The embattled Trinamool chief’s declaration came while addressing a rally at Nandigram a few weeks after Suvendu Adhikari, who was her transport minister, had resigned from the party and switched over to the BJP.
Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram, which along with Singur, was her launchpad to power in the state, was hailed as an intelligent political move.
By pitting herself against Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram, she had hoped to pin him down to that constituency and upset the BJP’s plans to get Suvendu to campaign extensively in the rest of the state.
Adhikari, thanks to his statewide popularity, has become a star campaigner for the BJP. Faced with a powerful challenger in Nandigram, he would have had to either concentrate on his own constituency or shift to some other constituency.
But Mamata Banerjee’s plans came a cropper once the poll schedule was announced. Polling for Nandigram will be held in the second phase on April 1, and that will leave Adhikari more than enough time to campaign for BJP candidates in the rest of the state for the next six phases of polling stretching over a month.
However, having already declared her intention of contesting from Nandigram, Mamata Banerjee could not have backtracked and made a virtue out of a necessity by stating on Friday (5 March) that she kept her word as far as contesting from Nandigram was concerned.
What came as a surprise on Friday, though, was Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that she would not be contesting from Bhowanipore, which she had represented for two consecutive terms from 2011.
Bhowanipore is also part of the Kolkata South Lok Sabha constituency that Mamata Banerjee represented for six consecutive terms from 1991 to 2011.
Here, too, the Trinamool gave a spin to its chief’s flight from Bhowanipore.
“She has accepted the challenge posed to her by BJP leaders who dared her to contest from only Nandigram and give up her safe seat (Bhowanipore). She has done exactly that,” said Trinamool spokesperson Derek O’Brien.
However, Mamata Banerjee’s reason for abandoning Bhowanipore was simple: she was unsure of retaining the seat this time.
The BJP has been emerging as a strong force in Bhowanipore and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Trinamool led by only 3,168 votes from Bhowanipore. This despite the BJP fielding a relatively weak and ineffectual candidate (Chandra Kumar Bose) from the Kolkata South Lok Sabha seat.
In the 2011 Assembly elections that brought Mamata Banerjee to power in Bengal, the BJP polled only 5078 votes in Bhowanipore.
But in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls for the Kolkata South constituency, the BJP polled 47,465 votes from the Bhowanipore Assembly segment.
In fact, the BJP’s Kolkata South candidate (in 2014), Tathagata Roy, got more votes from the Bhowanipore Assembly segment than his Trinamool rival Subrata Bakshi.
Had the BJP fielded a strong candidate like Tathagata Roy from Kolkata South in 2019 (he had taken gubernatorial assignments by then), the party’s vote share from Bhowanipore would have increased a lot.
Mamata Banerjee’s own victory margin from Bhowanipore had declined since 2011. In 2011, she won the seat by 54,213 votes. This victory margin declined by more than 55 percent to 25,301 votes in 2016.
There are a number of reasons why Mamata Banerjee would perhaps have lost from Bhowanipore this time.
Apart from the strong anti-incumbency against her, she would also have had to face the ire of the non-Bengali voters who account for about sixty percent of the electorate in Bhowanipore.
The non-Bengali voters of Bhowanipore, and Bengal, are extremely sore with Mamata Banerjee and her party for crafting the ‘Bengali versus outsider’ narrative to take on the BJP.
Though Mamata Banerjee tried to make amends by asserting that all those who stay in Bengal are Bengalis, the damage had been done.
Smarting from being branded as ‘outsiders’, many non-Bengalis of Bhowanipore will vote for the BJP this time.
To make matters worse for Mamata Banerjee, Gujaratis form a significant chunk of the non-Bengali electorate in Bhowanipore.
Banerjee’s unending diatribe against the Gujaratis (while targeting Modi and Amit Shah) has also turned all Gujarati residents of Bhowanipore firmly against her.
Banerjee was also unsure of the collective support of the Bengali Hindus who form the remaining forty percent of Bhowanipore’s electorate.
Many among the Bengali Hindus are unhappy with Mamata Banerjee’s blatant appeasement of Muslims.
“The people of Bhowanipore have seen the wealth amassed by the chief minister’s immediate family members who hold huge benami properties in Bhowanipore itself. They have seen from close quarters how Mamata Banerjee’s kin and close relatives have enriched themselves,” said state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh.
That is why many in Bhowanipore, where Mamata Banerjee has lived all her life, have turned against her.
Mamata Banerjee has fielded power minister and veteran trade unionist Sovandeb Chattopadhyay from Bhowanipore.
Trinamool insiders say that Chattopadhyay has been fielded from an unsafe seat (Bhowanipore) instead of the neighbouring constituency of Rashbehari which he has represented for five consecutive terms since 1998 because Mamata Banerjee wants to clip Chattopadhyay’s wings.
Chattopadhyay may well lose from Bhowanipore. And that is the price he will pay for locking horns with Purnendu Bose, another veteran trade union leader who was a communist before he joined Mamata Banerjee’s bandwagon.
