Why Mamata Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram is steeped in political symbolism

photo - Daily Mail India
In a country where sad, nondescript, and decrepit towns are strewn across the countryscape, the impending assembly elections in West Bengal proclaims Nandigram’s second tryst with history, but with a difference. Time was when this little-known town became nationally known and featured regularly in political discussions. Although few could successfully mark it on the state’s map, the town and surrounding countryside were recognised as a major milestone in paving the way for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress’ becoming the unchallenged party of governance in West Bengal. But this assembly constituency, part of the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat, was soon forgotten, just as the aborted chemical hub the Left Front wanted to set up here with Indonesian capital was.

The assembly segment, the controversy over the plan to convert this hinterland into an industrial centre, and even the “martyrs” who died in clashes during the agitation against the project, met the same fate as that of most signposts on highways to greater destinations — forgotten once crossed. In this case, Nandigram was an unadorned stepping stone to Mamata Banerjee’s journey to Writers’ Building, the symbolic seat of power in West Bengal, till the state secretariat shifted to a repurposed building, Nabannah, in Shibpur, Howrah.

But with the maverick chief minister’s decision to take the battle into the camp of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Nandigram has got another chance at carving a permanent niche. The moot point, however, is whether its electorate would choose to make it a pampered constituency of the chief minister, or if it would look for fame in being recognised as the battlefield that politician the state has known.

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Nandigram as well as Mamata Banerjee’s decision to accept a political dare, of contesting just one seat, is steeped in political symbolism. Almost a decade and a half back, in 2006-08, Nandigram alongside Singur, in Hooghly district, became emblematic of rising anger against three decades of Left Front rule. For the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government, the Tata Nano project and the Special Economic Zone with the chemical hub financed by the Indonesian Salim Group, were representative of foundation stones for the state to exit the path of industrial slump. For people, on whose already fragmented land holdings these projects were planned, the move was nothing short of betrayal.

The regime responded with the only word that a hegemon knows — arrogance. With that overbearing thought in mind, any form of opposition or divergent viewpoint on the projects was forcibly put down. Consequently, besides the ordinary people in the affected areas, it alienated even the widely respected and eulogised community of intellectuals, artists, writers, singers, actors and filmmakers. And, they flocked to the Trinamool Congress — many of them later became members of Parliament and the state assembly.

As hubris gathered around a small coterie that was allowed to coalesce, Nandigram disappeared from Banerjee’s core felled the most consistent streetfighter concerns, managed as it was by a confidant, Suvendu Adhikari, now turned into a modern-day Mir Jafar, having joined BJP which has emerged as a serious political force in the state. It followed the audacious trajectory charted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his emergence as the numero uno within the BJP in 2013, setting goals that appeared hyperbolic at first instance, but seemed partially attainable on second assessment. With a powerful adversary in the form of a party that is both yogi and commissar, Banerjee often seemed to be at her wits’ end this time, especially after the spectacular performance of the BJP in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

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File photo of Mamata Banerjee with Suvend Adhikari and Sisir Adhikari in Nandigram. Suvendu is now BJP candidate from Nandigram

The duo of Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah are intent on changing Bengal’s electoral orientation as well as alter ing the thinking of its people, because they realised that it could not come to power solely by harnessing the anti-incumbent sentiment as Banerjee had done. The BJP’s ideological takedown of the chief minister is more multilayered than in most states, chiefly due to its demography. While the Trinamool Congress chief has altered the identity profile of the party’s list of candidates, her decision to contest solely from Nandigram is dominating the discourse.

After the announcement some weeks ago of her intention to contest from this Purba Midnapore constituency, her options have been weighed ceaselessly. Would she contest from two seats like many leaders have done for decades? Was her decision indicative of being unsure of Bhabanipur, the constituency she represents? Was the support of her party waning in urban Bengal?

Although forecasting is a tricky business, Banerjee has certainly put a brave front by putting her faith entirely in Nandigram’s people. The move, on certain yardsticks, is similar to Modi’s decision in 2014 to contest from Varanasi, even though the BJP had withered away in Uttar Pradesh. The Trinamool Congress is faced with a similar situation in the south-western Jangalmahal region of Bengal, adjacent to Nandigram. Her presence in this constituency is aimed at shoring up the confidence of the party cadre while neutralising the loss stemming from Suvendu Adhikari’s crossover. Like the BJP, Banerjee takes every election, at any level, with the same earnestness. This time the challenge is greatest and with her “Nandigram only” decision, she has underscored her disbelief in half-measures.

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