In Bengal’s Nandigram, Didi turns ‘begum’ in Suvendu Adhikari’s poll speech
The Friday afternoon namaz was over at Kamalpur, a hamlet with nearly 200 Muslim families and tucked between two Hindu-dominated villages in the Amdabad area, when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Suvendu Adhikari’s colourful convoy rolled down the eight-feet-wide concrete road on March 19.
“Suvendu Adhikari go back,” a group of children armed with small black flags shouted in tutored English. The elders, mostly women, watched with a resolute look. Adhikari’s black SUV, with more than a dozen vehicles carrying journalists and central armed police personnel leading or following it, drove past bamboo poles stuck by the wayside to display discarded shoes.
It was difficult to imagine that till he resigned from the state cabinet and the assembly and was welcomed into the BJP by Union home minister Amit Shah on December 19, Adhikari was the local legislator.
About 500 metres down the meandering road, a contrasting picture emerged to narrate the ground reality of East Midnapore district’s Nandigram, West Bengal’s most Googled assembly constituency where 66-year-old Mamata Banerjee has fielded herself against Adhikari, her protégé-turned-bete noire and a bhoomiputra (son of the soil) who is 16 years younger. The most seen poster of the BJP brackets Banerjee as an outsider.
“I decided to join the BJP to end the misrule of the begum (Muslim empress). Tell me; didn’t I do the right thing?” Adhikari shouted at a crowd of about 200 men and women who emerged from the Hindu homes on a sweltering day.
Taking a dig at the chief minister for campaigning from a wheelchair since her ankle injury at Nandigram on March 10, Adhikari said, “People fold hands while seeking votes. Someone is showing her feet instead. It will be a disaster if begum returns to power.”
The BJP’s most talked-about candidate in the battle for Bengal ended his speech in 15 minutes. “Jai Sri Ram,” thundered his followers.
“Complete polarization marks the election in Nandigram. This is the begum’s political line,” Adhikari told HT when asked about the slogans and black flags.
It was 2 pm. As Adhikari walked towards a Hindu household at Amdabad for lunch, the chief minister’s helicopter landed at Tamluk, 47 kilometres away, where Dibyendu, his brother and the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) Lok Sabha member, is likely to join the saffron camp. Their father Sisir Adhikari, the Lok Sabha member from East Midnapore’s Contai, joined the BJP on March 21. Nandigram is part of the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat.
With about 62,000 of the 2,57,299 Nandigram voters being Muslims, religion is being seen by the BJP as a deciding factor in the elections to be held in the second phase on April 1. The assembly segment’s total population is 3,56,382. The seat was in control of the Marxists from 1969 to 2009 with the only exception being the 1977 polls when the Janata Party emerged victorious.
Adhikari is conscious about the political and demographic equations. In the 2016 assembly election, he secured 67% votes in Nandigram while the BJP got only around 5% but the latter made deep inroads in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and won 29% votes, nibbling primarily into the Left’s vote share.
Soon after Banerjee announced that she would contest from Nandigram, Adhikari made a vitriolic speech. Without naming any community, he said, “Can she win this seat with 62,000 votes? I know these villages. We will win with the support of those for whom Jai Sri Ram is the clarion call.”
“Adhikari is campaigning on communal lines. He may trigger a riot any day,” said Sheikh Sufiyan, who is managing the chief minister’s campaign.
Sufiyan refused to admit that with Banerjee campaigning across Bengal as the face of the TMC, her absence in Nandigram gives an edge to Adhikari who has not left station. “We are campaigning for her all day. This is not an issue at all,” he said.
Whether it is the TMC, BJP or Left, any campaign in Nandigram is incomplete without reference to the violent land agitation that drew the attention of the international media in the last few years of the Left Front regime.
The constituency is hogging headlines since January when Banerjee proposed to contest the rural seat where a violent resistance against the Marxist government’s futile bid to acquire farmland for a chemical hub helped her come to power.
Whether it is the gunning down of 14 villagers by the police on March 14, 2007, or, pitched battles that continued for three years between members of the Bhoomi Uchched Protirodh Committee (BUPC) and Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), cadres, Banerjee remained in the limelight by supporting the farmers. Adhikari claims it was he who stayed with the agitating villagers while Banerjee made occasional trips from Kolkata with media teams in tow.
At Kamalpur village, Jiarul Shah said, “I was in the BUPC. We could not have saved Nandigram without Banerjee’s leadership. She will win by one lakh votes. There was never any division between Hindus and Muslims in Nandigram. It is being created now.”
Amina Khatun, a college student at Rowapara, located in another part of the assembly segment, said, “Social welfare schemes of the TMC government will be a big factor in this battle. Hindus, too, benefitted from these.”
A number of local BJP leaders claimed that corruption in village infrastructure projects, such as roads constructed by the panchayats, prompted them to abandon the TMC.
Retired school teacher Tarapada Khatua, who used to be a youth Congress leader in the 1990s before joining the TMC, said, “I landed in hospital for a week after I was assaulted for pointing out anomalies in account books. I joined the BJP at one of Adhikari’s rallies in February.”
Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Muhammad Illiyas had won the Nandigram seat in 2001 and 2006 because of the Left’s strong presence. In 2009, he resigned after allegations of corruption were brought against him by a Bengali television channel. In the by-poll held that year, Banerjee’s nominee Firoza Bibi, the mother of a youth killed in the land movement, won the seat for the TMC for the first time.
Hoping to turn things around, the CPI (M) has fielded Minakshi Mukherjee, president of the Bengal unit of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of the party.
Mukherjee, who holds a Master’s degree in political science and speaks Hindi fluently, is touring on foot and projecting unemployment and plight of farmers as key issues. “TMC and BJP have failed to address issues that affect life,” she reiterates at street-corner meetings.
Political experts feel that Banerjee has a clear advantage in Nandigram principally because the Muslims are in minority.
“Votes of a religious community, whichever it may be, consolidate in favour of one party only when the other community poses a threat to it in that region. For example, in Murshidabad and Malda districts, where the Muslims are in majority, the BJP may get more Hindu votes while Muslims will vote for all parties. In Nandigram, the Hindu votes will not consolidate in favour of the BJP because Muslims never posed any threat to the Hindus. Rather, the two communities fought together against the Left government during the land agitation,” said Udayan Bandopadhyay, Kolkata-based political science professor and election analyst.