Understanding Mamata Banerjee's Nandigram gamble
It’s a desperate ploy to take on the rising BJP that is locked in a now-or-never battle to capture Bengal.
Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement earlier this week at Nandigram, the epicentre of the farmers’ movement that toppled the Left Front government in 2011, that she will contest the coming Assembly elections from there is as much dramatic as pregnant with political significance. It’s a desperate ploy to take on the rising BJP that is locked in a now-or-never battle to capture Bengal.
The Trinamool chief wants to kill several birds with one stone. She seeks to hit the BJP where it hurts it most by throwing the gauntlet at her key leader till recently and now a star BJP campaigner, Suvendu Adhikari, in his home turf. At the same time, she frantically wants to deflect the anti-incumbency factor by reviving the memories of the Nandigram-Singur movement to regain lost ground. Further, Mamata is on a rather shaky ground in her constituency in Kolkata, Bhowanipore, this time around. A sizeable section of the electorate in this seat are from other states and known to be BJP sympathisers.
A two-time MLA from Bhowanipore, she won this seat by over 95,000 votes in 2011 at the height of the Nandigram agitation. But her victory margin came down to 25,000 in the 2016 elections. Trinamool even trailed behind the BJP in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation ward in Bhowanipore by 496 votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when the BJP won 18 of the 42 seats from the state. The Bengal CM knew her decision to contest from Nandigram would be interpreted as a reflection of her fear of losing the poll in Bhowanipore and so asserted that Nandigram is her “big sister” and Bhowanipore is her “younger sister”. She said she might contest from both the seats if possible.
The timing for choosing Nandigram as her electoral constituency is intriguing. The Trinamool was not only without any potent issue to fight the election with, but is on the back foot due to the spate of allegations of corruption and failure to industrialise the state that is the need of the hour. Suddenly, the CM has got on a platter the issue of the farmers’ agitation against the BJP government at the Centre. The stiff resistance from farmers of Punjab, Haryana and other states agitating against the three contentious farm laws has kindled the memories of the Singur-Nandigram agitation. She lapped up the opportunity to project herself as a farmers’ leader and didn’t lose time to extend her support to the agitation.
When Adhikari, the Trinamool’s face of Nandigram agitation, recently joined the BJP, the Trinamool chief was at her wit’s end. It had been on the cards as Adhikari had resigned as MLA and then minister before joining the saffron party. There was euphoria in the BJP as Adhikari was a prize catch. He has a solid base in the two Midnapore districts (East and West) and the Junglemahal area comprising parts of Purulia, Midnapore, Jhargram and Bankura. The large swathe of area in this belt has 40 Assembly constituencies. Hence, Adhikari can play a crucial role in deciding the electoral fortunes of the BJP and dashing to the ground Trinamool’s hopes of retaining power for the third consecutive term.
The CM knows the danger that her one-time protégé is posing. So, she is making the calculated gamble of contesting from Nandigram and taking the battle into Adhikari’s home turf. The intention is
to stun the BJP and followers of Adhikari and neutralise his influence. But Adhikari is too battle-worn to be scared of Mamata’s challenge. It was he who once succeeded in enlisting the support of the Maoists in Junglemahal during the Nandigram agitation to provide the firepower to the Trinamool when the Left Front was at its peak. His organisational skills are such that he is known to have convinced the Maoists to help the Trinamool overthrow the 34-year-long Marxist regime.
Adhikari won the Nandigram seat in the 2016 Assembly elections by 81,230 votes, the fourth highest victory margin in the state. That is why he immediately accepted the challenge thrown by his former mentor and declared within hours of Mamata’s announcement that if he can’t defeat her by a margin of over 50,000 votes, he would quit politics.He also seized the opportunity to needle the CM using her own words delivered at Nandigram with all the histrionics. She had said: “I have always started my campaign for the Assembly polls from Nandigram. It is a lucky place for me. So this time, I feel that I should contest the Assembly polls from here. I would request our state party president Subrata Bakshi to approve my name from this seat.”
Adhikari said her words betray her style of functioning that is in sharp contrast to the BJP’s. Having been in the Trinamool for years, he said that he knows all decisions are taken by the aunt and the nephew (Mamata and Abhishek Banerjee) as they have reduced the party to a “private limited company”. But in the BJP, party candidates are selected through a rigorous organisational process and as such he can’t announce right at the moment whether he would fight her in the Nandigram seat. “If my party fields me there, I would defeat her by at least 50,000 votes,” he said at a rally in Kolkata after her announcement.
The electoral contest in Nandigram is all set to become the battle of battles. This constituency has nearly 40% Muslim voters, who in Mamata’s calculation will not back Adhikari this time as he has joined the BJP. Apart from the Muslims, this seat has a sizable number of Scheduled Caste voters who have been loyal to the Trinamool.
But due to the way Abhishek Banerjee handled the party organisation for two years in Junglemahal areas after the responsibility was taken away from Adhikari in 2016, many party members were antagonised. During the panchayat polls in 2018, even Trinamool members were not allowed to file their nominations by the ruling party. This caused such resentment that the Trinamool suffered reverses in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. These members are expected to rally behind Adhikari when he takes on Mamata and the Trinamool. It is to be seen whether it is Mamata or Suvendu magic that works from Nandigram this time.
Uday Basu (email@example.com) (Tweets @PulsePeoples)
Political analyst associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research group