Bose was a leader of the trade union wing of the radical CPI (Marxist-Leninist) that was opposed to the Left Front.
In November 2006, months after the Trinamool suffered a severe drubbing in the Assembly polls by bagging just 30 of the 294 seats, Bose approached Mamata Banerjee with the proposal to launch an agitation on behalf of the farmers of Singur.
Bose told her that the farmers of Singur were very unhappy over the prospect of losing land for the proposed Tata Motors plant there. Mamata Banerjee agreed, and the rest is history.
Bose, along with another Naxalite leader Dola Sen (she is now a Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP), was Mamata Banerjee’s conduit to reach out to Maoists who reportedly provided muscle power to the anti-land acquisition agitation in Nandigram.
Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, who had left the Congress in 1998 to help Mamata Banerjee form the Trinamool Congress, had been at loggerheads with Bose and Dola Sen for quite some time now.
Trinamool insiders say that Chattopadhyay has outlived his utility for Mamata Banerjee, who now needs Bose and Sen to help her in Nandigram.
Having worked in Nandigram during the agitation there, and having personal contacts with former Naxalites and Naxal sympathisers, Bose can be of help to Mamata in Nandigram.
Mamata Banerjee assured Bose that he would be given an important ministerial berth if the Trinamool returned to power.
She reportedly told him if she returned to power, she would immediately revive the Legislative Council (the upper house) which was abolished in 1969 and would get him elected to the Council.
Bose agreed to Mamata’s request, but also demanded that his arch rival Sovandeb Chattopadhyay not be given a ticket to contest the polls this time.
Mamata Banerjee reportedly told Bose that denying a ticket to a veteran leader like Chattopadhyay would be viewed unkindly by long time leaders and workers of the party and could even lead to Chattopadhyay revolting against the party and joining the BJP.
Banerjee reportedly assured Bose that instead of denying Chattopadhyay a ticket, she would field him from an unsafe seat. That satisfied Bose.
But what this plot proves is that Mamata Banerjee considers Bhowanipore an unsafe seat. And that is why she has gone to Nandigram.
But Nandigram will not be an easy win for her. The Adhikari family--Suvendu, his father Sisir (a Lok Sabha MP) and brothers Dibyendu (also a Lok Sabha MP) and Soumendu (a former civic body chief)--are extremely strong in Purba and Paschim Medinipur.
Nandigram falls in Purba Medinipur, and is Suvendu’s stronghold. Mamata Banerjee is banking on the support of Muslim voters, who form about 25 percent of the electorate.
But the Muslim votes in Nandigram will be split because of the inclusion of the Indian Secular Front (ISF) formed by Islamist cleric Abbas Siddiqui in the Congress-Left alliance. Siddiqui, a rabble rouser, has considerable following in Nandigram.
Also, the BJP has been making impressive inroads into Nandigram even when Suvendu Adhikari was with the Trinamool. In the 2016 Assembly polls, the BJP polled a mere 10,713 votes.
But in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got 62,268 votes from the Nandigram Assembly segment of the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat (held by Dibyendu Adhikari).
The Trinamool will also have to battle strong anti-incumbency. Many junior level Trinamool functionaries are accused of corruption and Nandigram, despite having propelled Mamata Banerjee to power in the state, has remained neglected.
Mamata Banerjee will deploy the administrative machinery as well as all the resources at her command in Nandigram where she faces a tough challenge from the popular Suvendu Adhikari.
That is why Mamata Banerjee has kept an option open for herself. While announcing the list of candidates on Friday, she hinted that she may contest from Tollygunge (in Kolkata) as well.
She announced senior minister Arup Biswas as her party’s candidate from Tollygunge. And then she paused and said: “I may also contest from there”.
Tollygunge goes to the polls on April 10 and the last date for filing nominations is March 23. “If she senses that things are not going her way in Nandigram, she may ask Arup Biswas to withdraw and will contest from Tollygunge,” a senior Trinamool leader told Swarajya.
Political analysts say that Mamata Banerjee may also wait till polling is over in Nandigram on March 27 to assess her chances of winning that seat.
“Her party workers and leaders would have a fair idea once the polling is over (in Nandigram) about how she fared there. If she gets feedback based on ground-level assessments that the contest has been close or has gone badly for her, she will find a pretext to announce herself as a candidate from any of the constituencies that goes to the polls in the last four phases on April 17, 22, 26 and 29. The last date for filing nominations for these phases is after the polls in Nandigram get over on March 27,” said a former Trinamool leader who was once close to Mamata Banerjee.
But whatever be the case, the decision to abandon Bhowanipore and contest from Nandigram was taken by Mamata Banerjee in her own personal interests and definitely not to prove a point to the BJP or the Adhikari family.
BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh put it succinctly: “She shifted to Nandigram because she was unsure of winning Bhowanipore. She is on slippery ground in Nandigram as well, and that’s why she has kept her options open”.
Left and Congress leaders endorse Ghosh’s assessment and say that the chances of Mamata Banerjee losing from Nandigram are very high.
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