File image: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee
Political developments in West Bengal have taken an interesting turn with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram. Nandigram, along with Singur, was the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) battleground which aided the party to capture power in 2011 by ending the three-decade-plus Communist Party of India (Marxist) rule in the state.
After serving as chief minister for two terms, Banerjee is looking for a third term. However, the TMC is facing anti-incumbency and leaders are deserting the party — including former minister Suvendu Adhikari, the Nandigram MLA, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the 2007 Nandigram agitation, it was Adhikari who played a crucial role which resulted in Purbo (East) Medinipur becoming a TMC fortress in the 2008 local body polls. Later, after TMC’s ascension to power, Adhikari handled party’s affairs for Junglemahal comprising Paschim (West) Medinipur, Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram and the two Muslim majority districts of Malda and Murshidabad. Adhikari has been instrumental in the TMC eating into the Congress’ base in Malda and Murshidabad.
It is yet to be seen how influential Adhikari is without the backing of Banerjee or the TMC. That said, in the 16 assembly seats in Purbo Medinipur (which is a TMC stronghold) he is expected to give the TMC a run for its money. Also, Nandigram is near to Junglemahal, accounting for 40 assembly seats, which has now turned into a BJP bastion. Banerjee’s calculation would be that if she were to contest from Nandigram, she would be able to win back the lost votes in Purbo Medinipur and Junglemahal too.
In choosing Nandigram, Banerjee might have made a mistake as in the process she has given more importance to Adhikari — though it is not yet clear if the BJP will field him from Nandigram or not. All the while the TMC has been reiterating that Adhikari’s desertion will not affect the party, not even in Purbo Medinipur.
Apart from this, the Nandigram seat has around 35 percent Muslim population. Although the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll 2019 survey suggested a consolidation of Muslim votes behind the TMC, the party could be worried regarding the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeem’s (AIMIM’s) entry in state politics. Influential Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui is making his political entry and Owaisi visiting Siddiqui has sparked speculation that the two may join hands for the elections. This alliance could take away a section of the TMC’s Muslim votes.
Adding to the TMC’s woes is the potential Left-Congress alliance, which will also take away the TMC’s minority votes. Significantly, the TMC’s 4 percent vote gain in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections came mainly from Muslim voters of the Left and Congress. Thus, by choosing Nandigram, Banerjee aims to consolidate the Muslim votes.
Since 2011, Banerjee has been an MLA from Bhawanipur — which falls under the South Kolkata Lok Sabha seat, represented by her from 1991 to 2011. However, the BJP has increased its presence in this urban seat too. In 2019, the TMC had a thin majority over the BJP in the Bhawanipur seat. This could be a reason why the Opposition feels that Nandigram is Banerjee’s safe option, although she may also contest from Bhawanipur.
The message from Banerjee is clear: she is in no mood to cede an inch of West Bengal to the BJP, and that’s the reason she picked Nandigram — a symbolic seat representing her rise to power.
Even though TMC leaders are describing it as a masterstroke, Nandigram may not be lucky for Banerjee this time — as there is less possibility among the voters, particularly the youth, to have a connect with an anti-industrialisation movement organised by the TMC in Nandigram and Singur.
In fact, if this ‘masterstroke’ symbolises Banerjee’s fighter image aiming for consolidating rural as well as Muslim votes, this also shows her political desperation — as a result of facing the heat from a strong Opposition.