The agrarian backwaters of Nandigram in East Midnapore district has become the centre of the high octane battle for West Bengal this time but its once uncrowned king is missing from action.
Laxman Chandra Seth, believed by the vast population of the area to have been the villain of the historic anti-farmland acquisition movement in 2007, is away from the cacophony of the high decibel poll campaign.
He has confined himself at Haldia, where his son lives, away from the heat and dust of the election campaign as the communally cleaved Nandigram awaits the clash of the Titans of Bengal politics -- Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her erstwhile protege and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Suvendu Adhikari.
"I call it (the poll battle between Banerjee and Adhikari) poetic justice. The two built their political careers by misleading the innocent people of Nandigram. Now their lies are back to haunt them," the 74-year-old Seth said.
"Although I am still a member of the Congress, I am far away from politics," he said.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist, to which Seth belonged, expelled him in 2014 and he had quit BJP, the party he had joined after two years. He is now in Congress and his failed attempt to make
it to the Parliament on the grand old party's ticket from Tamluk, which he had earlier represented thrice, in 2019 has perhaps pushed him to the backfoot. He had even forefeited his deposit.
The movement at Nandigram had played a definitive role in the political history of Bengal as it saw the rise of fire brand anti-Marxist leader Mamata Banerjee, who emerged as a giant slayer by defeating the powerful Left Front which had ruled for 34-long years.
Adhikari had emerged as the most powerful political leader of the area and a tall leader of the Trinamool
"They used a false notion to create panic and milk political dividends. They destroyed our political careers. Now life has come full circle and they are fighting against each other. This is life and politics. Life always comes a full circle," Seth philosophises.
Many people still feel that violent movement would not have taken place in 2007 and Nandigram would never have made it to the history of Bengal's volatile politics had Seth not been there.
Such was his clout during his heydays in politics that opponents used to say that even "leaves could not move without Seth's permission". A video of his heated telephonic conversation with then CRPF DIG Alok Raj during the 2008 Panchayat polls, which went viral, was a reflection of his iron fisted control over the area.
"My opponents call me Harmad. Some call me a villain. But I was just interested in my party workers and in the benefit of the locals," he said.
Harmad is a distorted version of the word Armada in Bengali to mean a goon.
Since the early ’80s, Seth was one of the most important leaders of the CPI-M in the East Midnapore district, particularly in the Haldia area. Starting as a local level CPI-M activist in the late ’70s, his rise in the party ranks was meteoric.
He was first elected as CPI-M MLA in 1982 and continued to be so till he won the Tamluk Lok Sabha seat in 1998. He had defeated Adhikari in the seat in 2004.
When the political tide turned Adhikari defeated him in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.
"Seth was considered even more powerful than CPI-M itself in Haldia-Nandigram. He used to call the shots and the party's leaders in Kolkata did not dare oppose him," a local CPI-M leader said.
But the situation changed sharply in 2007 after protests began over a notice at a panchayat office about
acquisition of 10,000 acres for an SEZ for setting up a chemical hub. It is said Seth had asked the local panchayat to come up with the notification.
The villages in and around Nandigram got polarised on political lines. The violence on March 14 that year in which 14 protesters were shot dead by the police spelt the doom for the Left.
Though the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government decided to call off the project, the damage was done. Many in CPI-M and the government believed it was due to Seth's high handedness and arrogance that things went out of hand.
"Whatever I did was for my party and comrades who were rendered homeless by Suvendu and the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee. What could I have done? The firing by the police was a decision of the administration.
"But everyone wanted a villain and a Harmad to blame. I was made the scapegoat by CPI-M," Seth said.
After the TMC came to power several cases were slapped against him and he was hounded out of the district. He was later arrested. In 2014 he was expelled from the party after he spoke out against the leadership.
When asked whether he misses the election heat of Nandigram, which is back in the national limelight after a decade, Seth is candid. "At times, I do. If Congress asks me to campaign for the Mahajot alliance candidate, I will go to Nandigram.
"Or else I will sit at home. I no longer have any interest in politics," he said.
Congress has forged an alliance 'Mahajot' with the Left and ISF of Furfura peer Abbas Siddique.
Seth feels that Banerjee has the edge over Adhikari at Nandigram, which goes to the poll on April 1.
"Whether we accept or not it was Mamata Banerjee who had single-handedly defeated the Left Front and a two-time chief minister (Bhattacharjee). She is a proven mass leader. Suvendu Adhikari doesn't have the calibre of a mass leader. And the people of Nandigram don't like turncoats," he said.
He is obviously hinting at the change of allegiance by Adhikari.
"The kind of terror Suvendu and his men has unleashed in Nandigram in the last 10 years - he will get a befitting reply for it in this election," Seth said.
He, however, had a word of advice for his present party, the Congress and his former party CPI-M as he feels the rise of BJP in the politically polarised state is due to their inability to counter the TMC.
"Both parties failed to become a credible opposition. That is why the BJP has gained momentum in Bengal," he said.
Speaking on the communal divide in Nandigram, Seth said he had never allowed identity politics in the area and feels sad that communalism had gained ground there.
To a question on whether he missed his heydays, Seth said "Past is past; I don't want to talk about it".
Seth's name evidently evokes adverse feelings in both TMC and BJP.
Sheikh Sufiyan, senior TMC leader of Nandigram, said "Seth was one of brains behind the torture that was unleashed on the people of Nandigram and they will never forgive him".
Adhikari's close aide Kaniska Panda said "A man who destroyed a number of families in Nandigram has no right to certify who is a mass leader".