Kolkata: It probably doesn’t get any bigger than this! Not in contemporary Bengal politics, that is. As the state enters the second phase of electioneering today, the most talked-about and high-stakes seat in this West Bengal assembly election goes to the polls, with Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee locking horns with her bete noire Suvendu Adhikari, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, in the Nandigram constituency in East Midnapore district. After today, there will still be six more phases left for these elections to conclude. Yet, no other seat, no other head-to-head will probably be talked about with the kind of interest and robust political point-counterpoint that this rural constituency in the hinterlands of Bengal has seen so far.
The security challenge
Twenty-two companies of paramilitary forces have been deployed in just this one constituency to ensure free and fair polls as the possibilities of violence are still high on the cards.
Apart from the boots on the ground, there will be security personnel flying around on helicopters to keep a hawk-eye on polling booths deemed ‘sensitive’ by the Election Commission of India. This aerial security cover on election day is definitely a first for the state whose politics has left a trail of gore in election after election, particularly since 1972. In addition, Section 144 has been clamped on the entire constituency. In fact Nandigram is the only seat among the 30 that went to the polls today in the second phase to have Section 144 imposed on it and the entire area that falls under the Nandigram assembly segment has been sealed off since Tuesday night. Reports of attacks on BJP candidate Suvendu’s convoy have come in, while the body of a BJP worker was found hanging in Nandigram early on Thursday morning.
Nandigram’s tryst with destiny
But beyond the violence, beyond the high-decibel campaigning, beyond all the debate and beyond the security scare, what probably sets Nandigram apart from the remaining 293 constituencies of the state is its political history since 2007, when 14 villagers were gunned down by the police as a massive crowd was protesting what they termed as “forceful” acquisition of agricultural land by the then Left Front government in the state led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for building a special economic zone for the purpose of industrialisation. Mamata, then the leader of the principal opposition party in the state, had utilised the land grab issue and the death of protesting peasants in Nandigram as the catapult to overthrow the CPI (M) from power, thereby terminating the longest running, democratically elected Communist government in the world. Mamata’s rise to power became synonymous with the Nandigram anti-land acquisition movement and it cemented the TMC leader’s image as a crusader for peasant rights and a champion of rural masses like no other political leader in Bengal had ever achieved.
Why Mamata bit the bullet
However, life seemed to have come a full circle for Mamata when she decided to move out of her pocket borough of Bhowanipore in South Kolkata and instead announce her intention to contest these elections from Nandigram.
The irony is certainly not lost on the fact that the same Nandigram that had once paved the way for her rise as the state’s first female chief minister has today turned into a petri dish for a litmus test for not just her own popularity and her party’s fortunes in these polls, but may well decide the future course of her political career and that of her party’s as well. The same Nandigram that had once turned out to be her ace in breaching the CPI (M) citadel in Bengal has today made her bite the bullet and decide to contest these elections from there, knowing full well that she was hedging her bets like never before.
And it is little short of irony that in Nandigram, Mamata today is up against a candidate, who, until recently, was known to be one of her most trusted political aides. Suvendu, who was at one point of time Mamata’s “eyes and ears” in East Midnapore district in general and Nandigram in particular, is today a sworn enemy. And it is ironical indeed that the same Mamata who has always been taunting the BJP in Bengal as a force comprising “hired” mercenaries and a bunch of “outsiders”, is today herself being made to fend off the “outsider” barb from Suvendu and BJP in Nandigram.
The minority vote
For the record, Nandigram has roughly 262,000 voters. Of these, around 60,000 are Muslims. “This sizeable chunk of Muslim voters will definitely have a very crucial role to play in Nandigram. If a vast section of these Muslim voters once again size with TMC, then Suvendu’s defeat is certain. But the problem for the TMC is that first of all, there is a fair bit of resentment among a section of voters over the lack of fulfilment of electoral promises by the ruling party. There is a lot of disenchantment over the way relief measures were undertaken, or the lack of them, in the aftermath of the Amphan cyclone in Bengal last summer.
"Secondly, the presence of Meenakshi Mukherjee, the candidate for the Congress-Left combine in Nandigram may complicate the equation for TMC. With Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front, a minority outfit, joining hands with the Congress-Left combine, the minority vote for TMC is no longer a ‘given’ — not in Nandigram, not anywhere else in the state,” Biswajit Bhattacharjee, a senior political analyst, told Gulf News from Nandigram late on Wednesday night.
“On the other hand, if the anti-establishment vote is split even marginally by the presence of a Congress-Left combine candidate in Nandigram, then it can create massive problems for Suvendu and BJP.
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Mamata, Suvendu on an even keel
The other interesting factor in Nandigram this time around is the ‘silent’ voter who has so far not pledged his or her support publicly to any candidate. This silence is a bit unnerving for all major parties. But by and large, between Suvendu and Mamata, whoever manages to garner about 100,000 votes will definitely get that much closer to a win, though either way, the victory margin will be very thin,” Bhattacharjee added.
For Mamata, it’s a prestige fight for sure. But more than that, it’s a fight that will probably serve as the bellwether for the rest of her career. For Suvendu, it’s a question of pulling out all the stops in his backyard. A win here and a majority for BJP in the state will raise his stature as a chief ministerial hopeful like never before.
So who’ll blink first? We’ll have to wait till May 2 for an answer to that. But for now, all eyes on Nandigram all through today for those tell-tale, very palpable signs that constitute polling-day chemistry at either end of the political spectrum. Keep watching.