Suvendu Adhikari's 'strongman' status is highly questionable; Mamata unlikely to face stiff challenge in Nandigram
It is important to remember that Suvendu Adhikari barely got two MLAs to quit alongside him from his ‘stronghold’ and another three from other districts
In West Bengal, it’s beginning to get to a bare-knuckles electoral contest in a few months. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has a big edge, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is pushing. More in a while on what is expected when push comes to shove.
On Monday, TMC boss and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was in Nandigram for a rally attended by over 200,000 people according to media estimates. From the dais, Mamata made an announcement that shook Bengal. ‘What if I contest from Nandigram?’ she asked, to something approaching delirium.
Let’s step back to 2007. That year, the Left Front government headed by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya decided to acquire land for a special economic zone (SEZ) for a chemicals-based project. Widespread violence broke out in its aftermath, with police forces and CPM party cadre launching an attack against peasants not willing to give up their land.
This followed the acquisition of land in Singur, in Hooghly district across the river from Kolkata, in 2006. This project was met by a massive agitation as well. Ultimately, both projects had to be shelved. Singur and Nandigram launched Mamata and the TMC into the big league. Let’s be clear. Mamata has a busload of political weaknesses, including a streak of paranoid authoritarianism, not unlike her chief antagonist.
But let us be clear again. Mamata’s political instincts are extraordinarily sharp and, even more important, she has the courage of a streetfighter who took on the then-powerful Left Front, when everyone else (with the possible exception of Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Choudhury) was running for cover.
Mamata’s 26-day hunger strike in December 2006 against the Tatas' Nano project in Singur was a defining moment in Bengal politics. The Tatas withdrew and relocated to Gujarat. In the 2006 Bengal Assembly elections, the CPM-led Left Front had got 230 seats out of 294 and the TMC got 35. The then chief minister Buddhabeb Bhattacharya reminded the press of this fact in a message outside Writers’ Buildings. Translated into English, he said, ‘We are 235, they are 30.’
Five years later, a TMC-Congress alliance got 228 seats; the Left 62. In 2016, the TMC got 211 seats, contesting solo. Since then, it has won by-elections in Kharagpur (vacated by BJP state president Dilip Ghosh after winning the Midnapur Lok Sabha seat) and Kaliaganj (where the sitting Congress MLA Pramathanath Roy died.) Kaliaganj is part of the Raiganj constituency (Uttar Dinajpur district) won in 2019 by BJP candidate and Union Minister of State for Women and Child Development Debasree Chaudhuri. The TMC had never won either seat previously, but the Kharagpur loss is still being seen as a big blow for the BJP.
So, let’s get back to present times. Mamata has announced she will contest both from Nandigram and Bhabanipur, her constituency since 2011. Newly minted BJP ‘strongman’ Suvendu Adhikari has committed himself to defeating Mamata by at least 50,000 votes on his turf, specifically Nandigram, more generally Purba Medinipur district.
A bit of history would be in order. Firoja Bibi won a by-election for this constituency in 2009. She won it again in 2011, with a vote share of 61.21 percent. In 2016, Suvendu contested and won with a vote share of 67.20 percent. Firoja is now the MLA from Panskura Pashchim, which is part of the Ghatal Lok Sabha constituency in Purba Medinipur. Nandigram is part of the Tamluk Lok Sabha constituency in the same district, currently represented by Suvendu’s brother Dibyendu Adhikari, who is at the moment still a TMC parliamentarian, though an exit from the party could be on the cards.
Firoja is one of the unforgettable figures of the Nandigram agitation – she lost her son to CPM violence and is known locally as the ‘Mother of [a] Martyr’. She has heft and she has chosen not to go with Suvendu. The big question here is what will happen if Mamata truly contests from Nandigram. Will her charismatic and populist appeal trump Suvendu’s local boss status?
Factor in something else. The Adhikari family is powerful in the two Medinipur districts – Purba and Pashchim. Suvendu’s younger brother – Soumyendu – was removed as administrator/chairperson of the Contai municipality and promptly left the TMC to join the BJP. Dibyendu, as noted, is still on the fence. But the patriarch of the family, Sisir Adhikari, is still the TMC Contai MP. He has been removed from two important positions – Purba Medinipur TMC district chief and Digha Sankarpur Development Authority earlier this month. It is said that he is unwell. And it is unclear which way he will jump – but he, not Suvendu, is the key figure.
We now enter into the province of conjecture and opinion. Given that Suvendu barely mustered two MLAs to quit alongside him from his ‘stronghold’ and another three from other districts, his strongman status is questionable. On the other hand, when brother Soumyendu quit he took 14 councillors with him, handing the board to the BJP. That cannot be regarded as a definitive development. In the aftermath of TMC hustler Arjun Singh quitting, joining the BJP and winning the Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency, six municipalities shifted to the BJP. In a couple of months, all of them were back with the TMC, including BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy’s turf – Kanchrapara.
So to get back to push coming to shove, Suvendu beating Mamata anywhere, including Nandigram, is a risible proposition. Especially, when you consider the unabated rivalries between BJP old-timers, pre-eminently represented by state party president Dilip Ghosh, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh import, and the ‘opportunists’, like Bankura MP Saumitra Khan, who defected to the BJP while representing the constituency for the TMC just before the 2019 elections. As state chief of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Manch he was slapped down by Ghosh. He was reportedly rebuked by three senior BJP leaders – including Bengal minder Kailash Vijayvargiya – for saying Ghosh would be chief minister if the BJP won Bengal. Talk of mending fences.
Which inescapably brings us to an ABP Ananda-C Voter poll published today about upcoming polls in Assam, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The Bengal predictions are the ones we want to focus on. The opinion poll says that the TMC will win 158 seats in the 294-strong House; the BJP 102; the Left-Congress alliance 30; and, others four.
But thereby hangs a tale. It has been widely rumoured that the poll originally found the TMC would get 211 seats and the BJP 51. The poll was published after a few days’ delay, when the new numbers came in. The Ananda Bazaar Patrika (the ABP flagship), published a report today quoting Mamata as having flagged this exact discrepancy at her 18 January rally.
Make what you will of this. But the real issue is that opinion polls don’t determine election results. The jury hasn’t even assembled yet.
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