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Bengal Ground Report: Nandigram is split in the middle between TMC and BJP with advantage Mamata, but all is not lost for Suvendu Adhikari

While the impact of the silent voter can never be discounted in Nandigram, if BJP wishes to win the seat, it will have to come out of its obsession with large rallies and start talking to people - village by village.

About 150 kms away from where I live rests the star constituency of Nandigram, which is expected to see a battle of the Titans this election cycle. Suvendu Adhikari, Mamata Banerjee’s point-person in Nandigram, quit TMC and joined the BJP recently. Not only did Suvendu Adhikari join BJP, but it was declared that he will fight the 2021 election from Nandigram against Mamata Banerjee.

A testament to just how important Nandigram is to both TMC and BJP is the drama that has unfolded over the last few days. Mamata Banerjee, while holding a roadshow in the area injured herself. Her claim initially was that 4-5 people pushed her while she was greeting people from her car, and as a result, she injured herself. Initially, the media reported that she suffered a hairline fracture. However, soon enough, gaps seemed to appear in the story.

For starters, there were several eyewitnesses who said that Mamata Banerjee got hurt accidentally and nobody had pushed her. Then, Mamata Banerjee herself had issued a statement from the hospital where she admitted that the incident was merely an accident. Further, the police report also found that nobody had pushed Mamata. Recently, however, soon after Mamata Banerjee’s plaster magically turned into a mere crepe bandage within hours, Mamata Banerjee again claimed that her car door was pushed and shoved.

Mamata Banerjee made this claim, yet again, while OpIndia was just about starting its journey in Nandigram, trying to figure out the mood of the star constituency. Incidentally, we decided to start from the very place where Mamata Banerjee claims she was ‘attacked’.

This is the exact pillar where Mamata Banerjee’s open car door collided, resulting in her injury.

While Mamata Banerjee claimed that her car door was pushed and shoved, alluding to the fact that it could be a part of a political conspiracy, the locals of the very area where the incident occurred had this to say.

The individual who OpIndia spoke to categorically denied that Mamata Banerjee was pushed by anyone. He narrated how her procession was approaching the pillars and her car door, which was open, then banged into the pillars resulting in her injury.

The same story was repeated by another eyewitness.

This was a recurrent theme amongst those we spoke on and off-camera. Even those who support TMC and Mamata Banerjee asserted that it was an accident.

When one goes to Nandigram, another stark reality hits you. The area where Mamata Banerjee got injured is a TMC village. This is to say that most individuals in that area are inclined towards voting for Mamata Banerjee herself. The very fact that Mamata Banerjee herself felt the need to concoct this lie about being attacked in a village that supports her, proves beyond doubt that the Nandigram constituency is an all-important one that neither parties can afford to lose. In fact, even while most of the occupants of that village support TMC, BJP has put up several posters and flags to mark their presence.

So what are the dynamics of Nandigram? Why is the constituency so important that Mamata had to potentially create this drama in a village she clearly has a hold on, to create a sympathy wave in her favour? Who is winning Nandigram?

According to 2011 census data for Purba Medinipur, which contained data for Nandigram-I, Nandigram-II and the census town of Nandigram, the Muslim population in these census units was 34%, 12.1% and 40.3% respectively.

In the 2016 Assembly Elections, Suvendu Adhikari won 67% of the total votes, CPI won about 27% and BJP won about 6%. Judging by the landslide victory of Sudendu Adhikari in the 2016 elections, the popular narrative is, of course, that it could be a walk-over for Suvendu in Nandigram. After all, it was he who set the ground for the 2007 Nandigram movement that catapulted Mamata Banerjee to power in 2011. It was him who was worked on the constituency, nurtured it, been with the people of Nandigram when they lost their loved ones in the Communist government’s firing etc.

On the face of it, it would seem logical that Suvendu Adhikari would have enough mass appeal to clock a win, this time, for BJP.

But Nandigram is not as cut and dry and political pundits would have us believe.

BJP seems to believe that Nandigram is going to swing massively in its favour because Suvendu Adhikari, Didi’s point-man in Nandigram is fighting this election on a BJP ticket. Since it was he who set the ground for the 2007 Nandigram movement, people would vote for him regardless of the party he is in.

TMC seems to believe that the fact that Suvendu Adhikari joined BJP will be viewed as a betrayal by the people of Nandigram. That the BJP is viewed as an ‘outsider’ will ensure that while people might still like Suvendu, they would vote for TMC.

