Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement on Monday (January 16) that she would contest the ensuing assembly elections from Nandigram in East Midnapore district has created a flutter in state politics.
Her supporters were quick to dub the move as a political masterstroke while her detractors viewed it as an admission of defeat.
It’s true that Banerjee’s current constituency Bhabanipur in Kolkata is no longer a very safe seat for the Trinamool Congress. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, her party managed to take a slender lead of just 3,168 votes in this assembly segment.
The more ominous sign for the TMC was that the BJP had taken a lead of 496 votes in ward no 73 of the constituency that houses the chief minister’s residence.
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In fact in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had polled 185 more votes than the TMC. However, in 2016 Banerjee got re-elected from the seat with a margin of about 25 thousand votes, which was almost half of her winning margin in 2011 from the same seat.
This cosmopolitan constituency with little over 2 lakh electorates has around 45,000 Muslim voters, 90,000 Bengali Hindu voters and 50,000 non-Bengali Hindu voters.
Sensing the possibility of a victory in the seat, the BJP this time decided to go full steam to corner Banerjee in her home turf in a bid to confine her largely within the constituency.
There was also some speculation in the BJP circle that Midnapore strongman Suvendu Adhikari, who had recently resigned as Nandigram MLA, could be fielded against Banerjee in Bhabanipur to tie her up in the constituency.
Last month, BJP national president JP Nadda conducted a door-to-door campaign in the constituency.
“Realising her position is very weak in Bhabanipur, she (chief minister) is now fleeing Kolkata,” said BJP state president Dilip Ghosh.
Banerjee at the public rally in Nandigram hinted that she might also contest from Bhabanipur as well. “If party allows, I may contest from both seats….. I will be contesting from Nandigram for sure,” she said at the rally.
“The fact that the chief minister scurried to choose her constituency even before her party has finalised candidatures for other seats only manifests her nervousness. It had become apparent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election results that the chance of her getting re-elected from Bhabanipur is bleak,” said CPI (M) leader Sujan Chakraborty.
Even if she has opted Nandigram for the sake of safety, there could not have been a better choice and a shrewder move in the present political context.
The movement against land acquisition for building a chemical hub by Indonesia’s Salim group at Nandigram played a crucial role in TMC’s rise to power in 2011, ending the 34-year rule of the CPI (M)-led Left Front in the state.
Her fight for the rights of local farmers made Banerjee extremely popular in the area. But the recent defection of the mascot of her Nandigram movement, Suvendu Adhikari, to the BJP has somewhat dented her party’s base in the constituency.
For over a decade now, Adhikari family holds sway over both East and West Midnapore districts as well as in neighbouring Jhargram that account for 35 assembly seats.
Suvendu’s father Sishir Adhikari, an MP, was the East Midnapore district president of the TMC until early this month.
Now that the Adhikari family has distanced itself from the TMC, the party was looking for a prominent face to fill the vacuum to galvanise the party organisation in the entire area.
“Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram will surely rejuvenate the demoralised party functionaries in Midnapore districts and surrounding areas,” feels political commentator and author Subir Bhaumik.
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“I will myself look after Midnapore and also Jhargram. I had given the responsibility to others and you know what had happened,” Banerjee said in the rally without naming anyone.
Admitting that Banerjee’s decision would be a big push for the party in the district, TMC MLA Akhil Giri said East Midnapore would be privileged to have a chief minister representing the district.
Bhaumik said Banerjee with her decision also tried to catch the bull by the horns, throwing a direct challenge to the Adhikari family. In the process she would compel Suvendu to spend more time campaigning in the district, he added.
“It’s a calculated risk she has taken. Nandigram has around 34 per cent Muslim population, which makes this seat relatively safer for the TMC in the entire district which otherwise has just 14.59 per cent Muslim population,” Bhaumik pointed out.