While leading her party to a spectacular victory in the West Bengal assembly polls on Sunday, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee was handed a stunning defeat by her former protégé Suvendu Adhikari in their eye-popping face-off over the Nandigram seat. Following a nail-biting contest that saw the two alternately take turns at the top as the counting of votes progressed through the day, Adhikari defeated the incumbent chief minister by less than two thousand votes.
Though she lost the election, Mamata is all set to return as the chief minister for a third consecutive term with the TMC winning 213 seats and leading in two more in West Bengal, while the BJP was leading in 75 including 73 wins when reports last came in. A total of 292 seats were on offer.
From the first round of counting, Adhikari was maintaining a comfortable lead over Banerjee and the trend continued till the 13th round. Then, suddenly, in the 14th round, the CM seemed to have got a second wind as she took a lead over the former TMC leader.
The excitement continued as Adhikari once again got his nose in front in the 16th round and then in the 17th and final round, amid reports that Banerjee had emerged victorious, he clinched the top spot by the slimmest of margins.
After sweeping almost all the seats across Bengal, Mamata, who was back on her feet at her Kalighat residence, said, “I would like to extend my gratitude to the people of Bengal. This is Bengal’s victory. Bengal can do this. Please maintain Covid-19 protocol and please don’t go for any victory processions. Our priority is to work for Covid-19 management. Please be safe and maintain Covid-19 safety. Today Bengal saved the people of Bengal and this country. It’s our landslide victory but despite that, we will not organise any victory procession. I have decided to provide free vaccination to my people in Bengal. If the Centre will not provide us with free vaccines then I will protest in front of the Gandhi statue in Kolkata. I also demand that the Centre provide free vaccines to all the people of this country. I salute my motherland and my people in Bengal. Our oath-taking ceremony will be a small one due to Covid-19.”
Mamata said she accepted the verdict of the people in Nandigram but also kept legal options open. “For a big struggle, you have to sacrifice something. I am suspecting some manipulation during the counting in Nandigram. Initially, the result was different and suddenly the verdict changed. If required, I will go to court to find out the ground reality. I will go to the court for a review of counting.”
Nandigram was a prestige battle for both the BJP and TMC because Mamata Banerjee demolished the hegemonic rule of the Left while riding the anti-land acquisition movements from this assembly constituency and from Singur in Hooghly —TMC’s Becharam Manna won the seat after defeating Rabindranath Bhattacharya, who shifted to the BJP after he was denied a ticket by Trinamool.
Polling in Nandigram was held on April 1, and an 88 per cent turnout was recorded here, about 1 percentage point more than in 2016.
With Suvendu’s win, the Adhikari family has once again become a force to reckon with in Bengal’s politics.
Nandigram: The mother of all battles
Trouble started in Nandigram in the early 2000s when the Left Front government decided to permit a chemical hub there by the Salim Group of Indonesia. As per the plan, nearly 10,000 acres of land was required for the Special Economic Zone and the government started the acquisition process.
During the initial stage of land acquisition, the villagers, mainly supporters of opposition parties, formed a united forum to save their land under the banner of Bhoomi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC).
The situation worsened on March 14, 2007, when a large contingent of police force led by then Inspector General of Police Arun Gupta along with Superintendent of Police G Srinivasan and Additional Superintendent of Police Tanmay Roychowdhury launched a crackdown against nearly 5,000 BUPC members.
It was a pitched battle that led to the police opening fire as mobs went out of control, and 14 people were shot dead. Many are said to be still missing.
A day after the violence, analysts say Mamata Banerjee saw a huge political opportunity to oust the Left Front government in Bengal.
She along with a large number of supporters stormed into the so-called liberated zone on March 15, 2007, to stand beside the victims’ families.
Rift between Mamata Banerjee and Suvendu Adhikari
Many in the party believe Adhikari, who was in two minds, finally decided to bid goodbye to the Trinamool when most of the old guard, including he, were replaced by new faces as incharge of districts on July 23, 2020.
Since then, Adhikari was not happy with the attitude of a few TMC leaders including Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee and poll strategist Prashant Kishor, sources say. He started stepping away from key party meetings.
In September 2017, Adhikari was examined by the Enforcement Directorate in the Narada scam.
The situation in the TMC worsened after Mamata Banerjee sent show-cause notices over alleged malfeasance to nearly 200 party workers and leaders just from Nandigram – the area which Adhikari is emotionally connected with.
As speculation grew over Suvendu Adhikari’s position in the party, he put the TMC in an uncomfortable situation after he did not show up at a government programme in Jhargram on August 9, 2020, to mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.
Since 2017, Suvendu’s absence from crucial party meetings had created discomfort in the TMC as many felt that such a gesture would go against them ahead of the crucial assembly polls.
On November 27, 2020, Adhikari ended twenty years of his association with Mamata Banerjee when he resigned from her cabinet.
After this followed heaps of praises from BJP leaders about Adhikari’s political clout in Bengal and a call from BJP national secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya to convey birthday wishes to him on December 15. He also got centrally approved Z-category security, all but clearing up his future political path.
During the Nandigram movement, Adhikari was seen standing beside Mamata Banerjee through thick and thin.
Many prominent leaders like Sisir Adhikari (Suvendu’s father), Siddiqullah Chowdhury, and Sheikh Sufiyan joined the movement, which many critics say Mamata highjacked for making her political career.
