Suvendu Adhikari interview: “Our manifesto will be our trump-card”

28th January 2021

28th January 2021

West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress is now calling Suvendu Adhikari—once TMC’s biggest amigo—a dangerous desperado because of his defection to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2020.

“Good riddance,” claimed TMC supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at a recent rally in Kolkata. Adhikari retorted that Banerjee should get a letter pad ready with the words “former CM” written on it.

It is an all-out war between the two, Bengal’s biggest fight for prestige.

In front of TMC’s huge propaganda machine, the five feet few inches Adhikari knows he has a herculean task to convince people in his constituencies. He knows people in Midnapur would routinely say Adhikari is Midnapur and Midnapur is Adhikari but this time it could be a tough battle because the engine backing him all along is now on a reverse gear.

Adhikari is like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the bell ringer who dreams of seeing life outside the bell tower. Like the fabled character, Adhikari has to let people judge for themselves who is good, and who is bad in this assembly election. It is a tough call.

In an interview, Adhikari said he is not worried about the jibes from the TMC leader and a decade-plus life with the party he left behind. He said there’s something to live for in the saffron brigade.

He said in a telephonic interview that he was genuinely tired of feeling numb about the TMC politics in Bengal because he was totally sidelined during the last two years. He had even explored the possibility of starting a fresh political party but was advised against it by his confidants. “And then I had this offer from the BJP, I haven't felt this excited in years.”

Adhikari, whose family of three politician brothers work in cohesion like three musketeers and rule with a strong grip on Midnapur West and South districts and also in districts like Birbhum and Murshidabad, knows his terrain like children’s knowledge of marbles. Adhikari knows politics in Bengal is laced with menace and full of doom because the ruling TMC rarely allows the opposition a coherent platform. If you are an opposition candidate in Bengal, it is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, it is even tough to field opposition candidates in an election in the state.

His friends say Adhikari is capable of withstanding the TMC backlash, especially because he has always been an insider, something which the BJP wants to explore in the forthcoming assembly polls. “He is capable of seeking mass support, he has been at it for long but it will be a very vicious fight between him and Banerjee,” says political analyst and corporate tracker Sandip Ghose.

Adhikari said he has thrown off the shackles of TMC and has tasted freedom with the BJP, the saffron brigade hoping Adhikari will swing the fortunes in the districts where he has had a hold for over a decade. “I am meeting people every day by visiting their homes, offices and shops and telling them to stand with me and not fear the TMC hoodlums. Everyone knows me as a tireless worker.”

“Our Manifesto will be the trump-card”

Adhikari knows a politician swapping ideological partners has public consequences. But he also believes that the Indian political system is now getting shaped around voting not for individuals but for party manifestos.

“We haven’t even announced the manifesto but our manifesto will be our trump-card, a mechanism by which voters can be sure what they are getting from the party. Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011 when her party was a part of the UPA. And then she dumped the coalition. Once she was a part of the BJP-led NDA. Then she left NDA also. Now she is in isolation, lacking ideas. She is in a state of panic.

In Kolkata, not a day passes without the TMC attacking Suvendu. He is on top of TMC’s anti-BJP crusade, probably higher than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At a rally on January 24, 2020, Abhishek Banerjee, TMC MP and Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, said he had warned the CM about Suvendu way back in 2016 after the Narada Sting operation triggered breaking headlines.

“I had told the CM that those who had spoilt the party’s image must be sent to the barracks and turned into backbenchers in the party. Look at Suvendu, he is now showing his true colours.” The Narada sting, conducted by journalist Mathew Samuel who once worked with Tehelka, had recorded a host of TMC politicians taking cash from Samuel.

Politicians who were seen in the sting camera footage include Subrata Mukherjee, Saugata Roy, Firhad Hakim, Madan Mitra, Prasun Banerjee, Aparupa Poddar, Suvendu Adhikari, and top cop SMH Mirza, the last named still in judicial custody. But the sting could not dent TMC’s poll prospects, the party won 211 seats to retain power in the state for the second time.

Adhikari is unfazed. He said politics runs in his blood, in his family. His father Sisir Adhikari is a Lok Sabha MP from Contai, a sleepy town that many claim is the gateway to Bengal’s popular sea resort of Digha.

Sisir Adhikari, who was the chairman of Contai Municipality for over a quarter of a century, was groomed in politics by veteran Congress leader Atulya Ghosh. Once Suvendu joined BJP, Sisir Adhikari was removed as district chief, East Midnapore and Digha Sankarpur Development Authority. Suvendu’s brother Dibyendu is a Lok Sabha MP from Tamluk, a town known for its high betel leaf exports.

Another brother Soumendu was—until recently— chairman of the board of administrators of the Contai Municipality in East Midnapur. His sudden removal from the coveted post came right after Suvendu joined BJP. It was rumoured that the move was pushed by the TMC top brass (read Mamata Banerjee).

“The time has come in Bengal for Paribortoner Poriborton (which translates into a change of the change),” said Adhikari.

