Ground Report: As Campaigning Ends In Nandigram, This Constituency Looks Set To Bolster Its Image As A Harbinger Of Change

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Mar 31, 2021 08:20 AM
Ground Report: As Campaigning Ends In Nandigram, This Constituency Looks Set To Bolster Its Image As A Harbinger Of Change Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee and BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari
Snapshot
  • Nandigram consists of two community development blocks--I and II.

    Of the 1.58 lakh voters in Nandigram I, Muslims number 53,500 and are a decisive factor. But in Nandigram II Block, Muslims are just 11 per cent of the electorate (11,000 of nearly one lakh voters).

The contrast could not have been starker. While Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s roadshow here on Tuesday received an unprecedented response from tens of thousands of people, Mamata Banerjee's roadshows and meetings here evoked spiritless response from the few hundred, mostly party workers, who heard her or lined the streets that she traveled on a wheelchair.

As campaigning drew to an end in this crucial constituency that Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee chose to confront her former lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari on Tuesday evening, support for the BJP and ‘Jai Shree Ram’ slogans also reached a crescendo.

Amit Shah’s roadshow was followed by one held by actor Mithun Chakraborty in support of Adhikari. That, too, drew an overwhelming response.

Nandigram has turned out to be the ‘ground zero’ of the high-voltage electoral battle in Bengal. While it is crucial for both the candidates--Mamata Banerjee and Suvendu Adhikari--to win this seat, the stakes are much higher for Banerjee.

A defeat in Nandigram would not only mean a severe loss of face for Mamata, but could also mark the decisive culmination of an end to her political career, and more so if Bengal prises itself out of the Trinamool’s grip.

That’s why Mamata Banerjee, and her party, has pulled out all stops to capture Nandigram, which is considered to be the turf of the politically powerful Adhikari family.

Nandigram, along with Singur, played a crucial role in Mamata’s ascent to power in Bengal. The stir against acquisition of land for a chemical hub here fourteen years ago that Mamata Banerjee spearheaded catapulted her to the Chief Minister’s seat in 2011.

But a lot has changed in Nandigram since then. The Adhikaris--Suvendu, his father Sisir and brothers Soumen and Dibyendu--had been key lieutenants of Mamata Banerjee that time.

The Adhikari family was the strongest bulwark against the CPI(M), which considered Nandigram and the entire Medinipur its stronghold. Without the Adhikaris, Mamata Banerjee would have never been able to lead the farmers’ stir against land acquisition.

But now, the Adhikaris are firmly in the saffron camp and Suvendu is perhaps the most prominent BJP candidate in the fray.

Like the rest of Bengal, Nandigram too has suffered from lack of development. The people here face the same problems as those in the rest of the state: poor infrastructure, rising unemployment, dwindling income from agriculture and fisheries, endemic corruption in the administrative machinery, rent-seeking by venal Trinamool functionaries, intimidation and torture by Trinamool goons, poor education and healthcare facilities and many other ills that afflict Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee has been trying her best to blame the Adhikaris for the backwardness that Nandigram is steeped in. She has been asserting at public meetings that the Adhikaris had blocked all development schemes she has initiated and had even prevented her from visiting Medinipur.

Suvendu has been effectively lobbing the ball back at Mamata, pointing out that the entire state has sunk into a morass of poverty, backwardness and despair fuelled by corruption, poor governance, apathy and Mamata Banerjee’s politics.

Nandigram’s Demographics

Nandigram consists of two community development blocks--I and II. Muslims form nearly 34 per cent of the electorate in Nandigram I Block which was also the epicentre of the anti-land acquisition stir.

Of the 1.58 lakh voters in Nandigram I, Muslims number 53,500 and are a decisive factor. But in Nandigram II Block, Muslims are just eleven percent of the electorate (11,000 of nearly one lakh voters).

Mamata Banerjee strategy has been centered around dividing the Hindu votes and uniting the Muslim votes.

