Kolkata: One of the major challenges before All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) at Jangalmahal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is to regain its ground that it lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the Panchayat elections last year and also in Assembly elections held in 2016.

Jangalmahal is a local term used for the tribal dominated areas in the districts of Purulia, West Midnapore, Jhargram parts of Bankura and Birbhum, that was once dubbed as the area dominated by Left Wing Extremist (LWE) group. During the Left Front regime, these areas hit the headlines as they saw wanton violence and bloodshed during those days.

While on 12 May, during the sixth phase of elections, districts of Jhargram, Midnapore, Purulia, Bankura, along with four other-non Jangalmahl districts Tamluk, Kanthi, Ghatal, Bishnupur, will be going for polls, on 29 April, Birbhum, which is also a part of Jangalmahal districts, had already gone for polls in the fourth phase.

It has been noticed that there has been an increase in BJP vote-share in the Jangalmahal districts after 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The figures vouch for the fact how the BJP increased its vote share after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

According to statistics received from the chief electoral office (CEO), West Bengal, in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP received 20% votes from the Jangalmahal districts. However, in 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share came down to 17%. However, in 2018 Panchayat election, the BJP gained strength as it received 27% of the votes polled in all these constituencies.

In the 2018 Panchayat election which was held in May, Trinamool Congress suffered maximum loss in Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia, which is close to the Jharkhand border, as the BJP won in almost 30-40% of the Panchayat seats. According to statistics received from the state election commission, AITC lost 28 out of the 79 Gram Panchayats in the area. In the 16 Zila Parishad seats in Jhargram, the BJP secured three seats and the AITC 13.

In the Panchayat Samiti at Jhargram, BJP secured two seats in the Panchayat elections, while the remaining six seats were snagged by AITC. At the gram panchayat level, BJP secured 329 seats, while the Trinamool Congress received 372 seats. At Balarampur in Purulia, out of 20 Panchayat samiti seats, BJP secured 18 seats.

Bibha Das, a resident of Balarampur, Purulia, said: “In this Lok Sabha elections, apart from polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, a section of tribal population is not in favour of the ruling Trinamool Congress as they have failed to look after the welfare of the tribals. The living condition of tribals has not improved much despite Mamata Banerjee’s efforts to start various schemes for all sections of the people in Bengal.”

In areas like Jhargram and Purulia, the BJP got more than 40% of the Gram Panchayat seats. In Jhargram, BJP won 329 Gram Panchayats, not far behind AITC’s 372 seats. At Balarampur in Purulia, BJP secured 18 out of 20 Panchayat Samiti seats.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who saw red in the BJP’s meteoric rise in the once Maoist-affected area, removed three ministers who looked after tribal affairs from her Cabinet. Two of the ministers are TMC’s tribal leaders. They include backward classes welfare minister Churamoni Mahato and tribal development minister James Kujur. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also brought tribal development under her own control, after Kujur was relieved of his responsibilities.

And this time, judging by the situation, Mamata Banerjee sent veteran politician Subrata Mukherjee, her senior most Cabinet colleague, to contest from Bankura.

And from Jhargram, Trinamool Congress has fielded a local tribal leader Birbaha Soren from Jhargram. She will be pitted against the BJP candidate Dr Kunal Hembram who is also a local tribal leader. In Midnapore, Dr Manas Bhunia of Trinamool Congress will be pitted against Dilip Ghosh who is state BJP president. At Ghatal, TMC MP Deepak Adhikary (Dev) will be pitted against Bharati Ghosh who joined BJP retiring from her service as IPS officer. In Purulia, TMC fielded Dr Mriganka Mahato, a local leader. Mahato will be pitted against BJP’s Jyotirmoy Mahato. At Bankura, Subrata Mukherjee, a veteran leader, will be contesting from Trinamool Congress. He will be pitted against Dr Subrata Sarkar of BJP.  In Birbhum, TMC MP Shatabdi Roy is pitted against Dudh Kumar Mondal, BJP district secretary of Birbhum.

These are the factors that caused the setback for TMC in the Panchayat elections for 2018 and Assembly elections 2016.