The truth, however, lies somewhere in between and as of today, while the fight is still incredibly neck-to-neck, Mamata Banerjee has a slight advantage over Suvendu Adhikari. To understand why and what BJP can do about it, we need to analyse certain factors that are at play in Nandigram.

The Hindu-Muslim polarisation

Nandigram, whether one likes it or not, is now divided on communal lines rather prominently. While OpIndia spoke to hundreds of people from both communities, a clear divide in the opinion emerged as far as the Muslim community was concerned.

The Muslim community is not voting for Suvendu Adhikari. While talking to OpIndia, several Muslim residents of Nandigram said that Suvendu Adhikari had ‘sold the motherland’ and joined BJP. The anger amongst Muslims mainly revolved around Adhikari joining BJP, which they view as a party that never has their best interest at heart, and the fact that he deserted ‘Didi’ in an all-important battle.

A snippet of the conversation OpIndia had with local Muslims in Nandigram is here. “For Nandigram, there is nobody other than TMC and Didi”, was the overwhelming sentiment.

While the BJP might want to believe that a fraction of the Muslim vote might still go to Suvendu Adhikari because of his stellar work in the constituency over the years, on the ground, that seems like a slim possibility. The Muslims, who constitute a significant share of the Nandigram electorate will vote overwhelmingly in favour of TMC.

Absence of the Abbas Siddiqui factor

In the rest of West Bengal, one factor that plays a crucial role in BJP’s march to victory is the division of Muslim votes between TMC, the CPIM, Congress and Abbas Siddiqui alliance and in some limited areas, AIMIM. However, in Nandigram, the Abbas Siddiqui factor on its own plays no role whatsoever. Therefore, the Muslim vote is unlikely to get divided.

If the Muslim vote then goes en masse to TMC without any substantial division, except some that may go to CPIM, a huge chunk of the vote that was going to Suvendu Adhikari earlier when he was with TMC, stays with TMC and does not float to BJP in 2021.

This would translate to advantage Mamata.

The division in Hindu votes

While the Muslim vote in Nandigram has been polarised towards TMC, there is no such polarisation of the Hindu vote towards BJP. Suvendu Adhikari, while exceptionally popular in Nandigram, will be unable to consolidate the entire 66% in his favour. In fact, the Hindu vote will see a slight split since there is still a chunk that would stick to voting for TMC and Mamata Banerjee despite Adhikari working on the ground since 2007.

One has to realise that in Bengal, often party loyalties are formed over generations, with someone’s father, grandfather working for a particular party throughout their lives. For example, the boy who testified earlier in this article about Mamata Banerjee getting hurt accidentally, was a CPIM voter. When asked why, he said, “My grandfather, father, all have been CPIM voters”.

In 2016, CPI’s Abdul Kabir Sekh won 27% of the votes and that percentage was not limited to the Muslim population. In Nandigram at least, CPIM is not a spent force and the traditional electorate of the CPIM will still vote for their preferred party.

While Suvendu Adhikari is sure to cut into the CPIM vote bank, it remains to be seen if a substantial migration of the CPIM vote share goes to either TMC or BJP.

BJP: What it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong and what it needs to do

Suvendu Adhikari is a stalwart in Nandigram and there is no debate there. While it was indeed Mamata Banerjee who was catapulted to power in 2011 as a result of the Nandigram movement, it was Suvendu Adhikari who worked on the ground. However, the dynamics are different this time around and that feeling is palpable on the ground. It is not as simple as voting in favour of everything Suvendu dada did for the people of Nandigram.

The voices in favour of Suvendu ‘dada’ are there and are strong. BJP indeed did snatch the prospect of victory from the jaws of a definite defeat in Nandigram with the induction of Adhikari.

The voter here specifically and categorically says that Mamata Banerjee comes to Nandigram only once a year, but Suvendu dada is there with them throughout the year and tends to their needs. He believes that Suvendu Adhikari will win decisively. He was not the only voter who harboured this sentiment. Several voters, off the record, told OpIndia that while they might not be vocal, they will vote for Suvendu Adhikari for the year long work he does for Nandigram. Others, silently hinted at voting for ‘Poriborton’ while not explicitly talking about voting for BJP.

Therefore, it is evident that BJP has the foundation that they can use to build their presence. Where it is falling short then? Other than the Muslim vote consolidation and the Hindu vote splitting three-way between TMC, BJP and CPIM, what is it that BJP can do to get an edge that Mamata currently has?

Firstly, BJP needs to realise, unequivocally, that in Nandigram it is not a wave election. There is no massive wave in favour of either Suvendu Adhikari or Mamata Banerjee. As of now, the voter base is almost split in the middle with Mamata having the slight edge.

