Prime Ministers and chief ministers will venture into the rival’s lair to stage rallies but rarely will they contest from such seats where victory isn’t assured. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, fighting a pitched war to cling to power, has decided to do exactly that. Her decision to contest from Nandigram has electrified the Bengal poll scene. And protege-turned-foe Suvendu Adhikari has proven himself a worthy adversary by accepting the challenge on the same day, vowing to win by one and a half lakh votes or quit politics.
Through this gambit, Mamata is hoping to signal her abiding attachment to Nandigram and that she holds close to her the peasant movement that took shape here in 2007-2008 which catapulted Trinamool Congress to power. Adhikari too lays claim to the same sentiment. He was the apparatchik painstakingly organising the TMC cadres in the fight with CPM goons while Mamata was leading from the front and rallying Bengal to the Nandigram cause. With Mamata fighting from Nandigram, both TMC cadres and voters, who could have rooted for Adhikari if not BJP, will now feel torn between their loyalties to the two leaders.
Indian politics has seen its share of high voltage contests but never the chief minister becoming the challenger. In 2013, Arvind Kejriwal pitched himself directly against three-term Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit in the New Delhi constituency and knocked her off the pedestal. Smriti Irani’s duels with Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, finally sending the Gandhi scion packing from his inheritance in 2019, was just as loaded with political symbolism. But Mamata here presents a different mystique, of the general plunging headlong into the heat of battle at its most decisive moment willing everyone else to fight to the finish.
But will Mamata Banerjee contest a second seat? If she does so, preferring to hold on to her sitting Bhabanipur as a safe seat, Adhikari would have won the battle even before the first shot was fired. Mamata’s Nandigram contest would be read as a pragmatic electoral ploy to anchor the critical Purba Medinipur district and surrounding areas of Adhikari influence for the TMC. The emotions she evokes would ring hollow and the stakes could evaporate.
The Mamata story has few parallels in Indian politics: of three decades of dogged struggle to upstage an entrenched ruling establishment followed by unparalleled dominance. The likes of Charan Singh, Karpoori Thakur, Keshubhai Patel, BS Yediyurappa and K Chandrasekhar Rao come close but it is doubtful whether their ascent was as perilous and their dominance as complete as Mamata’s has been.
And yet if Mamata were to fall, will it set the stage for the next political star from Bengal? Can Adhikari turn this importance Mamata has bestowed to his personal and political advantage?
Views expressed above are the author’s own.