Battlelines drawn in Nandigram: Will winner take all in Bengal’s biggest prestige battle?

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Updated: March 30, 2021 8:31 PM

West Bengal Election 2021: The obscure town stayed in the shadow of the land acquisition movement until Mamata and her then key commander Suvendu Adhikari decided to have another round in the same battlefield that propelled the duo to power on the back of Nandigram.

Suvendu Adhikari vs Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram.


Suvendu Adhikari vs Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram: They are back where it all began — Nandigram. To understand the intensity of one of the biggest prestige battles being fought between Suvendu Adhikari and his former boss Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram, one has to rewind over a decade to know how they started. The year was 2007, the Left had returned to power just a year ago with an even bigger majority and Banerjee was still in the opposition benches with the seats coming down to half of what she had got in her maiden political debut under Trinamool Congress (TMC). Mamata was looking for a reason to make a comeback. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, then Left chief minister, served one in the form of a planned land acquisition of about 10,000 acres for setting up an SEZ (for chemical factory) in Nandigram. Farmers opposed the move, which led to a confrontation with Buddhadeb’s police. At least 14 farmers died in police shootings – the beginning of the end of the Left had begun. Mamata captured the anti-land acquisition movement, and rest was history.

The obscure town stayed in the shadow of the land acquisition movement until Mamata and her then key commander Suvendu Adhikari decided to have another round in the same battlefield that propelled the duo to power on the back of Nandigram.

So far, it was believed that Suvendu, who refers to himself as a son of the soil, was the man who galvanised unprecedented support for the movement and won the historic fight against the Left for Mamata. He had, no doubt, emerged as the second biggest mass leader after Mamata in the TMC. But after he fell out with the chief minister last year over what he though was his rightful place — the chief minister post after her, the TMC leaders say that it was Mamata who was the face of the movement, not Suvendu — ‘Suvendu was just a lucky man at the right place at the right time’. They say anyone would have become Suvendu had he been in that place during the movement as people rallied behind Mamata. Suvendu, of course, doesn’t agree with this and says Mamata’s Singur failed in 2008. “Mamata gave leadership (in Singur). Singur failed in the first challenge. Mamata was thrown out by Buddhadeb’s police at the Second Bridge…and Suvendu gave leadership in Nandigram — people of Bengal know it better who failed and who passed,” Suvendu said in an interview to India Today. History is going to repeat itself in Nandigram, where the duo is locked in not just the toughest fights of their lives but also one of the most keenly watched prestige battles in Bengal.

ALSO READ | Who is Suvendu Adhikari? Why his fallout with Mamata Banerjee matters for TMC

Mamata is, by far, the most popular mass leader in Bengal. Neither the BJP nor the Left has anyone who can match her stature, but in such a situation, if Adhikari succeeds in pulling it through in Nandigram, it would be a big setback for someone who arguably represents the last remaining league of some of the feisty regional leaders taking the Centre head on under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. But does Adhikari have a chance in Nandigram?

“It’s a 50-50,” says Sambit Pal, Assistant Professor at IIMC and author of The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC. “The fight is very close. Quite difficult to call this election as yet…a lot will depend on how both the parties manage their booths on the day of election,” he adds.

Nandigram has about 30 per cent minority votes, Suvendu is confident that he will manage to get over 50 of 70 percent of remaining Hindu votes, and that is very much possible by his own estimation. “Because Nandigram has now become very much polarised, the campaigning has been on very fierce communal lines — Suvendu has been openly saying Nandigram will become a mini Pakistan, Mamata Banerjee is depending on 30 per cent (Muslims) votes. He ( Suvendu) has been referring to the chief minister as Mamata Begum — every speech he is making and terms he is using are very much communal. Banerjee, in response, has tried to prove she is pro-Hindu, she has been chanting Chandi shlokas and visiting temples. On the day she was injured, she visited 12 temples — Mamata has fallen in the BJP’s trap,” the author adds.

Suvendu is a sitting MLA from Nandigram, which has been held by the TMC since 2009. Nandigram falls under East Mednipur district, said to be another stronghold of the Adhikari family which commands significant influence in over 30 assembly seats in the state. The BJP had won the Medinipur Lok Sabha seat in 2019 with its leader Dilip Ghosh securing 48.62 per cent votes against the TMC’s 42.31 per cent vote share, another reason Suvendu is confident about winning Nandigram which falls under Medinipur. However, a lot has changed as Suvendu’s brother was attacked just the other day during the first phase polling in part of Medinipur, Pal reminds.

The TMC has bagged the Nandigram seat three times, in 2009 (by-polls), 2011 and 2016. In 2016, Suvendu had defeated the Left’s Abdul Kabir Sekh by over 80,000 votes. Suvendu had got 67.20 per cent votes, Left 26.70 and the BJP had to settle with just 5.40 per cent votes. While Suvendu claims it was his victory, his former party says Nandigram had voted for Mamata and TMC.

Nandigram will re-redefine the politics of Bengal with Mamata and Suvendu putting all their political capital at stake. Mamata left her former Bhabanipur constituency to contest from Nandigram, she is contesting on only one seat and a loss could well trigger a real leadership crisis for the TMC.

Building further on what it had gained in 2019, the saffron party has thrown all its weight behind Suvendu in Nandigram, where Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a massive roadshow on the last day of campaign for Adhikari and thundered that he was winning Nandigram. Banerjee, too, has been camping in Nandigram for the last three days but Amit Shah says it shows how insecure she is about her chance. But if the BJP succeeds with the momentum built in the run up to campaign and phase one polling, Nandigram will set the tone for future phases boosting the morale of the saffron party cadres, who are already very charged-up, to go for the kill.

Suvendu has done his calculation, he says the BJP in 2019 had leads in about 123 assembly seats. Of 16 seats in East Medinipur, the TMC had lead in 14 seats while the BJP was ahead in just 2. Adhikari says he will try to shift these 14 seats to the BJP. Similarly, West Medinipur has 15 seats — in 2019, the BJP had lead in 8 whereas the TMC was ahead in 7. This time, Adhikari says, he will try to shift these 7 seats to the BJP — total works out at 21, which will take BJP’s total tally to 144, just four short of crossing the majority mark in 294-member House. Whether this will play out as has been presented is something that will be known only on May 2.

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