Adhikari’s effort to strengthen the TMC in ‘Rarh Bangla’ region didn’t go unnoticed. From Member of Parliament, to state minister, to chairperson of co-operative banks – Mamata rewarded him for his struggle in Nandigram.
However, on December 19, 2020, he publicly ended his long association with Mamata Banerjee, after he shared the dais with union home minister Amit Shah in Midnapore where the BJP leader held a political rally.
Past record of TMC in Nandigram
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, a close look in TMC versus BJP’s performance in Tamluk (Nandigram falls under Tamluk Lok Sabha seat) revealed that Mamata Banerjee was a dominant factor in the area even when she was in opposition.
Then TMC’s Suvendu Adhikari (now in BJP) got 6,37,664 votes (secured 55.54 per cent vote share) as compared to 20,573 votes which went to BJP’s Rajyashree Chaudhuri who got only a 1.79 per cent vote share.
Similarly, in 2011 assembly polls, when Mamata came to power after ending the 34 years of Left rule in Bengal, TMC (Firoza Bibi was the candidate) gained a massive inroad in Nandigram due to the anti-land acquisition movement and secured a 61.21 per cent vote share, while BJP’s Bijan Kumar Das got only 1.72 per cent votes. Firoza got 1,03,300 votes while Bijan Kumar Das secured 5,813 votes.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls (Narendra Modi’s ascent to power at the Centre) too Nandigram reposed its trust towards the TMC as Suvendu Adhikari defeated BJP’s Badshah’s Alam by 6,30,663 votes. Then, the vote share of TMC’s Suvendu Adhikari in Tamluk (Nandigram falls under Tamluk Lok Sabha seat) was 53.60 per cent, while Badshah Alam’s share was only 6.40 per cent.
Two years later, when the state witnessed the 2016 assembly elections, even then Nandigram continued to be a bastion for Mamata Banerjee. TMC fielded Suvendu Adhikari and he emerged a winner with a thumping majority and 67.20 per cent vote share. BJP’s Bijan Kumar Das failed to make much impact in that poll and secured only 10,713 votes (5.40 vote per cent).
In a 2016 bypoll too TMC’s Dibyendu Adhikari defeated BJP’s Prof Ambujaksha Mahati by 5,83,144 votes. TMC’s vote share was 59.76 per cent, while Ambujaksha secured 15.06 per cent.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls (when Bengal saw an exponential growth of the saffron brigade), the BJP failed to make any significant inroads in Nandigram.
Then, the TMC fielded Suvendu’s brother Dibyendu Adhikari against BJP’s Siddhartha Naskar. Despite the Modi wave, Dibyendu managed to defeat Naskar by a margin of 1,90,165 votes. TMC got a 50.08 vote share while BJP got 36.44 per cent.
So in a nutshell, between 2009 and 2019 in all the polls, the TMC’s vote share hovered around 50.08 per cent to 67.20 per cent and continued to be a dominant factor in Nandigram.
For the last 11 years, a steady rise of the TMC was noticed in Nandigram.
What helped Adhikari
Recently during a political rally, Suvendu termed the 30 per cent Muslim vote share in West Bengal as Trinamool Congress’s ‘fixed deposit’ and urged the 70 per cent, non-minority voters, to stay united to oust the Mamata Banerjee government in the state.
Many felt that Suvendu Adhikari successfully managed to play the ‘religion card’ ever since his name was announced against Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram.
Time and again, he referred to Mamata Banerjee as ‘Begum’ and also accused her of turning Bengal into a ‘mini Pakistan’. This helped the BJP consolidate a majority of the Hindu vote share (out of nearly 53 per cent) in Nandigram in its favour. Adhikari in fact faced protests and opposition in the area on several occasions during campaigning. Even after his victory, he was allegedly attacked by some miscreants there on Sunday.
Many believed that the higher turnout this time may have gone in favour of the BJP.
With a 46.16 per cent Muslim vote share in Nandigram Block 1 and Block 2 (as per the 2011 census), if the community gravitated towards Mamata Banerjee then, many thought, it would be difficult for Adhikari to defeat her.
Most of the political parties fought the 2021 assembly polls on religious and caste lines. In Nandigram, too, the BJP banked on the Hindu vote share, while TMC was confident of the Muslim vote share.
This was the first time when political parties openly talked about polarisation politics in Bengal. BJP knew that it will not get a significant number of Muslim votes in Nandigram and, therefore, tried to polarise the Hindu vote base, say observers.
Overall, statements like “Begum" and “70:30" (Hindus and Muslims) by the BJP improved its chances in Nandigram.
In the 2016 assembly polls, the TMC won 13 seats (including Nandigram which was won by Suvendu Adhikari) out of 16 seats in East Midnapore. Tamluk was won by the CPI’s Ashok Kumar Dinda, while Panskura Purba and Haldia were won by the CPI (M)’s Sheikh Ibrahim Ali and Tapasi Mondal respectively.
In West Midnapore, out of 15 seats, TMC won 13 while one seat went to the BJP (won by Dilip Ghosh from Kharagpur Sadar) while another, Sabang, went to the Congress (Manas Bhunia won but he later joined the TMC).
Political experts feel that BJP’s strong Hindutva push actually worked in favour of the saffron brigade in Nandigram, if not in the rest of Bengal.