11 Years on, Poverty-Stricken Nandigram No More Mamata’s Priority
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Eleven years ago, on this day, 14 March, when 14 farmers were killed in police firing in East Midnapore’s Nandigram, the politics of West Bengal, by then in the loosening grip of the CPI(M)-led Left Front regime, was set to change forever.
Coupled with its penchant and support for violent ways, not just in Nandigram but also Singur in Hooghly district, the Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee had found its political raison d’etre.
From here on, she and her party would become a virtually unstoppable force in a moribund state, crying for industrialisation and employment generation, especially in the rural hinterland where agriculture still held sway, but was becoming increasingly non-viable as a means of economic livelihood.
A Shadow of the Past
Today, Nandigram continues to remain a rural backwater in East Midnapore’s Haldia sub-division, which years ago was showcased by the Left Front, as an island that promised economic growth marked by the CPI(M)-led government’s belated decision to expand the special economic zone (SEZ) in the coastal belt.
The TMC’s opposition to the Left Front government’s land acquisition programme in Singur and Nandigram had catapulted Mamata.
Yet today, into her second term as chief minister, Mamata and her party make symbolic gestures of salutations to the men who lost their lives in Nandigram on 14 March 2007.
Local party leaders such as Nandigram MLA Subhendu Adhikari go through the motions of social programmes that honour the “valour” of the “martyrs”, but not much else.
The chief minister has visited sundry countries in the West and Southeast Asia to “invite” investors to her state. These foreign visitations have not been marked with any success. Her government has, from time to time, promised that land could be given to Indian and foreign industrialists from a “land bank” in other parts of the state. Nandigram and Singur would remain no-go zones, for these remain “sacred” to the TMC’s politics.
Bengal’s Priorities Have Changed — Countering BJP is No 1
But Nandigram and Singur, and the TMC’s politics over these two places separated by a distance of 145 km, also represent a problem for Mamata. Political observers in Kolkata opine that while Mamata realises the dire need of industrialisation in Bengal, she knows too, that throwing open Nandigram and Singur to potential investors could spell political doom.
It would be akin to losing a large and decisive vote bank.
Mamata is now caught in a cleft stick: Nandigram and other parts of Haldia would be ideal for SEZs, but allowing investors there would entail a huge political cost at a time when she is having to deal with the BJP’s aggressive politics in a state where “symbolic Hindutva” rhetoric and anti-minority posturings have just about begun to take roots.
With the leftist parties in terminal decline and the Congress relegated to a small corner in two or three districts in North Bengal, Mamata’s battle lines are drawn. The BJP is the new threat that her party, mired in allegations of financial scandals that have sprung from allegations that individual party leaders, benefited from the Sarada and Rose Valley chit fund scams, is having to contend with.
More importantly, in the face of the BJP’s politics that brands the TMC as a party that is ‘soft’ towards the Muslims (who constitute about 28 percent of the population in West Bengal), Mamata has been busy, not only consolidating the minority vote, but has also made subtle overtures to sections of caste Hindus who, she fears, could easily come under the BJP’s spell.
Mamata’s Advantage in the Region
As part of its larger political strategy, the West Bengal BJP has also been harping about the TMC government’s inability to usher in economic development. So far, the BJP has not unveiled an alternative plan to economically rejuvenate Bengal, and has shied away from attacking Mamata’s government by not referring to Nandigram which has a sizeable Muslim population.
On the other hand, Mamata’s advantage in the region is two-fold: While most of the farmers who lent their support to the TMC in the aftermath of the police firing have, so far, stood solidly behind her party, a bulk of them also are Muslims who, in the face of the BJP’s Hindutva politics, would continue to solidly back the ruling dispensation.
In the 2016 assembly elections, the TMC captured 13 of the 16 seats in East Midnapore, with the rest going to the Left.
One measure of the TMC’s political clout in the district is that party nominee Subhendu Adhikari, who had led the Nandigram movement, won by a huge margin, despite being under a cloud of suspicion for his alleged involvement in the Saradha chit fund scam and subsequently in a bribery allegation allegedly exposed by the Narada sting.
Today, Adhikari is under Mamata’s instructions to lie low, but he continues to be an asset for the TMC at a time when others, such as Mukul Roy, have abandoned the party and gone over to the BJP.