Kolkata: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced Monday that she will contest the upcoming election from Nandigram, the site of the farmer agitation against land acquisition in 2007 that catapulted her to power. She is currently the MLA from Bhawanipore in south Kolkata.
With this, she set the stage for a direct face-off with Suvendu Adhikari, the turncoat Trinamool Congress MLA from Nandigram who is now with the BJP.
While the BJP described Mamata’s decision as a “desperate move”, the Trinamool Congress hailed it as a “masterstroke”.
Political analysts, meanwhile, saw it as a wise “political calculation”, noting that Mamata had alienated many constituents in Bhawanipore with her rhetoric against “outsiders”, or non-Bengalis who inhabit the area.
For Mamata, however, it was a “call of conscience”, as she told a rally at Nandigram Monday, where she announced her decision.
Nandigram was one of the two epicentres of land-acquisition movements in Bengal — the other being Singur — that helped Mamata win the 2011 elections ousting the 34-year-old CPI(M) government.
Fourteen villagers were killed in police firing in 2007 while protesting against the then Left Front government’s proposed land acquisition for a chemical hub of Indonesia’s Salim group at Nandigram in East Midnapore.
She approached the constituency Monday with sops for the households who participated in the Nandigram struggle — including Rs 4 lakh in cash for 10 of the families who have been unable to trace their loved ones since the protest, and a Rs 1,000 monthly pension for all participants.
This is the first time since she came to office in 2011 that Mamata has announced sops for the Nandigram protesters, even though similar measures have earlier been taken for Singur.
‘Call of conscience’
Addressing a rally in Nandigram, Banerjee said Bhawanipore was her “elder sister”, and Nandigram her “younger sister”.
She would try to contest from both seats, she added, but if “I cannot, there will be a suitable candidate in Bhawanipore”.
“Nandigram is my lucky charm, it is my younger sister. I will surely contest from here,” she said.
Attacking the Adhikari family, she said, “The Nandigram movement was spearheaded by me. There are some people who have big mouths. They have huge properties and money, and they need to hide the ill-gotten money. They have now joined the BJP. They can achieve whatever they want, but I have taken an oath to protect Bengal from the BJP.”
Nandigram, she added, was dear to her since “I started my struggle from Nandigram”.
“It is a call of my conscience, that I announced my decision from the stage here,” she said.
Mamata Banerjee has contested from Bhawanipore twice since 2011, when she won the seat in an assembly bypoll (she didn’t contest the assembly election because she was busy overseeing the party’s campaign).
In 2016, she won approximately 48 per cent of the vote share, down from 77.46 per cent in 2011.
However, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections brought a warning for the chief minister. The Trinamool led the assembly segment by a thin margin of around 3,000 votes and trailed in the adjacent Rashbehari segment by 5,000 votes.
This has probably made Banerjee a bit wary, said political analyst Biswanath Chakraborti.
“Moreover, Nandigram has around 30 per cent of minority votes. Nandigram is, of course, a surprise move, but we almost predicted that she might relocate to an easier constituency than Bhawanipore,” he added.
“Over 70 per cent of Bhawanipore’s population is non-Bengali, especially Gujaratis, whom she has been calling outsiders,” he said. “To take on the BJP, she called non-Bengalis outsiders, pitting Bengalis and non-Bengalis against each other.”
There are some other aspects too, he added.
“Mamata Banerjee will try to minimise her loss in East and West Midnapore districts. Suvendu said he would bring at least 35 constituencies to the BJP. She wants to stop Suvendu’s political expansion by putting him under pressure,” Chakraborti said.
Desperation or masterstroke?
The BJP said Mamata’s shift of constituency was a “sign of nervousness and frustration”.
“She is going to Nandigram to contest. Why? Doesn’t she have faith in her party leaders, or is she running away from south Kolkata?” BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said.
“The police officers who are accused of firing at the villagers in Nandigram have now joined her party. Where is justice then? The family members of the martyrs will give her the answers during the elections,” he added.
West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh said Mamata has “proved us right with this announcement”.
“She proved that Suvendu’s induction was the right decision. If the party supremo needs to go 100 km away from Kolkata to fight a BJP leader, it automatically makes Suvendu significant,” he added. “Moreover, our party is not about an individual. We have many other leaders who can take care of other districts.”
Addressing a rally after Mamata’s, Adhikari said he would quit politics if he didn’t defeat Mamata by “half a lakh votes”.
Trinamool Congress leaders, meanwhile, said they were “overwhelmed” by Mamata’s “masterstroke”.
Minister Subrata Mukherjee said Nandigram “has an emotional string attached to Mamata”.
“She is attached to Nandigram and Singur more than anything else. We know that many people will speculate many things, but there are instances of chief ministers and even the Prime Minister fighting elections from more than one constituency,” he added.
TMC MP Sougata Roy said Mamata had “hit the bull’s eye”. “I am overwhelmed, this is her masterstroke. Let the BJP now face Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram. She will stop Suvendu and motivate our workers there,” he said. “She has taken the fight to another level.”