Tomorrow, the constituency of Nandigram is among the 30 that will see people voting in West Bengal. This has been Category A political territory for decades - since Mamata Banerjee led the campaign here in the mid-2000s to protest against the compromise of farmers' rights. It was this movement anchored by her that led to her replacing the Left government. But in this election, Nandigram carries even more political capital with its direct contest between Mamata Banerjee and Suvendu Adhikari, her former aide and confidant who strode over to the BJP four months ago.
Suvendu Adhikari, 50, has to prove his worth to his new political masters. Whether he can deliver the goods. Can he hold together his reputation of being the real 'Trinamool' - the Bengali word for grassroot? Does he understand the pulse of the people or was he plain opportunistic? Do people actually consider him the real face of Nandigram or has he overvalued himself? Suvendu Adhikari has been elected from Nandigramonce in the past (Mamata Banerjee, after winning the election here, changed her constituency to Bhawanipur in Kolkata). For BJP strategists, Suvendu Adhikari was a prize catch. No wonder the moment he jumped ship, the BJP not only honoured him with a significant task, but even forgot and deleted forever its corruption allegations against Suvendu Adhikari - the party had earlier accused him of a role in the "Narada scam" - a sting operation that claimed to catch Trinamool leaders including Suvendu Adhikari demanding cash as bribes from a corporate.
Suvendu Adhikari has no doubt realised that the deleted YouTube video of his 'appearance' in the sting operations carries the huge burden of expectations. Though the circumstances and situation aren't exactly the same, the BJP has bestowed upon him the same authority and respect that it did on Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP - but that comes with "break your previous party and increase our base."
Had Mr. Scindia not delivered (he brought down Kamal Nath's government in Madhya Pradesh last year), his party change could have been relegated to little more than a political footnote. Likewise for Suvendu Adhikari. If he loses Nandigram, Suvendu Adhikari will not only become a liability for the BJP but a potential embarrassment for himself.
The stakes are high. Which is why Suvendu Adhikari is not shying away from adopting a brand new identity - of a 'Hindu Hriday Samrat'. Suddenly, Suvendu Adhikari has transformed into a Hindu-pleasing, Muslim-bashing, Pakistan-beating politician. This too is a role straight out of a BJP 'toolkit'. Suvendu Adhikari in one of the rallies in Nandigram urged Hindus to note "they are the 70 percent, and not the 30 percent" - referring to the sizeable Muslim population in the constituency. He also told people that if Mamata Banerjee wins, "Pakistan will be happy."
Now where have we heard all of this before? Oh, yes. The Delhi election a year ago when AAP-to-BJP Kapil Mishra described the anti-CAA protest Shaheen Bagh in the exact same words. The BJP's polarization experiment in Delhi gave them a significant rise in vote share in the capital but did not roadblock an embarrassing and crushing defeat at the hands of Arvind Kejriwal.
On the other end of the spectrum is a woman defending every inch of her political ground. Mamata Banerjee was quick to realise that if Suvendu Adhikari's shift to the BJP is left unchallenged, the party will lose seats and respect. Nandigram and Singur were the two mass agitations of her party that propelled it to power in 2011. The decision to throw herself directly in the contest and take on Suvendu Adhikari, whose father was also a Trinamool leader (till he too joined the BJP) was a bold one. Whether Mamata Banerjee took too big a risk will be known on May 2 when results for five states including Bengal and Tamil Nadu are announced.
Ms. Banerjee has spent a significant amount of time campaigning in Nandigram. From renting a house to roadshows, the idea is to remind locals of her association and respect for the people. The injury to her foot was real, the reason behind it, disputed. What is undisputed now, though, is the strategic use of the wheelchair and the plaster cast each day as a sound political message. Offering up the image as a leader's commitment to her people. That she may be wounded, but she will hurt the BJP. The BJP was initially worried about this, according to sources, but with each passing day, there is growing reassurance in the camp that the wheelchair image may not be what makes up the voter's mind.
Nandigram has also made Mamata Banerjee realise that she has to shed the 'Begum Didi' tag. Ms. Banerjee's party can now be openly seen undoing - or attempting to undo - anything that will push the appeasement allegation forward.
She openly chants the Chandi Path, she is also telling people about her gotra (it is Shandilya by the way). Religious visits are commonplace now. Perhaps the Trinamool realised that its blind dependence on the Muslim vote bank may not help in either Nandigram or elsewhere. There's a strong possibility of a multi-way split of the Muslim vote bank: between the Left-Congress alliance, the Owaisi factor, Mamata's party. Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui floating his own party and contesting 26 seats is also a huge headache for Ms. Banerjee, as it adds one more claimant to the Muslim vote. And a split in Muslim votes could be music to the BJP's ears.
In Nandigram, Ms. Banerjee's big task is to remind people constantly that whatever they see in terms of development is actually the result of her efforts and not those of Mr. Adhikari. In rally after rally, she seems to be blaming Suvendu Adhikari for all the complaints people may have had against her, telling them that on many occasions, Suvendu Adhikari kept her in the dark. For a leader who positions herself as having her finger on the pulse, how convincing will this argument be?
Most importantly, for the BJP and the Trinamool, the politics of hope has converted to the politics of fear. BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari is trying to convince people that voting Mamata Banerjee equals some form of Pakistan victory. And Mamata Banerjee's key aide this election, Prashant Kishor, now saying that if the BJP wins, "we are looking at the prospect of one nation, one party". That "BJP wants more than your vote."
What hope cannot do, fear can. Because come May the 2nd, Nandigram will destroy at least one political career - forever.
(Sanket Upadhyay is Executive Editor, NDTV)
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