Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is all smiles. From the stage of her rally in Nandigram’s Thakurchowk, Banerjee distributes cold tissues among journalists, asking them to wipe their faces in the sweltering heat. Earlier in the day, she has completed an eight-kilometre road show in a wheelchair.
The modest crowd in her road show and the rally, however, indicates that the heat may be getting to Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) in this high-profile constituency.
The election here has become highly polarised on the Hindu-Muslim issue. It is literally a fight between the two blocks in Nandigram — Block Number 1, where the TMC appears stronger given a high proportion of Muslim population, and Block Number 2, which has a higher Hindu population and seems to be siding with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Suvendu Adhikari.
On Monday, Banerjee held her road show and rallies in Block 2, which could explain the modest turnout. The BJP plastered the spot from where she began her road show with Adhikari’s posters. On Tuesday, the CM will focus on Block Number 1. Aware of the challenge at hand, she is camping in Nandigram for three days, largely ignoring 29 other seats that will vote on April 1 in the second round of the eight-phase elections in West Bengal.
In an exclusive interview to News18, Sheikh Sufiyan, Banerjee’s election agent in Nandigram, says the CM will win by at least 70,000 votes. He, however, admits that “polarisation is a problem”, and accuses the BJP of turning the election “communal” in an effort to “trigger a riot”. Banerjee expressed similar views at her rally at Thakurchowk.
“Suvendu Adhikari now says he is a Hindu. So what is Mamata Banerjee? Is she a Muslim? She is also a Hindu, and a Brahmin. This Hindu card will not work in Nandigram. This is an area high on literacy,” Sufiyan says. Asked about the polarisation in blocks 1 and 2, Sufiyan adds that both blocks are strongly behind the TMC. “But the BJP has created a problem in 10-20 booths in Block Number 2,” he admits.
Sufiyan is an important personality here as he was a leader of the Nandigram movement against land acquisition in 2007 and president of the Bhumi Ucchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), which became the face of the agitation. Asked about the lack of development in the area, he blames Adhikari, saying he was a minister in the TMC government and the local MLA (Adhikari won the seat on TMC ticket in 2016). “He did no work. But the direct development that Didi (as Banerjee is popularly called) brought about through various public welfare schemes — like Kanyashree, Swasthasatree, Rupashree — will work,” he says.
Sufiyan, in fact, says people know that if Banerjee wins, Nandigram will become a “VIP constituency of a CM”, and the unemployed will get jobs. He dismisses the BJP’s charge that CM is seeking sympathy votes after the injuries she suffered during campaigning in the constituency on March 10. “Her development work will get her votes. She does not seek votes on sympathy grounds,” Sufiyan says.
BJP SEES A CHANCE
Nevertheless, the BJP is becoming increasingly confident that Adhikari can pull off a victory here. On a temple visit spree in the constituency, Adhikari is chanting “Jai Sri Ram” to drive home the point that Banerjee is against the slogan and that she does appeasement politics. The new BJP office inaugurated by Adhikari recently has a big Lord Hanuman statute installed near the gate. The strategy seems aimed at consolidating the nearly 200,000 Hindu votes in the constituency, which has a total of 275,000 voters.
Amit Malviya, the BJP’s co-in charge for Bengal, held a booth management meeting in Nandigram on Monday, a day before Union home minister Amit Shah’s mega road show here, calling for efforts to ensure that every BJP supporter turns out to vote.
“We have tied the CM down to this constituency for three days. She got caught in our trap and the nervousness is showing,” a senior BJP leader says.
Nandigram is also one constituency, unlike the rest in the state, where BJP’s main face on its posters is Adhikari, and not Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“He is very popular in the area and a young face. People like him,” another BJP leader says.
The war of words has also become bitter here with the TMC campaign song (Chor chor chorta) terming Adhikari a thief. The BJP nominee, on the other hand, calls CM Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, “tolabaaz bhaipo (extortionist nephew)”.
The CM sharpened her attacks on Adhikari on Monday, saying she gave the Adhikaris top ministries such as irrigation and environment as well as chairmanships of various boards, but they proved to be gaddars (traitors). Adhikari’s father, Sisir Adhikari, who is the parliamentarian from Kanthi, too has joined the BJP.
“After the elections, the Adhikaris will remain neither here nor there,” she said. “What did that gaddar do to me? He sent his men, outsiders to attack me. People of Nandigram did not do this to me, but his men did,” Banerjee said about the injuries she suffered.
Reaching out to the people of Nandigram, Banerjee said she appreciated how locals brought ice for her after she got injured. This came after PM Modi at his rally in neighbouring Kanti last week said Banerjee defamed the people of Nandigram by levelling false allegations on them.
On Monday, Banerjee also accused the Adhikaris of hatching the conspiracy that led to the police firing incident at the peak of the land agitation in Nandigram in 2007. “Cases were slapped against many leaders, but not them. Why? Because they called police and instigated. Many CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) cadres were wearing police uniform and fired at the villagers,” she said.
THE THIRD FORCE
Left candidate Minakshi Mukherjee might prove to be the joker in the pack who could hurt both parties in this neck-and-neck fight. Mukherjee is getting some support from the loyal Left voters; the seat has been a Left bastion from 1982 to 2009 (barring a five-year gap when it went to the Congress). The BJP is pulling out all the stops though, with Union home minister Shah and star crowd-puller Mithun Chakraborty set to hold road shows in Nandigram on Tuesday before campaigning ends for this high-profile seat.
Political observers say the Nandigram seat will settle the debate whether Banerjee remains popular as a leader and stands insulated from the perceived poor image of her party on account of issues such as cut-money (commission) and corruption. “We are not claiming that Banerjee will win by a margin of 100,000 here, but it will be comfortable win. There is no hatred among people against Didi as a person, and hence…she won’t lose the seat and people won’t vote for Suvendu when she is the candidate against him,” a TMC insider says. But the BJP feels an upset is around the corner here.