What explains Mamata Banerjee’s Nandigram entry?
Speaking at a rally in Nandigram on January 18, West Bengal chief minister and All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) president Mamata Banerjee announced that she would contest the forthcoming assembly elections from Nandigram along with Bhabanipur, the assembly constituency (AC) in Kolkata she currently represents. Banerjee’s decision comes in the wake of the Nandigram’s incumbent MLA and erstwhile AITC heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari defecting to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
What explains this decision? Here are four factors which can help us answer this question.
1. AITC hopes to confine Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram
The BJP has not announced a chief ministerial candidate in West Bengal, and probably will not announce one as well. It shocked the AITC in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by winning 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, and crossed the 40% vote share mark, a 23 percentage points jump from its 2014 performance. While the 2019 results clearly show the BJP as an ascendant force at the cusp of power in the state, the party still lacks a political face to match Mamata Banerjee’s popularity. This is especially true in South Bengal, the biggest subregion in terms of seats, where the AITC managed to prevent a BJP surge even in 2019.
In Suvendu Adhikari, the BJP has been able to get an important mass leader in South Bengal. The BJP expects Adhikari to help it in bridging its deficit vis-a-vis the AITC in South Bengal. With Banerjee announcing her decision to contest from Nandigram, Adhikari will have to devote considerable time in his own AC now. That Banerjee announced her candidature from Nandigram on a day when Adhikari was doing a road show in Kolkata has conveyed this message clearly.
2. Mamata’s candidature could prevent a Hindu consolidation behind the BJP
According to the 2011 census, Muslims comprised of 27% of West Bengal’s population, lower than the proportion of Muslims in only one other Indian state, Assam. Jammu & Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India in the 2011 census, is now a Union territory. With the BJP’s rising graph, the 2021 elections will perhaps see sharp communal polarisation with Muslims uniting behind the AITC to prevent the possibility of a BJP government. The BJP is hoping to create a large counter-polarisation of Hindus. Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram could be an intelligent strategy . While Purba Medinipur, the district where Nandigram is located, has only 14.6% Muslim population, Nandigram has a larger share of Muslims. The 2011 census gives a religion-wise breakup of population at the level of blocks and census towns. Data for Purba Medinipur has religious composition of population for blocks of Nandigram-I, Nandigram-II and the census town of Nandigram. Muslims had a population share of 34%, 12.1% and 40.3%, respectively in these census units.
To be sure, it is not necessary that the Nandigram AC has a complete overlap with these three census units. However, a look at past three election statistics for Nandigram suggests that the Muslim vote is an important component in this AC. In 2006, both the winner (CPI) and runner-up (AITC) candidates from this AC were Muslims, and the victory margin was just 3.4% of the total votes polled. In 2011, the AITC fielded a Muslim who defeated a Hindu candidate from the CPI by a margin of 26% of total votes polled. Suvendu Adhikari’s vote share in 2016 was seven percentage points more than the AITC’s 2011 vote share, even though the CPI fielded a Muslim candidate. This suggests that Muslims have been an important part of the AITC’s support base in this AC. To be sure, AC boundaries in 2006 and the subsequent elections could have changed because of the 2008 delimitation. Had Banerjee not contested from Nandigram, the AITC would probably have ended up fielding a Muslim candidate, which would have helped the BJP in pushing for a Hindu consolidation not just in Nandigram but in contiguous regions as well.
3. Bhabanipur might not be a cakewalk in today’s West Bengal
While Banerjee’s announcement has shifted all focus to Nandigram, it needs to be underlined that Bhabanipur might not be a totally safe seat for her in today’s circumstances. Past election statistics underline this fact. The BJP actually managed a slender lead of 0.13 percentage points in the Bhabanipur AC in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. While Banerjee registered a big victory in the 2016 assembly elections and the BJP was relegated to the third position, the 2019 general elections were once again very close, and the AITC could manage a lead of just about two percentage points against the BJP.
Bhabanipur is known to be a locality with a significant non-Bengali Hindu population, which is more likely to be pro-BJP. In fact, Kolkata district has the lowest share of Bengali speaking people after Darjeeling, and the highest share of Hindi speakers in the state. The BJP is hoping to exploit this to its advantage. That the AITC has been using the rhetoric of outsiders (non-Bengali) to target the BJP’s national leadership could end up aiding the efforts of the BJP. Because the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, it is difficult to predict whether things have changed from what they were in 2019.
4. The symbolism of Nandigram will keep the Left Front under pressure
The deaths of 14 people in police firing during a 2007 anti land-acquisition struggle in Nandigram will continue to be the nemesis of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (LF) which ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. While the LF is an emaciated self of what it used to be even a decade ago – its vote share fell sharply from 39.7% in the 2011 elections to just 7.5% in the 2019 general polls – its performance could matter a lot in what is expected to be a very close contest between the AITC and the BJP. The AITC even appealed to the LF and the Congress to support it against the BJP a few days ago . With the pre-poll alliance of the LF and the Congress making the polls a three-way contest, Banerjee’s Nandigram candidature will also keep the narrative of the LF’s anti-peasant past alive, preventing any damage to the AITC’s voter base.
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- The ECI around 4:30 pm on Friday announced the poll dates for four states, including West Bengal, and the UT of Puducherry. With the announcement of the polls the MCC came into force barring any new announcements by the government.
- The model code of conduct, which comes into effect immediately after poll dates are announced by the Election Commission, prohibits governments from making any welfare announcements