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In Erstwhile Red Belt Jangalmahal, Trinamool Hopes to Put Spanner in Saffron Plans

Chhatradhar Mahato, surrounded by security guards with AK-47 rifles, greets visitors at the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) office in Jhargram. The former Naxal leader was once close to Kishenji, the face of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) who was killed by the forces in 2011. Mahato has come a long way. He is now the key mobiliser of chief minister Mamata Banerjee in the Jangalmahal area as a member of the ruling party’s core state committee.

“Didi (as Banerjee is popularly known as) will win back this area. People are with her and they are sick of the BJP’s false promises. I am not contesting, but I am telling tribal people not to get divided — which is what the BJP wants. The BJP was thrown out of power by the tribals in Jharkhand in 2019 (state elections there),” Mahato tells News18, before stepping out to rally support for his party.

After coming to power in 2011, Banerjee reclaimed the Jangalmahal area from the grip of the Maoists. A decade later, her party is fighting a pitched political battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which made big inroads into this tribal-dominated area in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. That year, the BJP won all four seats in Jangalmahal that comprises Jhargram, West Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura. There are 44 assembly seats across these four districts.

In the run-up to the elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held rallies in the district headquarters of Purulia and Bankura and Kharagpur (West Medinipur). He has targeted Banerjee for allegedly supporting Maoists, which many see as a reference to the likes of Mahato.

Mahato’s political innings with the TMC — he was inducted by Banerjee last year — is being cited by the BJP as an act of desperation. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is re-looking at Mahato’s alleged role in a case lodged against him earlier under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). He faces a battery of other cases. Many see Mahato, the leader of the Lalgarh movement in 2008 who spent over a decade in jail, as a factor behind thin attendance at recent rallies of some BJP leaders in the area.

THE ISSUES

A major reason behind the BJP making inroads into Jangalmahal has been the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s influence on the tribal population here. The BJP is keen to repeat its 2019 showing, and says it will resolve the drinking water problem — the biggest issue in this backward region — through the Centre’s ambitious Har Ghar Jal scheme. The BJP is also citing issues such as rampant corruption in government schemes under the TMC rule and irregularities in allotment of jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

At a rally in Bhelapahari in Jhargram on Monday, Union minister Arjun Munda put emphasis on the BJP’s manifesto promise of Rs 3.72-lakh cash benefit for each girl child from reserved communities. The BJP, in its manifesto, has also promised 200 days of employment under the MGNREGA in all ST (Scheduled Tribes)-dominated blocks.

The TMC, however, is trying hard to find its footing again in this area; it won 37 of the total 44 seats in the 2016 assembly elections (Jhargram was still a part of West Medinipur district back then).

Tribal people were misled by the BJP in 2019, but they now understand the “BJP practises politics of Hindutva” that does not benefit the SC (Scheduled Castes)/ST community, Birbaha Hansda, the TMC’s first-time candidate from Jhargram, says. Hansda, an actor of the Santhli cinema, has made price rise a central point of her campaign to target the BJP government at the Centre.

TMC’s Jhargram candidate and Santhali actor, Birbaha Hansda

THE MODI FACTOR

The BJP, however, points to the massive rally that the PM held in Bankura on Sunday, as well as the one in Purulia earlier, to suggest that the region is firmly with the party. “There were over 3-4 lakh people at Bankura to listen to the PM…The sentiment is clear,” a BJP leader said.

A senior TMC leader, however, countered this argument, saying the PM’s rally in Kharagpur was not up to the mark despite it being the constituency of BJP state president and parliamentarian Dilip Ghosh. “To come to power in Kolkata, the BJP needs to sweep Jangalmahal in Phase 1 (of the eight-phase polling). If that does not happen and the Trinamool wins seats in this region, as we expect to, the road for BJP is difficult…,” the leader said.

In its manifesto, the BJP has made some big promises, such as setting up a Jangalmahal Development Board and ensuring seamless distribution of ST certificates without corruption or discrimination; it has pledged to provide such certificates to newborn ST children within 15 days of issuance of birth certificates.

The BJP has also promised to establish Pandit Raghunath Murmu Tribal University in Jhargram and implement the minimum forest produce (MFP) price for 49 forest produce. It has said it will open an Adivasi Smriti Sangralay in Jhargram to commemorate the contribution of freedom fighter Birsa Munda and other Adivasi icons, and promised to launch a Van Dhan Prashikshan Special scheme to skill the tribal youth for traditional employment activities.

Also, an Eklavya Model Residential School in each block of ST-dominated districts has been promised, along with 50% financial assistance for education and living expenses for ST students who secure admission in big national institutes and professional courses.

The TMC is, however, hoping that the tribal people Jangalmahal will again repose their trust in Mamata Banerjee and that the shift from Red (left-wing politics) to saffron (the BJP’s 2019 showing) is not permanent. If that is the case, the TMC believes, the road to Kolkata will become insurmountable for its challenger.

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