Mamata Banerjee's move to enter Nandigram poll fray indicates acknowledgment of bitter battle ahead

The West Bengal chief minister's decision to contest the upcoming Assembly election from Nandigram has set off a political storm in the state

FP Staff January 19, 2021 14:10:12 IST
Mamata Banerjee's move to enter Nandigram poll fray indicates acknowledgment of bitter battle ahead

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Mamata Banerjee's decision to contest the upcoming Assembly election from Nandigram has set off a political storm in the state. While the decision has been hailed by some as a smart tactical move, it can also be read as a tacit acknowledgment that the Trinamool Congress will face a tough contest from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In deciding to contest from Nandigram, Banerjee has set herself up for a bitter battle with Suvendu Adhikari, the TMC turncoat who has now joined the BJP.

Adhikari, on his part, accepted the challenge thrown by the West Bengal chief minister, asserting that he will defeat her in the election or quit politics.

He, however, said the final decision to field candidates will be taken by the BJP leadership after a thorough discussion and not in an 'arbitrary' way like in the ruling TMC.

Here is what Banerjee's decision to contest from Nandigram could mean for the electoral battle.

Strategy to confine Adhikari?

While the BJP has long displaced the CPM as the main opposition to the TMC in West Bengal, its ambitions for success in the West Bengal election are hobbled by the lack of a strong chief ministerial candidate. The saffron party has not yet made any specific announcement about its chief ministerial face for the polls. However, in Adhikari, the BJP has got an important mass leader who can pose a stiff challenge to the TMC.

Adhikari is particularly influential in the Jangalmahal and South Bengal regions. In South Bengal, the TMC had earlier prevented a BJP surge even in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Now, Adhikari's entry into the saffron party's ranks could help it turn the tables. He also wields significant influence in the three districts of Jangalmahal — Bankura, Purulia, and Paschim Medinipur, apart from his home ground of Purba Medinipur. These districts account for 63 Assembly seats, and Adhikari could be in a position to influence election outcomes in 20-30 of them, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Thus, curbing the ability of Adhikari to sway voters would be a crucial part of the TMC's strategy. Banerjee's decision to contest from Nandigram — which Adhikari represented till 21 December, 2020 — seems to be aimed at confining him to his constituency as much as possible.

Nandigram also holds particular significance for both Banerjee and Adhikari. The agitation in Nandigram in the Purba Medinipur district over land acquisition in the late 2000s catapulted Banerjee to power in 2011, ending the 34 years of Left rule. However, Adhikari after switching over to the BJP has been alleging that the chief minister has forgotten the people of the area that helped her get to the top post. In 2007, he had played a key role in co-ordinating the agitation on the ground.

Acknowledgment of BJP's rising clout

If there was ever any doubt about whether or not TMC takes the BJP's electoral challenge seriously, Banerjee's decision to contest from Nandigram would dispel it. After all, the TMC supremo too would need to invest a lot of time and resources for what will certainly be a prestige battle for both parties. If Banerjee has decided to do so, it would be because she has calculated that the gains from making Adhikari face a tough challenge in his own backyard outweigh the costs for her campaign elsewhere.

The TMC has reason to be wary. The prospect of the BJP coming to power would have been considered unthinkable five years ago, but is now a distinct possibility. As per an opinion poll by ABP-CVoter, the TMC will win 158 seats, just ten seats more than the magic figure of 148. The BJP is tipped to win 102 seats if polls are held today. With three to four months to go for the election, this would be too close for comfort for the TMC.

For the BJP, this would represent an astounding rise from 2016, when it won just 3 Assembly seats in West Bengal. The saffron party would also take heart from its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when it won 18 seats, marginally behind the TMC's tally of 22. Its vote share increased from 16.8 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election to 40.25 percent in the 2019 polls.

The worry for the BJP, however, would be the fact that its performance in recent Assembly elections has consistently been significantly worse than its performance in the Lok Sabha election in the same places.

Nevertheless, the TMC, which is up against both the BJP and possible anti-incumbency from the past decade, will have its task cut out in the coming few months. Banerjee's decision to take Adhikari on in Nandigram indicates that she is aware of the enormity of the challenge she faces this time.

With inputs from PTI

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