Bankura and Purulia in 2019, the Trinamool has been able to stem its decline in the region and is likely to put up a tough fight in the upcoming election. In 2019, the Trinamool had a lead in only one of the 21 Assembly segments in the two districts. But with its new outreach programmes, the Mamata Banerjee government has worked hard to assuage the anger of the people against local Trinamool leaders. The psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said the Trinamool’s efforts at revival were likely to give it better results this time compared to its performance in 2019. “Tribal welfare schemes such as the Joy Johar Bandhu Prakalpa and the establishment of the Bagdi Community Development Board and streamlining of the party organisation will help the Trinamool do better this time. However, the BJP still has a pronounced edge over the Trinamool,” he told Frontline.

Mamata Banerjee’s stress on development and the relief announced by her government in the face of skyrocketing prices of cooking gas and non-availability of kerosene has made the rural poor reconnect with the ruling party.

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