For the record, Poriborton was the slogan that helped the TMC defeat the Left Front and end its three decade-plus rule.

“She has destroyed the state in the name of development, her anti-Centre attitude is not helping West Bengal and her programmes have really not taken off. Worse, we are only hearing about Kolkata because other towns and cities in this state have not developed. Painting towns and cities with blue and yellow do not improve its economy. The big corporations are extremely wary of investing in India. Bengal is the only state that has officially admitted it has a Cut Money culture,” said Adhikari.

Adhikari said Bengal’s “restless millennials” are leaving the state for better opportunities, the state is no longer a trailblazer. At a recent event to commemorate the birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose, someone told PM Narendra Modi that there were many intellectuals in the crowd. “Everyone is an intellectual in Bengal,” quipped Modi.

In an open letter addressed to the grassroots members of the Trinamool Congress, Adhikari said West Bengal is standing at a critical juncture as the people of the state are destined to make a choice in the 2021 Assembly elections that will impact them forever. “An extremely deep rot and malaise" has set into the Trinamool Congress. Neither West Bengal nor the Trinamool Congress is anyone's fiefdom.”

Adhikari knows he will have to defeat Banerjee from Nandigram, one of the two epicentres of TMC’s anti-land acquisition movements in West Bengal, the other being Singur that helped TMC win the 2011 assembly elections. Banerjee has already announced that she will contest from Nandigram, a move many felt could impact Adhikari’s prospects.

The Factor Called Nandigram

Nandigram had hit the headlines in 2007 when 14 villagers were killed in police firing. The villagers were protesting against the then Left Front government’s proposed acquisition for a chemical hub of Indonesia’s Salim Group at Nandigram.

Interestingly, the Nandigram violence also gave birth to TMC’s Maa, Mati, Manush (Mother, Motherland, People) slogan that was used by the party in its election campaigns.

Adhikari’s supporters say Banerjee’s popularity is on the wane. She was a seven-time MP when she came to power in the state. She did not contest the 2011 assembly polls. In a by-poll later, she won the assembly seat by over 50,000 votes.

But in 2016, her victory margin was just 25,000 votes. Worse, she lost nearly 30 percent of her voter base. Her immediate rival, Deepa Dasmunshi, who polled 40,219 compared to Banerjee’s 65,520, gained almost 30 percent extra votes.

Five years ago, the results showed that Banerjee’s grip on her home turf was loosening. But a total lack of opposition helped her regain her invincible image. And now she has added Nandigram to her list of Kurukshetras.

Adhikari said he knows Banerjee is trying to seek back her image of a pro-farmer leader. And he knows he has a tough job on hand. He also knows Banerjee is trying hard to use the current farmer protests in India to hoist herself as an upright woman on the burning deck, almost like the Joan of Arc for farmers of Bengal. Banerjee has not lost an election in Bengal since 1989.

It is for Adhikari, the Nandigram legislator, to walk the extra mile. Adhikari is confident that his father and his brothers will help him push the saffron wave across East and West Midnapur, and other districts where Adhikari has a tremendous hold.

And there is violence which needs to be controlled. Political cognoscenti in Bengal say highly volatile Midnapur could see more clashes in the coming days, said Adhikari. A report by the National Crime Record Bureau (NRCB) released in September 2020 said TMC-ruled Bengal reported the maximum number of political murders in the country. The 2018 data for West Bengal, the NCRB said, has been repeated in its latest 2019 report because of unavailability of data from West Bengal in time for 2019.

Political analyst Biswanath Chakroborty says any high-profile candidate fighting elections in Bengal should be aware of political violence and its consequences in the state. “Nandigram could see increased violence because it has suddenly got the CM as a candidate. It is like a showdown, a tough battle.” Chakroborty said violence has often been used by the ruling party in Bengal during the campaigning period to dominate and control areas with active support from local administration and police.

Adhikari has committed himself to defeat Banerjee by at least 50,000 votes on his turf in Nandigram. “I will keep my word, bhogoban aachen, dekchen (which translates as Gods are there to oversee my work). She cannot say she has done everything.”

Adhikari’s supporters are telling people that Banerjee hardly did anything significant for East Midnapore. Banerjee has talked about the oil and gas project in Ashoknagar in North 24 Parganas boosting fortunes of Haldia Refinery but the project is actually a baby of Indian Oil and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (ONGC).

Adhikari’s men have also told voters in Midnapore that Banerjee’s Tajpur Deep Seaport project is actually in limbo because the state does not have Rs 20,000 crore required for the same. They have also highlighted how Banerjee’s model of conflict politics was blocking grants from the Centre.

Obscure Nandigram with 70 percent Hindu and 30 percent Muslim population is now on the razor’s edge. The district could make the biggest news when Bengal goes to polls this summer. The fight between Didi and Dada, slowly but steadily, is assuming huge significance.

(This is a reprint from MoneyControl). 

Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets.  He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.


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