Suvendu Adhikari | The giant-killer of Nandigram

Mamata’s aide-turned-rival faces a tall task in winning over the State for the BJP

Updated - May 09, 2021 03:09 pm IST

Published - May 08, 2021 10:09 pm IST

What did I not do for him?” At her rallies in Nandigram, after Mamata Banerjee took up the challenge to contest the West Bengal Assembly election from there instead of her home seat of Bhabanipur against her party man-turned-rival Suvendu Adhikari, she often listed the largesse showered on him, both ministerial and others. She called Mr. Adhikari a ‘gaddar’ and Mir Jafar (traitor)’ as the crowd cheered her on. Taking the fight to her former aide in his bastion, she urged the people to come out and vote without fear for the ‘bhoomi kanya’ (daughter of the soil).

The turnout was high — a little over 80% — amid bouts of violence, and Mr. Adhikari romped home by a tiny margin of 1,956 votes, but Ms. Banerjee led her party to a massive win for a third term in the State: the Trinamool Congress won a record 213 seats, garnering a 47.9% vote share compared to the BJP’s 77 seats (38.1% vote share). During the campaign, the 50-year-old Mr. Adhikari was accused of playing the polarisation card. He called Ms. Banerjee ‘Begum’ and an ‘outsider’, which the Trinamool chief fiercely rebutted.

Till Mr. Adhikari switched to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last December, he was a powerful leader in the Trinamool. This was evident in the responsibility and power thrust on him by the Chief Minister. After he won from Nandigram in 2016, he held the portfolios of irrigation, environment and transport, headed the Haldia Development Authority, was part of the seven-member apex steering committee of the State, was a general secretary of the party, and was also asked to take charge of Murshidabad district, besides his home turf of Medinipur.

After Trinamool co-founder Mukul Roy left the party in 2017, Mr. Adhikari emerged one of the most influential Ministers.

With the elevation of Abhishek Banerjee, Diamond Harbour MP and nephew of Ms. Banerjee, in the party, there were whispers that the Adhikaris were miffed.

The Adhikari family was key to the Trinamool’s rise, post the 2007 land agitation in Nandigram, which Mr. Suvendu Adhikari led from the front. The Nandigram and Singur movements spelt doom for the Left Front government, which was dislodged by Ms. Banerjee in 2011 after a 34-year run.

In the 1990s, the Adhikaris were aligned with the Congress. When Ms. Banerjee broke away from the Congress in 1998 to form the Trinamool, the Adhikaris joined her. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Suvendhu Adhikari trounced CPI(M) heavyweight Lakshman Seth in Tamluk by a huge margin. Ms. Banerjee leant on the Adhikaris to look after the two Medinipurs (East and West) and Jhargram in Jungalmahal, which account for more than 30 seats in the 294-seat Assembly.

Parting with the party

By November last year, it was clear Mr. Adhikari was firm on switching loyalties. He stayed away from meetings before stepping down, and even a last-ditch effort by Trinamool leader Saugata Roy to stop him from leaving the party failed. He joined the BJP in December.

The BJP exulted at the move and pinned its hopes on leaders like Mr. Adhikari to win Bengal. His father, Sisir Adhikari, a Trinamool MP, and one of his brothers Soumendu Adhikari, then Contai Municipality administrator, also joined the BJP. Mr. Suvendu Adhikari may have narrowly clung on to Nandigram, but the BJP has not fared well in Medinipur and adjoining districts.

Some in the Trinamool, like Kolkata Municipal Corporation chairman Firhad Hakim, openly said he was happy Mr. Adhikari had quit the party. His name had come up in the chit fund scam and also in the Narada sting before the 2016 election that showed several party leaders accepting bribes. In Nandigram, people were confused — should they punish Mr. Adhikari for corruption at the local level or the Trinamool, of which he was a part? “He had nurtured Nandigram well at the behest of Didi, but now he is playing communal politics,” several women in his constituency said.

Mr. Adhikari, said to have chief ministerial ambitions, will be an important face of the Opposition BJP in the Assembly. His task is cut out. He may have defeated Ms. Banerjee in Nandigram but he will have to start afresh to win over the State. He perhaps needs to go back to his early days as Nandigram MLA, when he vowed to represent all, without the polarisation pitch.

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