Once it is established that there is no wave in favour of Suvendu, one needs to understand which intersection of voter can swing towards BJP, who might be currently voting for TMC.

It is true that Suvendu has worked on the ground and that development is visible. Till Suvendu took over the reigns of Nandigram, the 130 villages in the constituency hardly had pakka roads. Trudging through the kaccha roads, the largely agrarian society had little to no development. Now, there are pakka roads even in the furthermost parts of the constituency. When OpIndia travelled through the constituency, there was almost no area where there was no road for a car to travel through. That, in Nandigram’s book, is development. For a region that was marred with violence only over a decade ago, the constituency has come a long way and the credit of it mainly goes to Adhikari.

However, if one talks about the traditional voters of TMC in Nandigram, one has to also analyse how many of them credit this development to Suvendu Adhikari and how many credit it to TMC. Several voters OpIndia spoke to believed that it was under Mamata Banerjee’s leadership that Suvendu Adhikari had worked for the people. For this section, Mamata is still the face of the Nandigram movement and of the development that has accrued to the area. For another section, Adhikari’s departure from TMC is a betrayal that they will not forgive. For yet another, this election is also a battle between their own loyalties – this is the section that is a traditional TMC voter but also has their loyalty towards Suvendu Adhikari.

It is this section that BJP needs to cater to and perhaps communicate to them why they need to repose their faith in Adhikari and not TMC as a party or even Mamata as a leader, who by all accounts, seldom visits Nandigram.

If BJP wishes to gain the edge that Mamata has currently, the section that is torn, the section that feels betrayed and that which credits Mamata for the development of Nandigram needs to be spoken to.

Perhaps where BJP is going severely wrong also is their reliance on large political rallies. While the large rallies consolidates the voter base that will vote for the party anyway, what it fails to do is convince those who are sitting on the fence about voting for Suvendu.

The remedy to that is Suvendu Adhikari himself doing small nukkad sabhas where he addresses a small group of people at a time, talking to them about his role in the upliftment of Nandigram. With his clout in the area and the years of work he has put in, Suvendu will now need to convince people that he worked for the people because of his connect with the region, not because he was asked to work for the area by the party. He will also need to re-emphasise his role in the Nandigram movement and how, Mamata Banerjee, after accruing political benefit from the Nandigram movement, failed to visit the area and work for the people as much as Suvendu Adhikari.

Beyond that, the party itself will need to reach the people of the area even when Suvendu Adhikari is not holding a rally or a nukkad sabha in the area.

For example, while we walked around in Nandigram, talking to just about anyone we could, in two separate places TMC was holding a small rally with local workers. They were chanting slogans, waving the TMC flag and talking to locals. Mamata Banerjee was clearly not there but the party itself was active even on a Monday afternoon. During our entire stay there, however, we did not see even one such village rally by BJP.

The risk of miscalculation – Political parties claiming villages

In West Bengal, a unique characteristic in rural areas is that of political parties ‘claiming villages’. Essentially, every village in an area is ‘claimed’ by a political party. So if a village is ‘claimed’ by TMC, if one goes into that village to report, one would end up believing that there is a massive TMC wave in the constituency since every member of that village would unequivocally say that they would vote for TMC. However, if one would go to a nearby village which is, for example, ‘claimed’ by BJP, one would believe that nothing could defeat BJP in the constituency.

To give the readers a bit of perspective, Nandigram itself has about 130 such villages, each claimed by a political party.

For a journalist or a pollster, more so for a pollster, it is almost impossible to take a survey of all those 130 villages and make an educated guess about which way the constituency would vote. Further, many in such villages chime in and confidently claim to vote for the party that has claimed their village because the fear of backlash is rather severe. They often face persecution, social stigma and violence if they dare to go against the village sentiment. Therefore, even if one does take a survey of all 130 villages, it is impossible to predict which party one would vote for when they finally reach the ballot.

In Bengal specifically, the silent voter base is rather massive and that phenomenon was also prevalent in Nandigram. Many simply refused to talk and hundreds chose to talk off the camera. Even while talking off the camera, most only dropped hints about their political preference instead of outright claiming to vote for one party or the other.

It is therefore important to bear in mind that any prediction about Nandigram is only an educated guess and as far as educated guesses go, the constituency today is split in the middle between TMC and BJP with Mamata Banerjee having a hair’s edge over Suvendu Adhikari. While the impact of the silent voter can never be discounted in Nandigram, if BJP wishes to win Nandigram, it will have to come out of its obsession with large rallies and start talking to people – village by village.

 

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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