  1. According to local people and local political leaders, the benefits of the schemes of the state government, namely Kanyashree (providing monetary help to young girls for their education), Khadya Sathi (providing Rs 2 kg rice to all BPL card holders), Sabuj Sathi (providing bicycles to all BPL students for their convenience) have not reached all the tribal population .The living conditions of tribals in the interior villages have not improved much despite Banerjee’s effort to provide Rs 2 per kilogram rice to all BPL card holders in the state.
  2. Factional feud inside Trinamool Congress has resulted in the increase of vote share in BJP. There is mass scale resentment among people against certain MLAs of the ruling party that they do not visit their constituencies after the voting process gets over. The leaders were disconnected since 2013 onwards. In some cases, the leaders carry out development works without consulting the people of the locality. This has aggravated the factional feud in the constituencies falling under Jangalmahal .
  3. BJP has set up the Adivasi Samanwaya Mancha (ASM) on the lines of the AITC backed Peoples’ Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) who are fighting for the development of the tribal community in this region. BJP has set up around 50 such groups that are working in different tribal areas of West Bengal looking after the welfare of the tribals. The AITC-backed PCPA committees have failed to look after the welfare of the tribals and as a result, the BJP’s Adivasi Samanwaya Mancha has gained momentum in Jangalmahal districts.

Beerbaha Soren, candidate of Trinamool Congress who is fighting from Jhargram Lok Sabha seat, said: “After the Panchayat elections, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has formed a committee to look after the problems faced by the tribal population. Banerjee has already instructed us that we should work hard to keep the vote share intact. Earlier, she has already removed two ministers as they failed to look after the welfare of the tribals. I went to tribal households and found that although our Chief Minister has announced several schemes for the poor people, some tribal leaders are not aware of the schemes and as a result, they are yet to enrol themselves in the schemes. We have already taken down several measures so that all tribal population gets the benefit of the schemes.”

Dilip Ghosh, state BJP president who is contesting from Midnapore said:  “The Trinamool Congress has made false promises to the people of Jangalmahal. The living conditions of tribals in the interior villages have not improved much despite Banerjee’s efforts. Around 20% tribals did not receive any benefits from the state government. On the other hand, the wealth of some Zillasabhapatis, residing in the Jangalmahal districts of the ruling Trinamool Congress party, has increased substantially. The discrepancy became wider and as a result BJP has made substantial inroads in the Jangalmahal districts of West Bengal.”

According to Ghosh, the factional feud inside Trinamool Congress has increased substantially from 2014- 2019 and this will help the BJP to increase its vote share in Jangalmahal districts. “We have won almost 30% seats in Jangalmahal region and we are confident that the vote share will increase in this year’s Lok Sabha elections from Jangalmahal too.”

According to Sukhomoy Sathpathi, Jhargram zillasabhapati of BJP, in this election, BJP will not only increase its vote share in Jangalmahal districts, the party will also try to increase more Adivasi Samnaya Mancha in the Jangalmahal districts. This will help the tribals to directly coordinate with the local leaders for the overall development of the tribal communities.

Partha Chatterjee, state parliamentary affairs minister, said: “The BJP is trying hard to maximise its votes in various districts in Bengal, but they lack good leaders in Bengal. The BJP has a long way to go in Bengal if it wants to match our organisational strength. They can hire people from bordering districts of Jharkhand for the polls, to fill their rallies, but people are aggrieved at the way the BJP is trying to create communal tension in the state.”

Political analysts, however, are of the opinion that although the BJP is pushing its “Hindutva” agenda and National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue in Bengal to achieve maximum votes, the BJP needs experienced leaders from Bengal to fill the gap that was already created.  Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already convened eight rallies in West Bengal till now, to counter Mamata Banerjee, there is no local face in BJP West Bengal yet.

Sources in the state BJP said Modi will hold at least four more rallies in West Bengal before the last phase of elections in Bengal.

Biswanath Chakraborty, a senior professor of Rabindra Bharati University, said: “Although the BJP has increased its vote share in Janngalmahal districts of West Bengal, compared to other states, the BJP lacks experienced leaders in West Bengal and as a result they are still lagging behind Trinamool Congress.”

Imankalyan Lahiri, a senior political analyst and professor of International Relations at Jadavpur University, said: “The tribal dominated districts in the western region of West Bengal, commonly known as Jangalmahal, have seen many political upheavals in the past. The CPM government has failed to control the Maoist problems in this region. After Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011 with hopes for a better life, ultra-Left extremism got controlled through deployment of Central Paramilitary Forces towards the end of the last decade and beginning of this decade. Trinamool Congress (TMC) spread their influence in this area too .With the organisational skills of the then TMC leader like Mukul Roy, Jangalmahal became a pocket borough of TMC. But the life of the tribals did not change much. There has been a steady increase in BJP vote-share in the region since 2014. Even during the Panchayat elections in 2018, the BJP performed well in Jangalmahal districts compared to any other part of the state. This has emboldened the BJP which is approaching this election with much larger resources and ground penetration in this region.”

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