Ever since the BJP announced the candidature of Suvendu Adhikari, one of its chief ministerial aspirants, against Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram, the intensity of the already-surcharged West Bengal election has jumped up several notches.
For both the leaders, the upcoming battle could be a decisive turning point in their political careers.
Nandigram holds special significance for Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal.
“Nandigram is always very lucky for me… It is also very close to my heart. I have an emotional attachment with the people here. Considering this emotional-connect, I wish to contest the upcoming election from here,” she had announced at a rally in the constituency’s Tekhali on January 18.
It was in this dusty hamlet in East Midnapore district, Banerjee had found her defining moment 14 years ago when she led a peasant movement against a chemical hub the erstwhile Left Front government wanted to set up.
The movement, along with a similar resistance she led against land acquisition for a Tata factory in Singur, built her image as a political leader of the proletariat, a trait hitherto associated in the state with the communist politicians.
It was this image articulated by her party’s slogan of “Maa, Mati, Manush” (Mother, Motherland and People) that subsequently brought her TMC to power in 2011, ending a 34-year Left rule in the state.
During the Nandigram land movement, Adhikari played a crucial role in mass mobilisation as a trusted lieutenant of the TMC supremo.
This time Adhikari is in her rival camp. As one of the most high-profile state leaders of the BJP, he has launched an aggressive campaign against his former mentor.
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By deciding to contest from Nandigram, Banerjee threw a direct challenge to Adhikari in his home turf (Adhikari won the seat last time), leaving him with little option but to take up the gauntlet.
It is a calculated risk she has taken entirely banking on her personal popularity, which is still very high and the presence of about 25 per cent Muslim votes.
Adhikari’s defection to the BJP has weakened the party’s organisational base in East Midnapore and adjoining districts. Since the TMC’s ascent to power in 2011, the Adhikari family ruled the roost, completely dominating the party’s functioning in the area.
Suvendu held multiple lucrative portfolios in Banerjee’s government while two other members of his family — father Sisir Adhikari and brother Dibyendu Adhikari — are Members of the Parliament.
The family turning estrange naturally has created a vacuum in the area, which was once a TMC citadel.
To regain the lost ground, she has wagered on herself. If she wins, it will reinforce her image of being a pro-poor leader and a fighter, who can deliver even when chips are down.
A defeat, on the other hand, can deal a severe blow to her credibility as one of the most popular ever mass leaders of the state. Since her electoral debut in 1984, Banerjee has not lost a single election.
The stakes are equally high for Adhikari. A win against Banerjee would automatically make him a front-runner for the post of chief minister in the event of BJP forming a government. In case the BJP wins in Nandigram, in all likelihood it will also form the government.
However, a defeat can push him down the leadership ladder and even send him to political oblivion.
Former IAS officer and BJP leader Paresh Chandra Das likened the upcoming electoral contest in Nandigram with the Battle of Waterloo, without hazarding a guess as to who will be the Napoleon.
TMC spokesperson Deb Tudu said the people of Nandigram would not vote for a “betrayer.”
The TMC’s campaign against Adhikari is built up around the “betrayer” narrative. He is referred by the TMC leaders as Mir Jafar, the general who betrayed Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah during the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and paved the way for British rule in India.
Similarly, in the TMC narrative, Adhikari betrayed Banerjee to make way for “outsiders” to rule Bengal.
Adhikari and his party’s campaign is centred on the alleged nepotism in the TMC and the polarisation plank.
Adhikari’s claim at a rally attended by Narendra Modi in Kolkata on Sunday that Bengal would turn Kashmir if the TMC returned to power was part of that polarisation strategy.
In this battle, the X-factor will be the joint front of the Left parties, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) of cleric-cum-politician Abbas Siddiqui.
“We will give a candidate against Mamta in Nandigram,” Siddiqui had said recently. If the ISF fields a candidate against Banerjee, it would likely to cut TMC’s Muslim votes as well as help the BJP in polarising electorates.
The BJP is already trying to raise the bogey of ‘minorityism’ by targeting Siddiqui.
To the TMC’s relief, however, sources in the Left Front indicated that the CPI (M) would give nomination in Nandigram, ostensibly after being pressed by the left-leaning intellectuals not to put up an ISF candidate there.