Sanguine in the belief that Muslims are firmly behind her, Banerjee has been concentrating on Nandigram II Block in a desperate bid to woo, and thus break, Hindu votes.

But her pitch has been somewhat queered by Islamist cleric and firebrand orator Abbas Siddiqui whose newly-formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) is a constituent of the Congress-Left mahajot (alliance).

Siddiqui, and CPI(M)’s Mohammad Salim, campaigned in Nandigram Block I on Tuesday, and their roadshows and meetings evoked a good response from Muslims.

Siddiqui, who belongs to a family of pirzadas (custodians) of Furfura Sharif, a shrine revered by Muslims of Bengal and Bangladesh, spoke out sharply against Mamata Banerjee and, to loud applause, accused her of doing nothing for Muslims.

Suvendu Adhikari had faced resistance a couple of times when he went to Nandigram I Block, mainly from the Muslims there. Just as Mamata Banerjee has been facing sullen crowds at Nandigram II who have been greeting her with full-throated ‘Jai Shree Ram’ slogans (she faced these slogans as many as five times on Tuesday).

However, growing Muslim assertion and belligerence that’s triggered by the sharp rise in the population of the community and Mamata Banerjee’s overt appeasement towards them, has led to a Hindu counter-consolidation in Nandigram I Block.

To a keen observer, that will be evident from the numerous saffron-coloured triangular flags bearing images of Hanumanji, Bhagwan Ram, Bhagwan Shiv and other deities fluttering atop houses.

Many Hindu homes across Nandigram I Block, as well as the adjacent Block II, have prominent Om symbols painted on them. And these are freshly-painted. This assertion of religious identity by Hindus in Nandigram Block I will also upset Mamata Banerjee’s calculations.

Also, many Muslim families are dependant on the Adhikari family, which runs many businesses in the two districts of East and West Medinipur, for their livelihood. They are either directly or indirectly employed in the Adhikari family’s business ventures, or have business dealings with them.

Also, many Muslims have close personal ties with the Adhikari family and interact with the family regularly.

The Adhikaris are known for their philanthropy and religious, social and cultural functions at the family home--Shanti Kunj--in Contai (about 45 kilometers southwest of Nandigram) are regularly attended by a large number of Muslims.

As such, it would be erroneous to assume that Muslims will vote en bloc for Mamata Banerjee.

Electoral Campaigns

A lot can be gathered from an assessment of polls campaigns by different parties and candidates. And that is more so in Nandigram.

Mamata Banerjee has been targeting the Adhikari family without naming them directly. But her attempts to blame the Adhikaris for the sad state of Nandigram has not cut much ice with the electorate.

Her attempts to blame ‘outsiders’ for the controversial ‘accident’ that left her left foot injured has also fallen flat on its face. Desperation was writ large on her face and in her speeches as she rounded off campaigning on Tuesday.

And in the final few minutes of the match, she scored a self-goal by getting up from her wheelchair and standing for the national anthem.

What she intended to portray as an act of patriotism boomeranged as TV channels, social media users and others beamed and circulated video clips of her standing up and supporting herself on her ‘injured’ left leg!

Tellingly, the Trinamool chief’s speeches on the last two days of campaigning were devoted exclusively to raving and ranting against the Adhikaris and the BJP.

That she could not, or did not, mention the ‘achievements’ that she proudly credits herself with always has not been lost on the people of Nandigram.

As compared to an embattled Mamata Banerjee, Adhikari has been a picture of calm resolve.

He has aggressively blamed Mamata Banerjee for failing to develop not only Nandigram, but also the whole of Bengal.

Suvendu has also highlighted the dangers posed to Bengal’s social, cultural and religious fabric by Mamata’s blatant appeasement of Muslims and said that such appeasement has led to growing religious assertion and aggression among Muslims that puts Hindus at danger.

