Rajat Sharma

Battle of Nandigram will decide who will rule Bengal

AKBAs Mamata Banerjee and BJP prepare for a high-octane battle royale in Nandigram on Thursday (April 1), the lines are clearly drawn. On Tuesday, the last day of campaigning in Nandigram, the embattled chief minister of West Bengal led a road show, sitting on a wheel chair, seeking support of voters, and at the same time, alleged that central forces are being misused by the BJP to intimidate her party supporters. The ultimate test will be seen when voters will line up outside the polling booths on Thursday.

Mamata Banerjee, a hard-nosed, peripatetic politician, who normally never spends much time in one place while in the thick of electioneering, has been cornered in Nandigram for the last three days. She has decided to stay till the end of polling in her new constituency, to ensure that her former disciple-turned-bitter rival Suvendu Adhikari does not turn the tables on her.

Home Minister Amit Shah was at his confident best on Tuesday. After leading a roadshow in Nandigram with Suvendu Adhikari, he predicted that Mamata was surely going to lose by a big margin and this would mark the end of her 10-year-rule in Bengal. When Shah reached the helipad in Nandigram, he hugged and blessed Suvendu Adhikari, who has managed to break the Trinamool citadel in this region.

On her part, Mamata told the people of Nandigram, how she blindly trusted Suvendu Adhikari and his family, made him a minister, and he later turned out to be a traitor. In this melee, entered Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty, who led a roadshow in Nandigram to canvass votes for the BJP. Mithun has already designated himself as a ‘Cobra’ and has vowed to defeat Mamata’s party at the hustings.

On Tuesday, supporters of Suvendu Adhikari chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans in front of the convoy of Mamata’s cars. The irritated TMC supremo told media: “Where is police? Where is the Election Commission? There is no security for villagers. It is already past 6 pm, the electioneering deadline is over, and yet these people are doing political drama. Who allowed these people to do all this here? ..I am returning to my home. Won’t I be allowed to even return to my home? How are they insulting me, abusing me? They are all outsiders, hooligans brought from UP and Bihar. They (BJP) have lost the match, they should control their workers.”

Such scenes of protests against Mamata Banerjee are unimaginable, and that too, in a Trinamool fortress like Nandigram. The place, from where Mamata launched her victorious campaign against the Left, ten years ago.

These are clear straws in the wind. Nearly four months ago, some people had shouted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan in front of the chief minister. A furious CM had stopped her car, she had come out and threatened to send those protesters to jail. BJP made this a major election issue, and its workers never lose any opportunity of shouting this slogan in her presence.

The margins of victory in Nandigram, through the years, have always been big. In the 2011 assembly election, the winning margin was 26 per cent. Five years later, in 2016, the then TMC candidate Suvendu Adhikari defeated his Left rival Abdul Kabir Sheikh by more than 81,000 votes. Suvendu got 1,34,623 votes. This time the situation has completely changed.

Suvendu is contesting on a BJP ticket against his former leader Mamata Banerjee. At her rally on Tuesday, Mamata again asked voters to fool the BJP on April Fools’ Day. “Our symbol is at No. 2 on the EVM, do not forget to press the button. Make them look fools. The next government in Bengal will be formed from Nandigram”, said the chief minister.

BJP has attached the maximum importance to the Nandigram battle this time. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has been made in-charge of the campaign. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed two rallies, BJP chief J. P. Nadda and Yogi Adityanath also addressed rallies, Home Minister Amit Shah made two visits to Nandigram, he led three road shows and addressed a rally. After watching the crowds surge at his road show, Shah predicted that Mamata was sure to lose on May 2. The Home Minister referred to a gang rape incident in Nandigram that took place on Monday, in which the wife of a BJP supporter, was raped by four persons and then dumped in a pond.

On her part, Mamata Banerjee alleged that her rival Suvendu was moving around with 30 to 40 vehicles, violating the Code of Conduct limit of 5 vehicles, set by the Election Commission. She questioned how the EC has allowed entry of ‘hooligans’ from states like Bihar and UP to Nandigram. She also alleged that there were nearly 100 vehicles accompanying Home Minister Amit Shah. “The common man is not being allowed to move freely. I have asked people to teach BJP a lesson on April 1. Bowl out BJP from Bengal”, the chief minister said.

Amit Shah interpreted Mamata’s remarks as indicative of the winds of “Asol Poriborton” (real change) flowing in Bengal this time. “The people’s mood is for a change and the easiest way is to defeat Mamata in Nandigrahm”, he told the media.

An experienced campaigner like Mamata Banerjee knows, mere appeals do not work. She is, therefore, trying to boost the morale of her party workers and asking them not to be afraid of Suvendu’s supporters. Time and again, Mamata is telling her supporters that these “outsiders” will leave Bengal after the polls, the central forces will also leave, it is the Bengal police which will remain here, and there is nothing to fear.

The meaning of these remarks is being thoroughly understood by the locals of Nandigram. They know, Mamata is promising them that she and her party will gain an upper hand if it wins the elections. For added measure, Mamata told them: “Thanda, Thanda, cool, cool, Be cool, after the elections, people of Bengal know how to deal with these ‘pandas’(small time leaders)”.

Here, ‘panda’ means Suvendu Adhikari and his family, and Mamata is indirectly telling people how to deal with them after the elections. Out of 2.20 lakh voters in Nandigram, nearly 62,000 are Muslims. Mamata is banking on this vote bank en bloc, but for a win, she needs Hindu votes. That is why, at her rallies, she chanted shlokas and mantras, for Hindus, and also, the ‘kalma’ for Muslims.

The common question that I hear from people is: why is the BJP investing so much energy on Bengal elections? The answer is clear: BJP has sniffed a golden opportunity this time, in a state, where it hardly had a mass base since independence.

Nearly four year ago, the party strategists zeroed in on rampant ‘tolabaazi’ (extortion) and ‘cut money’ (extortion of commissions) by local TMC leaders. The people of Bengal are unhappy when they see local TMC leaders moving around in flashy cars and building swanky homes. There is an undercurrent feeling that the people want these TMC leaders to be taught a lesson.

For teaching them a lesson, the people needed a viable alternative. When the BJP found that the Congress-Left alliance in the last assembly polls was a non-starter, it projected itself as the people’s saviour. Many of its workers and supporters faced threats, intimidations and attacks from the ruling party. During the panchayat polls, many BJP candidates had to take shelter in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand.

It is because of this that the BJP central leadership has sniffed a golden opportunity and has zeroed in on ‘conquering’ Bengal. In the 2019 elections, BJP won 18 Lok Sabha seats, defeating TMC stalwarts.

For the last 10 years, Mamata had been relying on the support that she got from nearly 30 per cent Muslim voters in Bengal. But, she committed a mistake. By objecting to ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan, she gave BJP a handle to corner her on the charge of Muslim appeasement. A shrewd Mamata then countered this by reciting ‘Chandi Path’ (verses in praise of Goddess Durga) at her meetings.

Will Amit Shah and his party be able to convince the voters of Bengal to vote fearlessly this time? Shah is repeatedly telling voters that BJP would win 200 seats this time, so that people can come out and vote without fearing reprisals from TMC workers. Mamata is also telling people that her party will retain power again this time and she would teach a lesson to ‘traitors’.

The battle for Bengal has now come down to this point: which party is capable of intimidating the other, and which party is going to fear the other?

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