As 30 constituencies across four districts in West Bengal go to polls on Thursday in the second phase of Assembly elections, the spotlight will be on the prestigious seat of Nandigram where Chief Minister and TMC Chief Mamata Banerjee will take on her former aide-turned-rival Suvendu Adhikari who joined the BJP recently.
The electoral battle in the violence-marred constituency of Nandigram will decide the future course of Bengal politics. It’s a matter of prestige for Mamata Banerjee and a tryst with history for Suvendu
The Trinamool Congress had won 21 of these 30 Assembly seats in the 2016 state polls. 8 went to the Left-Congress alliance. BJP President Dilip Ghosh won the Kharagpur Sadar seat. Ghosh later vacated his assembly seat to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, necessitating a bypoll. TMC won the by-election.
|Phase 2 On April 1||2016 Tally|
#Source: Election Commission *Alliance Partners
The table above and the paragraph preceding that would at best serve as a footnote in Phase 2 in Battleground Bengal. Hovering over the other 29 seats, and perhaps to a large extent eclipsing their significance, is Constituency Number 210, once the epicentre of an anti-land acquisition struggle that resuscitated the Trinamool Congress, and now the site of a high-pitched electoral battle that would serve as a cornerstone for Bengal politics.
A Vidhan Sabha constituency in East Medinipur, no one would’ve batted an eyelid at the mention of Nandigram before 2007. The constituency had been a Left-bastion from the 1970s to 2006, with the Congress hitting gold only once, in the 1996 state polls. In fact, Illias Mohd of the CPI retained the seat in 2006, defeating his nearest rival, TMC’s Sheikh Supian by a margin of 4,823 votes.
The 2006 state polls saw the Left performing exceedingly well, winning over 230 seats. The Trinamool Congress, which had fought the polls in alliance with the BJP finished a distant second with only 30 seats. The BJP, then a party in its infancy in Bengal drew a blank and forfeited its deposit in 11 of the 29 seats it contested.
|2006 Assembly Polls||Seats||Vote Share|
#Source: Election Commission *Alliance Partners
It would be a futile exercise in trying to buttress the importance of Nandigram without making a pit-stop at 2006. The year was a watershed moment for the Left in Bengal. Not only did the landslide victory mark their third decade in the corridors of power, but the result also to a large extent was a validation of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who had proven that he had indeed stepped out of Jyoti Basu’s shadow.
2007: The Nandigram agitation
Bolstered by the 2006 results, the Left Front government led by Bhattacharya decided to press the pedal on industrialisation in the state. At the heart of their Mission Industrialisation, lay Nandigram. Located barely 160 kilometres away from Kolkata, the Left Front govt envisaged Nandigram as the preferred location for setting up a 10,000 acre Special Economic Zone for a chemical hub, which was to be bankrolled by the Indonesian Salim Group. In the first week of January 2007, the Haldia Development Authority, reportedly acting on its own accord, wrote a letter to the BDO in Nandigram for a preliminary study of the region. This drew the ire of the local residents, who saw the overture as nothing less than a ploy to acquire land forcefully. This was the start of a long and ‘bloody’ agitation which soon found patronage from the Trinamool Congress and its Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (Anti-Land Eviction Committee).
The Left Front Govt realising that it had mucked up big time withdrew the land acquisition notification. But the Pandora’s Box had been opened. In the months, that followed, Nandigram stood testimony to multiple acts of violence, resulting in several casualties.
In a tragic culmination of events, 14 lives were lost on March 14, 2007, when the police reportedly opened fire on the protesters.
Allegations and counter-allegations followed thick and fast, with the TMC accusing the state of encouraging police atrocities and the Buddhadeb Government facing flak from its own allies and even Left-leaning intelligentsia over the handling of the issue. The TMC has ever since observed the day as ‘Nandigram Divas’. The Left Front Govt was later forced to scrap the SEZ plan.
