The CM is signalling to her supporters that she will punish Adhikari’s betrayal herself. She is telling them that she is not the dejected and flustered Mamata that her rivals are trying to project.
For a long time, headlines have not been kind to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee or her supporters. Allegations of rampant corruption, images of BJP or RSS workers being killed and hung from trees, the chief minister’s own gaffes and most recently a steady stream of desertions from her Trinamool Congress to the rival camp are all that have been in news.
The biggest blow was undoubtedly Suvendu Adhikari’s move to the BJP. Adhikari used to be the most popular mass leader after Mamata in the party, and his family wields tremendous political influence in the state and particularly south Bengal.
So, when on Monday, the chief minister announced that she would contest the forthcoming Assembly election from Nandigram, the iconic constituency that propelled her to power in 2011 and till now Adhikari’s stronghold, it was the best news for her cadre and support base in a very long time.
This was vintage Mamata Banerjee. Cornered, combative, taking the fight to the den of the enemy when her back is against the wall. This is when Banerjee has traditionally been the most dangerous political force.
The BJP quickly called it an act of extreme nervousness. It said fighting from both her usual seat Bhowanipore and Nandigram means she is looking for an escape, a face-saver. But is it?
The chief minister is not running away to a safe seat as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi did in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the face of imminent defeat in his family bastion, Amethi.
Nandigram is not a safe seat. The Adhikari family had played a lead role in the Nandigram agitation and Suvendu has been winning handsomely from there since. Soon after Mamata announced that she would be fighting from Nandigram, Suvendu publicly promised to quit politics if he did not defeat her by at least 50,000 votes.
So, the chief minister is not running away to a safe seat like Rahul Gandhi did from Amethi to Wayanad. She is signalling to her supporters that she will punish Adhikari’s betrayal herself. She is telling them that she is not the dejected and flustered Mamata that her rivals are trying to project. She is the Mamata of 2011.
Also, this decision is not entirely emotional. Nandigram has 35-40 percent Muslim voters. They are not going to vote for the BJP. They might not even vote for the Left, Congress or Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM if this turns out to be the prestige battle for the CM who has gone out of her way to back them, alienating and consolidating Hindu votes in the process.
And finally, Mamata wants to recreate her 2011 avatar by piggybacking on the farmers’ protest in Punjab and Haryana. She wants to stir it up into a frenzy by inciting Bengal’s agricultural landholders and workforce. And what better place to launch it from than Nandigram, where at least 14 farmers were killed allegedly in the 2007 police firing under the Left Front government.
For all these advantages, there is a very dark and slippery side to her decision as well.
First, this is not the Nandigram of 2007 or 2011. Farmers are not angry and afraid of losing their cultivable land now, they are dismayed now. The movement has put the TMC in power, but it did not get them anything. In Singur, another famous site of the agitation from where the Tata’s had to take away their Nano factory, farmers are in utter despondency. There are no takers for their land.
The ploy of superimposing the current farmers’ protest on Bengal may not work as well. The Bengal government has only lately been toying with implementing a minimum support price (MSP) for crops. Small and marginal farmers, who are the majority in the state’s agrarian economy, will gain a lot more from the new laws than by obstructing these.
Another dynamic may play out in Nandigram and possibly across the state. The Left has been livid with Banerjee for claiming that the Nandigram firing happened on the instruction of then Left chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya. However, the party recently inducted Satyajit Bandopadhyay, then a senior police officer who is accused of carrying out the bloodbath in Nandigram.
The Left, which believes the forces TMC was spearheading in 2007 were actually responsible for the event, may exact its revenge by transferring the votes of its supporters to the BJP. It helps CPM in the long run too. A TMC out of power may collapse because it is effectively a one-person party without much cadre discipline or a clear, core ideology. That may facilitate Left resurrection in the state in a few years.
Then there is the other trap that the chief minister has walked into. By rushing to contest in Nandigram, she has hyphenated herself with her former subordinate, Adhikari. Mamata is the bigger mass leader of the two, and it dwarfs her stature. Also, it allows the BJP to watch the contest with a bag of popcorn from the sidelines.
By getting into such a high-voltage personality fight, she has also given BJP the chance to confine the biggest rival campaigner, Banerjee herself, to Nandigram. It will now spend resources and create enough heat to restrict her movement out of fear of losing the prestige battle.
And lastly, even if she wins Nandigram, how much will she achieve? Nandigram is not Bengal. And every corner of Bengal is on saffron fire now. Mamata Banerjee has much more to douse than her ego.
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