Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may face a do-or-die contest in the state election with Suvendu Adhikari, her former top aide who ditched the Trinamool Congress and defected to the BJP in December. At a strategy meeting last evening featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP discussed fielding Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram, one of the two seats Mamata Banerjee has pledged to contest.
The other candidate discussed in the meeting to finalise names for the Bengal election was Babul Supriyo, the BJP's Asansol MP.
Sources say the Union Minister volunteered his name for Bhawanipore, Mamata Banerjee's constituency and the second seat she is likely to contest in the assembly election that will stretch over eight rounds and 33 days.
The decision on both candidates has been left to PM Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda, sources say. The Big 3 of the BJP will decide on Nandigram, Bhawanipore and 13 other key constituencies of Bengal, sources said.
The Central Election Committee held discussions till late evening at the BJP headquarters in Delhi. Sources say Suvendu Adhikari, who was present, told his new bosses that he was confident of defeating former mentor Mamata Banerjee by at least 50,000 votes in Nandigram - the constituency he nurtured for years and shaped as a Trinamool Congress stronghold.
A Mamata Banerjee versus Suvendu Adhikari confrontation has been in the making ever since the Chief Minister announced in January at a rally in Nandigram - her first in five years -- that she would contest from there.
Nandigram was the epicenter of a farmers' movement that propelled Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress to power in Bengal 10 years ago. But the man who worked to build the party's base in Nandigram was Suvendu Adhikari, who represented the constituency.
Protecting farmers' land from a proposed economic zone project in Nandiram became the centrepiece of Mamata Banerjee's 2011 state election campaign. In 2007, 14 had been killed in Nandigram in clashes between protesting farmers and the police. Mamata Banerjee's "Ma, Maati, Manush" slogan was crafted around that incident and she won by a landslide.
"I will contest from Nandigram. Nandigram is my lucky place," Mamata Banerjee said in the January rally, also urging voters of Bhawanipore, her current constituency, to understand. But then she indicated she could contest from both constituencies and said, "Nandigram is my big sister, Bhawanipore is my younger sister...I will fight from both if possible. In case I am unable to contest from Bhawanipore, someone else would contest."
The same day, Suvendu Adhikari publicly took up the challenge and declared in Kolkata, "If I do not defeat her with half lakh votes in Nandigram, I will quit politics."
PM Modi reportedly advised Bengal leaders in yesterday's meeting against getting provoked or speaking out of turn and urged them to maintain decorum in their public statements.
The Prime Minister, say sources, also asked the leaders, including Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee about the "mood" in Bengal. Another meeting on Bengal may be held on March 9.
BJP chief Nadda has been authorized to decide on candidates for Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala.
Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry will start voting on March 27 for state elections. The results will be announced on May 2.
The BJP, on the back of a surge in the 2019 national polls, sees itself within easy reach of power in Bengal and has pulled out all the stops in this quest. Two-time Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has lost several party leaders to the BJP over the past few years, including those like Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, who were with her since the launch of the Trinamool Congress in 1998.