West Bengal polls 2021: Half of Jangalmahal votes today

Abhishek Law Kolkata | Updated on March 27, 2021

Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal   -  The Hindu

Jangalmahal has five Parliamentary constituencies – Bankura, Bishnupur, Jhargram, Midnapore and Purulia

Nearly half of Jangalmahal goes to polls on Saturday and West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee – once credited with turning the tide in the tribal heartland and former Maoist hotbeds – is battling anti-incumbency, corruption of party workers at grassroots and a rising presence of the RSS with her brand of identity politics and cash doles.

Jangalmahal – a name derived from British times due to the presence of various jungle estates along the region – covers four districts of the state, namely Bankura, Purulia, Paschim Medinipur and Jhargram; and has five Parliamentary constituencies – Bankura, Bishnupur, Jhargram, Midnapore and Purulia.

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Cash doles apart, the Trinamool is banking on the “acceptability of Mamata Banerjee”, whereas the BJP is battling “candidate disillusionment”.

BJP, on its part, has announced region specific schemes that include taking up supply of drinking water projects (a major problem in the generally arid areas here); eco-tourism circuits, setting up of an AIIMS – due to restricted health-care access of the people, cash doles to counter existing schemes of the Trinamool government and jobs – a long standing demand of the youth who often migrate to other part because of this. Free education for women, tribal schools, teaching in the local language, all form poll pivots of the BJP.

According to Bishwanath Chakraborty, political analyst and commentator, subsequent rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have played some role in BJP emerging stronger there. Moreover, the election manifesto of the party has been specifically drafted keeping in mind micro-details.

“Mamata Banerjee has managed to pull back some ground in Junglemahal after the shocking pushback by the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But she is still battling the issues of corruption and voter discontent,” he told BusinessLine.

Fight for Junglemahal

Like all Maoist hotbeds, poverty and years of neglect of the local tribal populace led to discontent that was quickly channelised. The Left started losing ground as its cadres were “picked and killed by alleged Maoists” in the run-up to 2011 polls. Despite that, the Left managed to win in these areas.

However, the narrative began to change with Banerjee coming to power, “bringing peace” post encounter of Maoist militia chief Kishenji (Koteswar Rao). The killing of Left cadres was then replaced by alleged intimidation. Banerjee broke through the red citadel in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and stamped her presence in 2016 Assembly polls.

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But, the narrative saw yet another change in 2019. Of 41 assembly segments in four Jangalmahal districts, BJP led in 29 segments. BJP won all the five Lok Sabha seats, sending shock waves in Trinamool.

Mamata leads fightback

Announcement of several development schemes followed, Banerjee’s government pushed through over a dozen cash schemes there – old age pension, assistance to artists and artisans, minimum support price and cash assistance to bidi workers and so on. This apart, there is free ration and promise of subsidised healthcare.

An average family now ends up getting Rs 5000-6000, a month, claims local leaders. But this is where corruption creeps in with around Rs 1000-2000 being lost mid-way as cut money. This is one of BJP’s poll planks.

Identity Politics

Then, there is identity politics at play.

Jangalmahal has around 50 per cent tribal communities such as Santhal, Oraon, Kheria, Lodha, Munda Mahali, Bhil and other SC and OBCs like Kurmi, Bagdi, Goala and so on.

The Trinamool - in a bid to counter the BJP surge, and further divide votes - brought out Chhatradhar Mahato, a Kurmi activist and a Maoist-leader who was the face of the Maoist movement in Bengal. Mahato, who joined the Trinamool after being in jail for 10 years, is trying to consolidate the Kurmis – said to be nearly a third of the voters - as he pushes for the long pending agenda of reservation.

The Santhalis, under Trinamool are playing on the fear psychosis that they will be converted to Hinduism (from Sari – and they worship nature).

Despite the differences and her rhetoric of “outsiders campaigning in Bengal '' notwithstanding, Banerjee brought in Jharkhand Chief Minister, Hemant Soren to campaign here.

The silent presence of the RSS cannot be ignored either. Many say, workers have done door-to-door campaigns, while adivasi schools are quite popular in the region.

“Mamata could gain on the Kurmi vote bank front at a very micro level. On the other hand, candidate selection is a major problem for BJP in some areas like parts of Purulia. But it is to be seen if organisational strengths and anti-incumbency factors will come to their (BJP) advantage or not,” political commentator Chakraborty said.

Published on March 27, 2021

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