Mamata vs Suvendu: West Bengal prepares for battle royale in Nandigram

Mamata Banerjee went on a temple-hopping spree this week
It’s battle royale in Nandigram —about 130 km from Kolkata — where West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee and her protégé-turned-adversary Suvendu Adhikari are locked in a face-off. And the race is just heating up.

Hoardings scream from everywhere in the constituency, “Bangla nijer meyekei chai (Bengal wants its own daughter)”, only to be interru­p­ted by Adhikari’s counter-narrat­ive, “Nandigram–Medinipur er bhoomiputra ke chai, bohiragata noi (Nandigram, Medinipur wants its son of the soil and not an outsider)”. Add to it the temple rounds from both sides, and it’s a heady mix of religion and politics for the roughly 257,000 voters of Nan­di­g­ram (the total population is 285,131).

In the last couple of days, Ban­erjee has gone to some lengths to refresh her connection with the rural hamlet that had propelled her to power in 2011. It started with a workers’ meet (karmi sabha) on Tuesday, where she chanted the Chandi Path, after which she went on a temple-hopping spree.

Local Trinamool leaders peg the number of temples she visited at 19 (some were next to each other) till she left on Wednesday. A Mus­lim shrine, too, made it to her itinerary.

Adhikari, meanwhile, offered prayers on the occasion of Maha Shivratri at three different locations in Nandigram on Thursday.

The imagery served as a reminder to Karl Marx’s oft-quoted saying: “Religion is the opium of the people.” And Bengal has just woken up to its usefulness.

As political commentator Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury pointed out, “The new wave of identity politics in Bengal is eclipsing the era of ideological divide.”

Like Adhikari, Ban­erjee had plans lined up for Shiv Ratri in Nandi­gram. But her visit was cut short by an injury to her foot Wednesday ev­ening after she offered puja at a temple in Nandigram Block II.

It’s not without reason that temples are drawing both Banerjee and Adhikari. Nandigram has some 186,000 Hindu voters and about 71,000 Muslim.

The Trinamool Co­n­gress and Banerjee know that their stronghold is the 71,000 minority votes. So the task is to cut into the remaining that the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to get a fair share of.

“We will get more than 90 per cent of the Muslim votes. But it’s not that Suvendu Adhikari will get all of the 186,000 Hindu votes,” local TMC leaders point out. “About two per cent of these are our booth committee members and many of them are Hindu. They have considerable clout in the community,” they add.

Adhikari’s narrative in Nandigram, however, goes beyond the realm of faith. Nandigram is his turf.

Suvendu Adhikari prayed at three locations in Nandigram on Shiv Ratri
Mamata Banerjee may have been the face of the Nandigram agitation, but it was Adhikari who led the movement on the ground. He knows the locals by their names,” point out some in Nandigram.

Adhikari is also raising the pitch on the lack of adequate jobs and industry; a large number of people from Nandigram work in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

The literacy rate in Nandigram is much higher than the state average of 76.26 per cent; in Block I, it is 84.89 per cent and in Block II, 89.16 per cent. Local TMC leaders admit that for the highly literate, jobs are an issue.

That’s something the Left — which was pushed out due to violent protests against land acquisition for a chemical hub project — is gearing to take up. “Industry, trade and commerce will be our poll pitch for Nandigram,” says senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammed Salim.

The party has fielded Minakshi Mukherjee, president, West Be­n­gal unit, of the Democratic You­th Federation of India, in Nandigram.

The benefits of the Banerjee-led government’s focus on basics such as roads, electricity and drinking water have, however, percolated to Nandigram. And perhaps, the myriad social schemes are helping her draw the crowds, mainly women.

But all of this has taken a backseat. The focus right now is the alleged attack on Banerjee in Nan­di­gram. Was it an attack or an accident — that is the all-consuming debate for now.

The Trinamool Congress has stuck to its claim that Banerjee was attacked and a parliamentary delegation will be in Delhi on Friday for a meeting with the Election Commission. In a video message from her hospital bed on Thursday, Banerjee spoke about the injuries, but didn’t mention any “attack”. She expects to be back in the field in two-three days, but may have to move around in a wheelchair.

What impact will her foot injury have on elections in Bengal and more importantly, Nandigram? The answer is, well, blowin’ in the wind.

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