Updated: April 1, 2021 8:02:37 am
In March 2007, less than a year after the Left Front swept to power in the West Bengal assembly elections, the ruling CPM regime lost moral authority with the violence unleashed by the police in Nandigram. The movement against the SEZ by local farmers — led in no small part by Mamata Banerjee — became the siege that led to the fall of the red bastion. In the aftermath of the violence in Nandigram, as well as protests over the Tata Nano factory at Singur, Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) had coined the slogan “Ma, Maati, Maanush” and begun the journey to Writer’s Building. The Left Front lost a series of by-elections, culminating in its defeat in the 2011 assembly polls. As the constituency votes today, however, it is Banerjee who is being tested in the Nandigram crucible this time and her opponent is a one-time loyalist. For Banerjee and TMC, while the 2007-08 agitation resulted in an electoral victory, the fundamental questions around the political economy of Bengal it threw up have not been addressed over two terms in power.
The driving force behind the Singur and Nandigram projects — flawed, undemocratic and high-handed as they might have been in their implementation — was the need to create employment and facilitate the return of industry to West Bengal. An empowered and politicised peasantry made that task harder here than elsewhere, and the violent suppression of protests made everything worse. Banerjee’s opposition was articulated in terms of land and identity — a political plank that rode on a fear of change, TMC slogans of poriborton notwithstanding. In office, she was perhaps trapped by her own formulations. While welfare in terms of education subsidies and foodgrains did her first term credit, the original problem — of revitalising industry — remained unresolved. The other promise that the TMC held out was of a new kind of centre-left politics, one in which “the party” did not aim to control all aspects of social and political life. On the ground, however, the TMC kept the CPM structures intact and the local strongmen simply changed sides.
Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP, until recently a TMC loyalist, takes on Banerjee in this election. In Singur, too, Rabindranath Bhattacharya has defected to the BJP. The saffron party has, in a sense, done pre-election what the TMC did after its first victory in 2011 — co-opted the local leaders who control political organisation on the ground. Banerjee’s decision to contest from Nandigram 10 years after she first won the state is obviously meant to evoke the constituency’s recent history, reminding the people of Bengal that this is not the first time she is taking on an ideological behemoth skilled in the art of winning elections. Yet, as much as the BJP, in Nandigram and beyond, she is also fighting the failures and creations of her own party and government — the lack of industry, a politics of strongmen, and of identity.
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