Nandigram (West Bengal): Fourteen years after he led a bloody battle against forcible farmland acquisition, Suvendu Adhikari, the BJP candidate from the prestigious Nandigram seat is fighting the battle for political survival against his past mentor Mamata Banerjee.
The agrarian constituency in Purba Medinipur district that had shaken the very base of the three and half-decade-old Left Front regime in West Bengal and had propelled the TMC to power in 2011, is now divided between its "Didi" (Mamata Banerjee) and "Dada" (Adhikari)".
Adhikari, who has quit TMC and is now fighting on a BJP ticket, said "I have faced many tough challenges in life.
I will succeed this time too. I am never afraid of anyone or of speaking the truth".
More than a political fight, the battle for Nandigram has turned into one of prestige and has assumed the proportions of a personal fight to decide who owns the legacy of the Nandigram movement Banerjee or Adhikari.
"I fought the battle all alone here, facing attacks and threats to my life. Those who are now claiming the legacy of the historic Nandigram movement did nothing except deriving political benefits from it.
"I am fighting for Nandigram, for the people of Bengal," the 50-year-old BJP leader told while on campign trail in Nandigram.
For Adhikari the poll battle in Nandigram has become one for political survival as a defeat will deal a devastating blow and might also put a question mark on his political graph in his new party - the BJP.
On the other hand, a victory would not only establish him as one of the tallest BJP leaders in Bengal but would push him miles ahead of others in the chief ministerial race if the party is voted to power.
He has swiftly changed his image from an inclusive leader of the land acquisition movement to being the mascot of Hindutva, claiming that if he is defeated, TMC will turn Nandigram into "mini Pakistan".
"Mamata Banerjee decided to fight against Suvendu to finish his political career as he had emerged as a challenger of her nephew (Abhijit BAnerjee). She wants to ruin his political career. But we have full faith in the people of Nandigram. Suvendu is a fighter.
"This is a battle is not only for Suvendu's political survival, but of the entire family," said his father Sisir Adhikari, a TMC MP who too had switched over to BJP recently.
Adhikari's younger brother Dibyendu is also a disgruntled TMC MP from Tamluk in the district.
Trained in RSS shakas during his formative years, Adhikari was baptised in students politics in the late 1980s eighties as a member of Chatra Parishad, the Congress student wing.
His first brush with electoral politics came in 1995 when he was elected as a councillor of Contai municipality, which his father headed from 1967 to 2009.
Adhikari was interested in the organisation than in electoral politics. His first major assignment was as an election agent of Nitish Sengupta, the Congress candidate from Kanthi Lok Sabha seat in 1996.
Sengupta had failed to win the seat, but Adhikari made his mark as a key organiser and became the heir apparent of the political legacy of his influential family.
In 1999 Adhikari along with his father switched over to Trinamool Congress barely a year after it was formed.
Therefater he unsuccessfully contested elections twice the 2001 assembly polls and the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. He tasted success in 2006 when he won the Contai assembly seat.
The Nandigram anti-farmland acquisition movement in 2007 changed Bengal's political landscape and catapulted him to the front row of the TMC, giving a new direction to his political career.
Banerjee and Adhikari were heroes of the Nandigram movement. The feisty TMC supremo was its guiding spirit, while he was her general on the ground organising mass protests against a proposed chemical hub.
Adhikari soon became a member of the TMC's core group and was appointed as the youth congress president. In 2009 and 2014, he won the Lok Sabha polls from Tamluk.
Banerjee had stormed to power in the state in 2011, riding on the Singur and Nandigram movements and many in TMC believed that Adhikari, being the most popular mass leader in the party after her, would be the heir apparent.
But as it turned out, she had other plans. The seeds of mistrust between the two leaders were sown on TMC's first annual Martyr's Day rally after coming to power on July 21 in 2011, when Banerjee announced her nephew, Abhishek's entry into the political scene.
Abhishek, then just 24, was named the president of All India Trinamool Yuva an organisation parallel to the TMC Youth Congress, which Adhikari then headed. The decision had left him fuming as the party constitution had no place for two youth wings.
"It was done just to keep me in check. Despite working hard, I was always an employee in TMC and never respected being a co-warrior. Where was nephew when Nandigram was burning? I was there fighting a lone battle," Adhikari said
In 2014, he was removed as the TMC Youth Congress president and replaced by a new inductee from the Congress, Soumitra Khan who is presently a BJP MP.
Within a few months, Khan was replaced by Abhishek, and TMC Yuva was merged with TMC Youth Congress.
"Suvendu had told us that night that a time will come when he might have to chart his course as he felt constantly sidelined," a former TMC youth wing leader said.
Sensing that Adhikari might change sides as he was in talks with the Congress, Banerjee nominated him from Nandigram assembly seat in 2016 seat and inducted him to the state cabinet. She even gave him three portfolios.
Adhikari was also made the TMC observer in Malda and Murshidabad and assigned the task of breaking the Congress in its two strongholds. He was successful and poaching elected representatives of the grand old party.
But Abhishek's meteoric rise in the party and in its decision-making process did not go down well with Adhikari, who nursed the feeling that the party did not give him his due. After its 2019 poll debacle, TMC abolished the observer's post, which many still feel was done to clip his wings.
There were rumours in political circles that Adhikari might be named the state president of TMC at the 2020 Martyr's day virtual rally. But nothing of the sort was done and the disgruntled leader began maintaining a distance with the party.
"Now the aunt, nephew and the advisor (Prashant Kishor) run the party (TMC). But after May 2, we will ensure that TMC is wiped out from the political map of Bengal," the BJP leader said.
Despite the party's efforts to retain him, the talks failed, and Adhikari joined BJP in December 2020.
"They were never serious about the issues I had raised. They were buying time," he said.
According to sources, Adhikari was aware that his bargaining capacity with the BJP and TMC was limited to the state's high voltage assembly election.
"The TMC would have anyway ended his political career after it returned to power even if he had stayed back. They will try to do the same again. But the only difference is Suvenduda won't go down without a fight.
"This time he has BJP by his side. And there can be much better things waiting for him if BJP is voted to power," a leader close to Adhikari said.
His close aides in Nandigram feel that Adhikari, known to be an easy access politician and a grass-root leader had nurtured this area as his political capital for the past 14 years as he believed that a day might come when he would have to walk away from the TMC.
"The people of Nandigram are my family and I have stood by them through thick and thin. This place has never disappointed me. I am confident about my victory and defeating the outsider here," said Adhikari, who is branding himself as the "Bhoomiputra" (son of the soil) and Banerjee as "Bohiragato" (outsider).
The leader who knows Nandigram like the back of his hand and has deep-rooted organisational strength in the area also has the odds stacked against him.
He is pitched against a political heavyweight like the chief minister. Moreover 30 per cent of the constituency's electorate are from the minority section who are unlikely to vote for the saffron party.
"She (Banerjee) is fighting depending on 30 per cent of the population of Nandigram. I am fighting banking on 70 per cent population who are with me," Adhikari said as he hopped from one temple to another in the area peddling the Hindutva campaign.
To repeated questions on chief ministerial ambitions, he declined to comment.
"It for the BJP top brass to decide; my goal is to end the TMC rule," he quipped
(From PTI with minor edits)