Updated: March 31, 2021 7:11:54 am
Road shows, public meetings, fiery speeches Tuesday in Nandigram, from where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is seeking a third term in office, marked the end of the high-octane campaign by the ruling TMC and rival BJP for the second phase of Assembly elections in West Bengal.
The two parties, led on the ground by Banerjee and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, went all out Tuesday, firming battlelines for the vote Thursday.
Around 1.30 pm, following a 2.5-km road show in Nandigram for BJP candidate Suvendu Adhikari, Shah, on his way to a Shiva temple in Reyapara, stopped to buy cucumbers. As security personnel tried to push back the crowds, Shah walked up to Parulbala Mal’s shop and sought the octogenarian’s blessings before accepting the cucumbers.
That spot is barely 500 metres from the two-storeyed house that Banerjee has rented for her stay in Nandigram.
Shortly after 5 pm, the Chief Minister, after addressing her last Phase 2 public meeting in Bhekutia, about 10 km from Reyapara, rose from her wheelchair and stood on one leg — her other leg has a plaster cast following injuries after a fall in Nandigram — to sing the national anthem.
For her, and the BJP, the battle for Nandigram is a prestige fight. Because it was the 2007 agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram that catapulted Banerjee to the centrestage of politics in West Bengal, paving the way for the TMC’s victory in the 2011 Assembly polls that ended 34 years of Left Front rule.
Addressing a press conference after the road show, Shah exuded confidence: “I have spoken to the local leaders. Seeing the enthusiasm of the people of Nandigram, I am confident that Suvendu Adhikari will win by a huge margin… There is a mood to bring about poriborton (change) in Bengal. And an easy way to do this is to defeat Mamata Banerjee by a big margin. One needs to have a huge margin so that no political leader dares to undermine people’s aspirations.”
Targeting the Chief Minister, Shah said she had failed to keep women safe. “The aged mother of one of our party workers was beaten to death. Within 5 km of Mamata Banerjee’s residence (in Nandigram), there has been a rape case. And Mamata Banerjee talks about women security. People of Bengal are aware of this contradiction,” he said.
Why the stakes are high
For Banerjee, and the BJP, the battle for Nandigram is a prestige fight. This was the place where she led an agitation against land acquisition in 2007, and it catapulted her to the centrestage of state politics.
Led by a band of bagpipers and drummers, the BJP road show set out to chants of “Dole dole Nandigram, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram,” and “Krishna Krishna hare hare, BJP ghare ghare”. Party workers and supporters, positioned on terraces, showered rose petals on Shah and Adhikari as they led the road show. Huge cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah were seen all along the route.
Waiting by the roadside to catch a glimpse of Shah, Tapan Maity, a 32-year-old from Simulbari village in the adjoining Chandipur Assembly constituency which also votes on April 1, said: “I work in Gujarat as a mechanic and earn Rs 28,000 a month. During the lockdown, the state government did nothing to bring me back or help me. That is why I decided to join the BJP.”
Meanwhile, Banerjee, who held rallies in Sonachura Bazar and Basuli Chowk area earlier in the day, held her last public meeting in Bhekutia.
Local residents, donning blue caps with ‘Bangla nijer meyeke chai’ (Bengal wants her daughter) badges and her photo, queued to listen to the Chief Minister.
“We had planned the rally at Tengua crossing (about a kilometre from the site where the rally was finally held) but the BJP forcefully grabbed the spot. They are now trying to stop our supporters from reaching this venue. A few BJP workers tried to stop my car too… They surrounded my car… and started chanting. Why can’t they say ‘Jai Siya Ram’? They are anti-women. I kept my cool and said to myself, ‘Thanda thanda cool cool, vote for Trinamool’,” Banerjee said.
“Khela Hobe?” she asked and this drew cheers from the crowd. “We will play. We will play from the morning. We will not bow down. We will fight every inch. Let us go and fight this battle. I ask the sisters and mothers to cook tonight. No need to cook tomorrow,” she said.
“I have been targeted and was injured many times. I have sustained injuries on my entire body. Outsiders plotted against me and I got injured in Nandigram. Since 8th I have been campaigning and I will go on campaigning for a month. I cannot stop,” she said.
“I could have contested from any seat but I chose Nandigram since I saw the people’s enthusiasm here. During the Nandigram agitation, I hit the streets, they (Suvendu and his father Sisir Adhikari) did not. Ask the people who were present then. I am here to stay. My credibility is my commitment. I may die, but I will always keep my word,” she said.
She also clarified on her phone conversation with local BJP leader Pralay Pal, seeking his help for her campaign. “I was told that some people wanted to talk to me. As a candidate, I can call anyone and appeal. I told him to be well and healthy. I will make many such calls. If a person records any such call and makes it viral, it is a criminal offence. That person should be punished,” she said.
About 5 km away in Haripur, a crowd of villagers waited around a makeshift helipad to catch a glimpse of veteran actor Mithun Chakraborty who joined the BJP recently. Adhikari and Chakraborty also had a roadshow, drawing huge crowds along the way.
As OB vans and police vehicles left Nandigram to mark the end of the campaign, Shankar Barui, a 52-year-old from Thakur Chowk, summed it up: “It is not about a party. It is a prestige war that we are seeing in Nandigram. I hope it will be peaceful on polling day.”
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