The months-long violence in Nandigram and its direct correlation to the rise in TMC’s political stock can be driven home by these:
The Trinamool Congress, which had a disastrous run in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, managing to win the only supremo Mamata Banerjee’s seat, won 19 of the 27 seats it contested in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls
Suvendu Adhikari, Mamata Banerjee’s trusted lieutenant in the Nandigram agitation won the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat in 2009. He polled over 55 percent of the total votes.
12 years later, the trusted lieutenant is fighting the BJP’s cause against Mamata Banerjee.
Nandigram 2011: Mamata vs Suvendu vs Minakshi
The place that catapulted Mamata Banerjee to the post of the Chief Minister a decade ago will see the culmination of what has been the most high-pitched, talked-about political battle this election season. The mercurial Mamata has slammed her once-protégé-turned-rival as traitor. Adhikari on the other hand has pledged to quit politics if he fails to trounce Mamata by a margin of 50,000 votes or more.
Here’s how the TMC performed in Nandigram since 2011:
|State Polls||TMC’s Vote Share|
#Source: Election Commission *Suvendu Adhikari Was The Candidate
The BJP may be drawing solace from the fact that the heavyweight Suvendu’s performance in the last few electoral battles, coupled with the anti-incumbency factor may help him cross the line. Suvendu, on the other hand by pitchforking himself as a challenger against Mamata would be expecting to get a pat on the back from the BJP top brass, even if he were to lose.
The Trinamool Congress has positioned their campaign in the state around the ‘Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chai’ slogan, which when translated into English, means ‘Bengal only wants its own daughter’. So in a sense, the ever-protective Didi (elder sister) has now been repositioned as the Meye(daughter), who must be protected from who the TMC calls ‘outsiders’.
Amidst the high voltage BJP, TMC campaigning, the Left-Congress-ISF alliance has fielded Minakshi Mukherjee from Nandigram. She is the state president of the Democratic Youth Federation Of India (DYFI), the youth wing of the CPI(M). The alliance is betting on the voters to look at both Mamata & Suvendu as two sides of the same coin and instead vote for a 3rd alternative.
Over the last few weeks, the TMC supremo and Suvendu have taken jibes at one another over the 2007 Nandigram massacre. While Suvendu criticised ‘opportunists’ who promoted police officers responsible for the tragedy, Mamata alleged that the police could not have entered Nandigram on that fateful day without tacit approval from the ‘father-son’ duo. Suvendu’s father Sisir Adhikari was the convener of the Bhoomi Ucched Protirodh Committee. He won the Kanthi Lok Sabha seat in 2019 on a TMC ticket but has now joined the BJP.
Nandigram: A Polarised Battle?
As per Census India 2011, Nandigram Census Town has 60% population belonging to the Hindu faith. Nandigram-1 & Nandigram-2 has a Hindu population share of 65.82% and 87.71% respectively.
While it would be grossly inaccurate to conclude that the Nandigram Assembly constituency would overlap with the census units, the data from Census 2011 helps us get a sense of the religion-wise break-up in the area.
While, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the constituency votes across religious lines, we’d have to admit that 2021 Bengal polls are ‘an election like no other’. The BJP, a party that traces its origins to the idea of Hindutva is focussing on the consolidation of Hindu votes. This has nudged its principle opponent, the TMC to play the Hindu card as well. Mamata, wary that the Hindu vote bank could be usurped by Suvendu, has during the course of this election season boasted of being a ‘Hindu Brahmin’, visited as many as 19 temples in the early leg of her campaign and recited religious mantras.
While the BJP has criticised these moves as a last-ditch attempt to make amends for her appeasement politics, the TMC camp has called it an ‘outreach’ and not a ‘religious campaign’. Mamata, with her Hindu overreach, also runs the risk of antagonising the Muslim electorate in Nandigram.
BJP’s Suvendu has, during the course of his campaign, time and again referred to Mamata as ‘Begum’ and used the ‘Mini Pakistan’ jibe to further vitiate the atmosphere in Bengal in what appears to be a highly polarised election.
The battle lines in Nandigram have been drawn. Mamata, fighting the toughest electoral battle of her life is not willing to give an inch. Come May, 2 Suvendu, the BJP’s blue-eyed boy, would want to be remembered as the ‘Giant Killer’.