Suvendu, and other top BJP leaders like Amit Shah and Kailash Vijayvargiya who have campaigned in Nandigram, has also been highlighting the poor law and order situation in Bengal, attacks on women, insecurity among the people, the ‘cut-money culture’ of the Trinamool, the strong-arm tactics and intimidation by Trinamool goons and various other miseries being faced by the people of Bengal.

Voices from the ground:

  • Manju Maity, 43, resident of Gokul Nagar (Nandigram I): Mamata was our leader during the land stir and she saved our lands from being taken over. We supported her wholeheartedly then. But she has done nothing for us in the last ten years.
  • Bijon Kumar Das (52), farmer, resident of Keshabpur (Nandigram I): If Suvendu Adhikari and his family are to blame for no development happening in Nandigram, then who is to blame for no development happening in the rest of Bengal?
  • Prabhas Jana (48), trader, resident of Purushottampur (Nandigram I): I supported Trinamool all these years, but the extortion by its cadres has crossed all limits. Lack of fresh investments and industries has stymied growth of our business ventures. Like Nandigram, I am also stagnant
  • Sheikh Mukhtar Ali (50), trader, resident of Hosenpur (Nandigram I): Muslims have continued to remain backward and have not really benefited as a community over the last ten years. Some Muslim leaders have benfited, but that makes no difference to us. We want change
  • Sukumar Pati (32), unemployed, resident of Gar Chakraberia (Nandigram I): If Mamata Banerjee’s claims of investments coming in and new industries being set up, lakhs of jobs being created etc are true, why do so many youngsters go out of Bengal in search of low-paying jobs?
  • Mafuja Khatun (43), divorcee with four children, resident of Mirza Chak (Nandigram I): Modi has empowered women, the abolition of triple talaq is a landmark step. Mamata only plays with our votes
  • Rakeeb Hossain Mondal (25), postgraduate student, resident of Khariberia (Nandigram I): I have been to some other BJP-ruled states and seen development happening there. The Trinamool has ruined Bengal. I want ashol poriborton (real change) this time.
  • Amal Bera (38), businessman, resident of Ashadtalya (Nandigram II): I wanted to hear Mamata Banerjee talk of her plans for Nandigram’s development. I was sorely disappointed. I will vote for Modi’s development model
  • Udit Panda (44), trader, resident of Ashadtalya (Nandigram II): Mamata says BJP is bringing in outsiders to create trouble here. This is a small town where people know each other, and there are no outsiders here. She is scared of losing and is making excuses now.
  • Kaushik Barui (48), schoolteacher, resident of Baishnabchak (Nandigram II): We are not bothered about political ideologies, we are only concerned with our economic advancement and development. Unfortunately, nothing has happened in Bengal over the past ten years
  • Sukriti Paria (37), trader, resident of Birulia (Nandigram II): Mamata Banerjee blamed us for attacking and injuring her. When she got to know we were angry, she said outsiders came into our midst and attacked her. She lied twice and that exposes her character. Why will anyone vote for her?
  • Mahesh Gayan (53), farmer, resident of Kanakpur (Nandigram II): Mamata Banerjee appeases Muslims and has given shelter to Bangladeshi Muslims. Hindus are in danger in Bengal. She needs to be ousted from power.
  • Mahadev Adak (50), trader, resident of Ghol Pukhuria (Nandigram II): Economic development, jobs, industries, good roads, law and order and good administration is what people want. Sadly, Trinamool has failed on all these fronts. So why should we vote for that party once again?
  • Narendra Pal (47), farmer, resident of Sanibari (Nandigram II): Mamata blames the Adhikari family for blocking development of Nandigram. What sort of chief minister was she that she never knew what the Adhikaris were doing? And if she knew, why didn’t she intervene? People are not fools.

If they are to be believed, Mamata Banerjee may be staring at an embarrassing upset at the hustings. And if that happens, Nandigram would have lived up to its reputation as a harbinger of change.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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