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Battleground Nandigram: Amphan ire and Hindu vote consolidation stare 'outsider' Mamata in fight against Adhikari Bengal Polls 2021
A woman with her child walks past a Mamata Banerjee hoarding in Nandigram (IBNS image by Avishek Mitra)

Battleground Nandigram: Amphan ire and Hindu vote consolidation stare 'outsider' Mamata in fight against Adhikari

Souvik Ghosh/IBNS | @indiablooms | 19 Mar 2021, 01:36 pm

"Why would we vote for an outsider who did not visit us for years," asks a middle-aged woman at Reapara in Nandigram Block 2 expressing her choice in no unclear terms.

Her words are, however, in sharp contrast to the mood of many others in the same block where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Suvendu Adhikari has been branded a "Mir Jafar" (a betrayer) for switching allegiance to the saffron party.

Amid the intense heat and the soaring of election fever, West Bengal election epicentre awaits a tense polling on Apr 1. The people are divided and roiled over religion, Amphan corruption and the outsider-local debate.

Nandigram grabbed the headlines in the media way back in 2007 when farmers were protesting against the then Left Front government's decision to acquire land for the Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The farmers' movement reached the climax when 14 people were shot to death by policemen, triggering a massive outrage against the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government.

Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, who was the prime Opposition face in the state, led the movement which projected her as the pro-farmers leader and catapulted her to Chief Ministership of Bengal.

Suvendu Adhikari, the son of Trinamool stalwart Sisir Adhikari, who was then a trusted lieutenant of Mamata Banerjee, is now  ironically meeting his former boss' eyes on the same land, Nandigram.

'Outsider' Mamata Banerjee

In Nandigram, the  Trinamool Congress' strategy to corner the BJP as an outfit led by a bunch of leaders who are not rooted to the soil of Bengal, stands on a shaky ground. 

While Mamata and her parliamentarian nephew Abhishek Banerjee have been targeting the BJP leaders no less than Union Home Minister Amit Shah as "outsiders", the saffron party uses the same weapon to attack the Trinamool supremo in Nandigram.

Travelling kilometers inside Nandigram Block 1, several posters- with no party name- were spotted terming Mamata as an "outsider". "Nandigram wants the son of Medinipur, not an outsider," read various hoardings.

A middle-aged woman in Block 1, requesting anonymity,  says, "She (Mamata Banerjee) didn't come at all for years. Now as polls are approaching, she is coming a number of times."

But voices of minority voters differ. Sheikh Moneir Hussain of Shamshabad, who stays in a multi-storey house, says, "We are not looking at her (Mamata Banerjee) as an outsider because she is the Chief Minister of the state."

In her injury-marred recent tour to Nandigram, Mamata, struggling to counter the narrative, had said, "How can the Chief Minister of a state become an outsider."

"Today I am an outsider, but the goons from Delhi and Rajasthan are not?  By that logic, I should not have become the Chief Minister also." 

Interestingly, a middle-aged man at Reapara in Nandigram Block 2 pointed out that Suvendu, who is originally from Kanthi, has recently become a voter in Nandigram.

"I have my name in the voter list here," Suvendu had said while filing his nomination papers last week.

Amphan Corruption

If Mamata Banerjee loses her election for the first time since 1989, one of the major reasons would definitely be the corruption at the grassroots level over reliefs for cyclone Amphan.

Both in Block 1 and 2, which are Muslim and Hindu dominated respectively, people have targeted the local Trinamool leaders for allegedly denying them any relief post-Amphan, in tune with the allegations levelled by the BJP which calls the incumbent "tripol chor" or "tarpaulin thief".

Just metres away from where Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP Dola Sen, who is one of the two leaders looking after Mamata's poll preparedness in Nandigram, was delivering her speech, a woman from a family with surname Pal, says, "We have got nothing as relief post-Amphan from the government. We only received 5 kg of rice and nothing else."

When asked whether she had contacted local leaders or not, her response was even more startling.

"Yes, we had contacted them multiple times with no help. We have been told our account numbers (bank account numbers) are incorrect. They collected all the information and then said our numbers (bank account numbers) were incorrect!"

However, she also said would vote for Trinamool as her fate remains unaltered irrespective of who gains or loses power.

The same was resonated in the words of several others in Nandigram Block 1, which is Muslim-dominated.

"Mamata Banerjee didn't even bother to come and see the situation here after Amphan. So people here are angry. They (Trinamool grassroot leaders) are only looting the relief materials. We have got nothing," a woman named Ambika says, covering her head with the pallu (loose end) of her saree.

"We neither have polythene nor money. We don't even have a latrine room (toilet)," a woman standing beside Ambika pitches in.

Shaheba Begum, interestingly, held Suvendu Adhikari, who was a heavyweight Trinamool leader, MLA and Minister till Dec 2020, for the Amphan corruption. "Suvendu Adhikari did all the corruption and went away (by deserting the party)," says Shaheba Begum.

However, Shamsher Khan at Garchakraberia in the same block narrates a different experience over corruption as a whole.

"I have no idea what cut money is because the money is transacted through bank accounts. So don't know about this cut money theory," Khan says, taking his eyes off a Bengali newspaper he was reading at a tea stall.

