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Will BJP benefit from Trinamool leader's arrest for Sandeshkhali?

March 14, 2024 10:30 IST

Whether the age-old cry of kendrer banchana will be able to drown out pangs of Sandeshkhali, the EVM will tell.

IMAGE: Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) takes suspended Trinamool Congress (TMC) strongman and Sandeshkhali incident accused Shahjahan Sheikh to Joka ESI Hospital for medical examination after getting his handover from the Crime Investigation Department (CID), in South 24 Parganas, March 7, 2024 Photograph: ANI Photo

Early last Thursday, West Bengal police picked up Sheikh Shahjahan from Minakhan -- about 30 km from Sandeshkhali.

Clad in a white shirt and a checked jacket the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader marched into Basirhat court and was sent to 10 days' police custody after a brief hearing.

As the images flashed on television screens, a section of Sandeshkhali celebrated with sweets and colours, ringing in an early Holi.

It could, well, have brought the curtains down on the nearly two-month protests by a section of the residents. But with the general election looming, the Sandeshkhali pot is expected to continue boiling.

Last Friday, at a rally in Arambagh, in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who kick-started his political campaign in the state with a two-day visit, said that the entire country is sad and angry at what the TMC, which beats the drums of Ma, Mati, Manush has done to the sisters of Sandeshkhali.

"The soul of Raja Ram Mohan Roy would be weeping seeing what has happened in Sandeshkhali."

On March 10, the BJP MLA from Nandigram and Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, drilled down the point at a public gathering in Sandeshkhali.

It's certainly not going to be the last that Mamata Banerjee's party will hear of it, as Sandeskhali and corruption are the two main issues for the Opposition.

TMC strongman

Shahjahan was arrested 54 days after an attack on Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials, who had gone to conduct searches in connection with an alleged ration scam, on January 5.

The party convener of the Sandeshkhali Assembly constituency and member of TMC-held North 24 Parganas zilla parishad had been on the run since.

As Shahjahan fled from the scene, protests by the villagers against land grab, conversion of land into fisheries, and sexual exploitation started to tumble out into the public domain.

It was a rebellion of sorts that saw a major participation from women, causing much embarrassment to the ruling party.

The BJP's Adhikari has drawn a parallel with the land agitation movement in Nandigram. He recently said that in Nandigram, people fought against land acquisition and here people are fighting against land grab.

Déjà vu?

The comparison with Nandigram has irked the TMC. Banerjee said at an event that the land acquisition protests in Singur and Nandigram should not be compared with what happened in Sandeshkhali.

Shashi Panja, West Bengal minister of Women and Child Development, told Business Standard that in Singur or Nandigram, the issue was the forcible acquisition of land by the state government.

"It was a rebellion against the policies of the government. And Didi stepped in for the people."

Here, the state government is not responsible for Sheikh Shahjahan's activities, she pointed out.

"It's for the party to look into it and it (the party) has suspended him."

Panja is also the industry and commerce minister. Rewind to 2006-2007. Nandigram, a rural hamlet in Purba Medinipur, became the symbol of land agitation in the country.

The land acquisition was for a 14,000-acre chemical hub project, which quickly turned into a turf war. In March 2007, a police firing killing 14 people brought things to a head.

In a way, it marked the beginning of the end of the Left rule in West Bengal while TMC's success in thwarting the forcible land acquisition for industry brought it to power in the state.

CPI-M West Bengal Secretary Mohammed Salim said Nandigram and Sandeshkhali cannot be equated. The acquisition of land in Nandigram was for an industrial project but no land was finally acquired.

"Is the land here (Sandeshkhali) being acquired by the state government for any business project?

"No, this is a reversal of land reforms where small land holdings have been forcibly taken."

IMAGE: TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan being brought to Basirhat Court lockup. Photograph: ANI Photo

Political dividend

The TMC is pointing fingers at the Opposition for politicising Sandeshkhali for the sake of electoral benefits and the BJP for giving it a communal colour.

Before Sandeshkhali came to light, it was widely believed that the BJP's performance would take a severe beating from the stellar showing in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when it bagged 18 of 42 seats in the state, snapping at the heels of the TMC, which got 22; the gap in vote share between the two parties was about 3 per cent.

But much water has flowed down the Howrah bridge since then. Banerjee's party delivered a stunning victory in the assembly election of 2021.

But can Sandeshkhali dent the TMC's prospects in the upcoming polls?

Analysts believe that Sandeshkhali is a setback to TMC, which was in an advantageous position with its welfare schemes.

A big strength for the ruling party in South Bengal and all over the state is the votes of Muslims, who form almost 30 per cent of the population.

"The BJP is unlikely to get that vote. But if the vote goes to the Left or the Congress, it would help the BJP a lot," said political analyst Sabysachi Basu Ray Chaudhuri.

Analyst Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that the political outcome of Sandeshkhali in the upcoming elections would have been much bigger if the party in Opposition had both Hindus and Muslims on their side.

"When Singur and Nandigram happened, the challenger was the TMC, a 'secular' party. Therefore, the political dividend from Sandeshkhali will be less than Singur or Nandigram," he said.

Chakraborty added that the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) implementation would be a "big" disaster for the BJP.

Sandeskhali is part of the Basirhat Lok Sabha constituency, which has 46 per cent Muslim population.

But according to the BJP and the CPI-M, Sandeshkhali is not a stray incident; there are many Shahjahans lurking across Bengal and the issue will spread like forest fire.

"The TMC which came to power on the back of land agitation movement is looting land. People are in a mood to remove the TMC," said Samik Bhattacharya, chief spokesperson for the BJP in West Bengal.

The party has set sights on at least 24 seats in Bengal, though many believe that the BJP's leadership in Bengal in 2019 was stronger and the campaign more aggressive.

'Walking the talk'

Immediately after the arrest, the TMC suspended Shahjahan from the party for six years.

While announcing this, Derek O' Brien, AITC Parliamentary Leader in the Rajya Sabha, said there are two types of political parties -- first, they just talk, talk, and talk.

"But, the Trinamool Congress walks the talk," and dared the BJP to do the same with its "tainted" members.

Albeit late in the day, corrective measures are underway -- in Sandeshkhali, the administration is in the process of returning the land that has been grabbed.

Police camps are registering complaints. And prior to Shahjahan's arrest, his aides, Shibu Hazra and Uttam Sardar were arrested.

The ruling party is hoping that Shahjahan's arrest will help defuse the tension.

Whether the age-old cry of kendrer banchana (Centre's exploitation) will be able to drown out pangs of Sandeshkhali, the EVM will tell.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

Ishita Ayan Dutt in Kolkata
Source: source image