Identity politics and industrialisation have emerged as poll planks in West Bengal's high-profile Nandigram seat, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will contest her former lieutenant and BJP candidate Suvendu Adhikari. In a constituency where 30 per cent minority votes can influence the results, both the BJP and TMC are also engaged in competitive Hindutva to woo the majority community.
The obscure agrarian region in Purba Medinipur district had shaken the foundation of the mighty Left Front regime through the anti-land acquisition movement in 2007 that had ultimately catapulted the TMC to power in 2011. The then two prominent faces of the stir, Banerjee and Adhikari, will now contest each other in the second of the eight-phase elections on April 1.
The CPI(M), with its young candidate Minakshi Mukherjee, is seeking to regain its ground lost to the BJP. Apart from communal polarisation, the constituency is also witnessing the 'insider-outsider' debate but here, Banerjee, who has used the plank to label BJP as a 'party of outsiders', is facing the flak as Adhikari is projecting himself as a 'Bhoomiputra' (son of soil) and the TMC chief as an outsider from Kolkata.
Banerjee, who lives in Kalighat area of the metropolis, has left her Bhowanipore constituency in the city to battle her former cabinet minister in Nandigram. To counter the 'outsider' label, Banerjee has branded her former confidante Adhikari as 'Mir Jafar', a commander of Bengal's last independent nawab Siraj ud-Daula who had betrayed the ruler at the Battle of Plassey leading to the East India Company's victory.
Ironically, political parties of all hues are now promising industrialisation in the region, that had tooth- and-nail opposed a chemical hub in the area proposed by the Left Front, so that people don't have to migrate to other places for employment. Parties other than the TMC and BJP, however, feel that the electoral tussle in Nandigram has become a prestige issue and personal fight for both Adhikari and Banerjee over the legacy of the anti-land acquisition movement.
"Nandigram had never before witnessed such communal polarisation as is being seen during the electoral contest between Banerjee and Adhikari, in which minority votes will play a key role," local SUCI (C) Bhabani Prasad Das said. Two contrasting murals on a mud wall — one of 'Jai Shri Ram' slogan and the other of Adhikari dressed as Mir Jafar bowing before the BJP — sums up the political mood in the constituency.
An Islamic cleric said Muslims will vote wisely as the choice is tough. "On one hand, Suvendu has been one of our own for many years, while on the other, Mamata di had stood by us like a rock during the movement days. The choice will be tough," he said.
For Adhikari, the electoral battle is that of political survival as defeat will likely stunt his growth in his new party, while victory will establish him as one of the tallest leaders in the state and push him ahead in the race for the chief minister's post if BJP attains a majority in the 294-member assembly. For Banerjee, who is running for a third term as the chief minister, victory is essential not only to lead the government but also to keep her party together in the face of an unprecedented exodus.
Nandigram has 2,57,299 voters, of whom 1,33,323 are males and 1,23,975 females. The assembly segment comprises two blocks — Nandigram I and Nandigram II — with the first having 35 per minority population and the second almost 15 per cent.
Adhikari has claimed that Banerjee is fighting the polls from the seat as she believes the TMC will pocket the entire monitory vote share. "Out of 2,57,299 voters, around 68,000 are from the minority community. She thinks people of the minority community will vote for her. But I firmly believe that Hindus, who are against her brand of appeasement politics, will vote for me," he had said.
With identity politics taking centre-stage in the Nandigram election campaign, Banerjee has been using 'soft Hindutva' to counter Adhikari's aggressive Hindutva campaign. Confident of bagging the major chunk of the minority votes, especially after Abbas Siddiqui's Indian Secular Front (ISF) decided against contesting the seat and leaving it for alliance partner CPI(M), the feisty TMC boss is now trying to woo a section of the Hindus as well.
From visiting 12 temples to reciting Sanskrit slokas to asserting her Brahmin identity, Banerjee has pulled all the stops to reach out to the electorate of Nandigram, especially to the majority community, as the party is now apprehensive of a Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP. Apart from harping on her 'Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai' (Bengal wants its daughter) poll slogan to shed the 'outsider' tag labelled on her by Adhikari, Banerjee is also flaunting her Brahmin identity.
"Both Hindus and Muslims are with the TMC. We don't need any certificate from the BJP on secularism or Hinduism.We don't believe in dividing communities," local party leader Swadesh Das said.
With cultivation of paddy and vegetables, and pisciculture generating only around Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000 monthly income, almost every family has a migrant worker in Kolkata or other parts of the country. Unemployment and the hardships faced during the coronavirus-induced lockdown last year have prompted the locals to demand industrialisation, which they had opposed 14 years ago.
"We want industry in Nandigram. Our children work in other states, stay there for months. Industrialisation of the area would be beneficial for all of us," Krishnendu Mondal, the elder brother of Bharat Mondal killed during the anti-land acquisition movement here in 2007, said. Political parties have also adjusted their electoral promises, sensing the change in demands of the locals.
While Banerjee has vowed to make Nandigram a "model area" by implementing several development projects including a university, Adhikari has pledged to usher in a new era of industrial growth. The CPI(M), which is fighting a lone battle to prove its relevance in the area it had dominated for decades, alleged that both Adhikari and Banerjee are misleading the people of Nandigram to serve their political interests.
"When we wanted to bring industry in Nandigram, the TMC had opposed it and misled the people. Now, when people want industry, it is bringing up the issue of communal polarisation," CPI(M) candidate Minakshi Mukherjee said. Mukherjee, the 34-year old firebrand orator and DYFI state president, said the Congress-Left-ISF alliance if voted to power will take people along and work towards industrialisation of the area.
Nandigram was a CPI bastion from the 1950s to 2007, when the Left Front government's attempt to industrialise the area backfired. Since 2008, Nandigram has been a TMC bastion, with party candidate Firoja Bibi winning the seat twice, in a by- election and again in 2011.
Banerjee had nominated Adhikari in the seat in 2016 and he won by bagging near 68 per cent of the votes. However, with the Left and Congress pushed to the margins of the state politics, BJP has made slow and steady inroads into the area riding on anti-incumbency and identity politics.
Communal polarisation was first witnessed in the area when the saffron camp managed to take out a massive Ram Navami rally in 2015 and many TMC supporters had even taken part in the programme. Riding on the Left's declining vote share and grievances of the Hindus, the BJP made deep inroads into the area.
The saffron party's meteoric rise was noticed in the 2016 byelection to the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat, under which Nandigram assembly constituency falls, when it secured the second position by bagging 1,96,450 votes. The BJP further consolidated its position in 2019, bagging nearly 37 per cent of votes and coming runners-up.
It is to be seen whether the BJP can improve its Lok Sabha result with the influential Adhikari family by its side. TMC's Kanthi MP Sisir Adhikari also recently joined the BJP.
"This time the fight is between the present TMC and the turncoat TMC. There is no BJP or CPI(M)," Bhaswati Jana said. SUCI(C)'s Manoj Kumar Das and four other independent candidates are also in the fray.