Thumbs Up To Kanyashree And Other Welfare Schemes

The Mamata Banerjee government which ended the uninterrupted 34-year old Left rule in 2011 had massively focussed on formulating welfare schemes with an eye on poor and marginalised people of the state.

Amid the corruption allegations over Amphan reliefs, Mamata Banerjee's pet project Kanyashree, a scheme providing a one-time grant of Rs. 25,000 and an annual scholarship of Rs. 1000 to a girl child aged 13-18, and several other schemes, received appreciation from all people cutting across the two blocks.

"We are getting Kanyashree, Yuvashree... My daughter has got Rs. 25,000 under Kanyashree while my son has got Rs 10,000 as scholarship," says Laxmirani Das, who was busy in cooking, with a tinge of smile on her lips.

"We have got the annual Rs. 10,000 for our daughter," says another village woman.

"Mamata Banerjee has given Swasthya Sathi to all families here and we feel proud of it. She has also given us Kanyashree, Yuvashree in the last 10 years," says Sheheba Begum, standing beside two male members of her family.

Even when people are quite discontented over the Trinamool government's grassroot corruption over Amphan reliefs, voters by and large seemed satisfied with the availability of rations.

"We haven't got any Amphan relief but got five kilograms of rice," says a woman, who was otherwise visibly angry over the Trinamool government.

Sitting on a wooden chair in her kitchen, 75-year old Rajubala Bal, who has complained of corruption over Amphan relief, adds, "I won't say we were deprived of everything. We have got rice, dal [pulses]."

Aspersions of Appeasement Politics

In its battle for Bengal for the past years, BJP has weaponised alleged appeasement of minority Muslims by the Mamata regime.

In one of the recent rallies in Nandigram, Mamata countered the charge of Muslim appeasement.

Warning the BJP aginst playing the "Hindu card" in Hindu-dominated Nandigram, Mamata said, "Some people will say 70/30 (divide people on the basis of Hindu and Muslim respectively). But we are for 100 per cent people. People can’t be divided like that."

"Don’t come to play Hindu card with me. First they should prove themselves as Hindus. They should participate in a competition with me over Hinduism."

Though the Trinamool Congress tries to defend itself claiming its government is for all, on ground, Hindus are pouring out their ire over "appeasement politics."

Ambika, whose family member rides a Toto rickshaw swamped up with the banners of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Suvendu Adhikari, in Nandigram Block 1, says, "Mamata Banerjee has played so much with Muslims, but she did not go to the houses of either Muslims or Hindus."

Another villager levelled a stunning allegation. Requesting anonymity, he says, "Durja puja was instructed by the administration to be halted during the Azaan (Islamic call to prayers) hours."

"We had complained to the higher authority when we were asked to halt the puja process during Azaan, but no response came. Visiting temples now won't work," the man, who is the owner of a factory, says.

All BJP leaders, no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have time and again attacked the Mamata Banerjee government over the precedence to Muslim festivals over Durga Puja.

Suvendu Adhikari Factor In Hindu And Muslim Votes

Suvendu Adhikari may have won the electoral contest from Nandigram five years ago but things are not the same for him now. In 2021, Suvendu, who is now a BJP candidate with "Jai Shree Ram" slogan on lips, is hugely unpopular among the Muslim population which is around 30 per cent of the total votes in the constituency.

The Muslim support base for Mamata Banerjee, even after Suvendu's exit from the party, remains intact. Much credit goes to Suvendu's recent rhetoric where he had openly given a call to target 70 per cent majority votes to win the election.

"Mir Jafar" (who had betrayed India for the British Rule) is the word that Muslims are using to refer to Suvendu, who once used to enjoy popularity across Nandigram.

"We are common voters. He (Suvendu Adhikari) has betrayed us. Earlier, we used to love him. Now Suvendu Adhikari has divided people on the basis of religion. He is spreading false narratives that people who wear lungis would evict Bengali people (he meant Hindus) if Mamata Banerjee wins," says villager Shamsher Khan.

Sheikh Moneir Hussain, who claims the Trinamool supremo will win by a margin of 80,000 votes, says, "Mamata Banerjee is our pride. She has decided to contest from Nandigram. Suvendu Adhikari is made by Mamata Banerjee. Suvendu went to the BJP after looting money by promising jobs to people and also from Haldia SDO office. He is a betrayer and we are no longer with him."

The religious polarisation appears stark in Nandigram.

"We gave 10 years to Mamata Banerjee but we want Suvendu Adhikari, Narendra Modi and BJP to win this election," says a Hindu family in Nandigram Block 1.

However, among some Hindu voters, there is a sense of uncertainty on whether Suvendu will be accepted by people in the 2021 elections after switching to the BJP.

"The Chief Minister is herself contesting the election, so the Trinamool has an added advantage. On the other hand, Suvendu is also popular here. So it is not clear which way the battle would go now," says Laxmi Kanta Das, who works at a chips factory in Reapara, while having his lunch.

"The BJP may get benefited due to Suvendu's induction but practically, some people may also have reservations with him on a personal level," says Bimal as he stops his bike with two pillion-riding children.

On the ground in Nandigram, the Hindu vote consolidation favours the BJP, while the star appeal of a charismatic Chief Minister contestant with secular credentials among minority voters can be an ace up the sleeve of the Trinamool.

(Images by Avishek Mitra/IBNS)