Nearly half of Jangalmahal went to polls on Saturday and 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 level and the rising presence of the RSS.
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.
Cash doles apart, the Trinamool is banking on the “acceptability of Mamata Banerjee”, whereas the BJP is battling “candidate disillusionment”. The saffron party has announced region-specific schemes that include supply of drinking water (a major problem in the generally arid areas here), eco-tourism circuits, setting up of an AIIMS (due to restricted access to healthcare), cash doles to counter existing schemes of the Trinamool government and job creation. Free education for women, tribal schools and teaching in the local language too form the poll pivots of the BJP.
According to Bishwanath Chakraborty, political analyst and commentator, 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 leads fightback
“Mamata Banerjee has managed to pull back some ground in Jangalmahal after the shocking pushback by the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But she is still battling the issues of corruption and voter discontent,” he told BusinessLine.
Banerjee’s government has pushed through over a dozen cash schemes here – 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 ₹5,000-6,000, a month, claims local leaders. But this is where corruption creeps in with around ₹1,000-2,000 being lost mid-way as cut money. This is one of BJP’s poll planks.
There is also identity politics at play. Tribal communities such as Santhal, Oraon, Kheria, Lodha, Munda Mahali, Bhil and other SC and OBCs like Kurmi, Bagdi and Goala account for about 50 per cent of Jangalmahal’s population.
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. Mahato, who joined the Trinamool after being in jail for 10 years, is trying to consolidate the Kurmis – said to account for nearly a third of the voters – as he pushes for the long-pending agenda of reservation.
The Santhalis, under Trinamool, are playing on fears that they will be converted to Hinduism (from Sari, which is based on worship of Nature).
Despite differences and her rhetoric of “outsiders campaigning in Bengal” notwithstanding, Banerjee brought in Jharkhand CM, Hemant Soren to campaign here.
The silent presence of the RSS cannot be ignored either. Many say its workers have done door-to-door campaigns with the adivasi schools too 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 the BJP in some areas like Purulia. But it is to be seen if organisational strengths and anti-incumbency factors will come to their (BJP) advantage or not,” Chakraborty said.