JHARGRAM/WEST BENGAL: Wary of a resurgent BJP in Bengal’s tribal belt, the ruling Trinamool has turned to Chhatradhar Mahato, the face of the Lalgarh movement, a popular uprising of Adivasi villagers backed allegedly by the Maoists in 2008, to regain its lost political footing in Jungalmahal.
The Adivasis, who account for 35 per cent of the electorate in Jungalmahal and is considered a crucial vote bank for all players in Bengal’s political landscape, voted en-bloc for the BJP in the battle for the Jhargram Lok Sabha seat last year.
And, ahead of the next battle for the Assembly, the Trinamool has hedged its bets of winning back the tribal vote on Mahato, who headed a forum, alleged to have been a cover for the Maoists, at the peak of the Lalgarh movement, and still wields considerable influence on the Adivasi community.
However, Mahato has been asked to work behind the scenes to curry favour with tribals and consolidate the vote bank in favour of the Trinamool, as projecting him as its face in the area could cost the party support of the non-Mahato community.
A local Trinamool leader said that since Mahato shepherded the movement which resulted in an unprecedented bloodbath in the region, the party is wary not to project him as its flag-bearer in the area.
“I have been asked to do the job quietly in the capacity of an independent tribal leader, without drawing too much attention to myself. During the movement, my activism was limited to the Lalgarh area. Now, I have been asked to visit other pockets of Jhargram district and enlist the support of locals,” Mahato told this daily.
Now in his early 50s, Mahato said he still hasn’t been asked to formally join the Trinamool. Sources in the ruling party said he has been specifically asked to use his influence to bring the Trinamool back in the good graces of the disaffected Adivasi community.
Mahato, who returned to Lalgarh a few days ago, ending an 11-year spell behind bars, has already visited Banspahari, Bhulabera, Chakadoba and Belpahari, which are home to sizeable contingents of Kurmi (OBC) voters.
While campaigning for the Assembly polls in the area, Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee had promised to remove central forces from Jangalmahal, one of the key demands of tribals waging the Lalgarh movement.
Though the promise had helped her mine tribal support at the time, the party has steadily ceded ground to the BJP in the years since.
“Lalgarh has seen large-scale development over the last eight years. However, while touring the other pockets of Jhargram, I found the roads to be in a bad state. Even public transport was hardly visible. I was told that the atrocities of some local (Trinamool) leaders are depriving the people of government schemes.
I have urged the local Trinamool leadership to have some of their local leaders accompany me on my visits to the remote pockets in the coming days,” Mahato said. An internal assessment of Trinamool’s Lok Sabha poll debacle in Jungalmahal — it lost all four LS seats — revealed that it was the corrupt ways of local strongmen which cost the party dear in the elections.
Trinamool secretary general Partha Chatterjee visited Jhargram on February 8 and held a meeting with party leaders to find out if the locals favoured propping up Mahato as the party’s face in the region.
“A section of leaders felt that handing Mahato the Trinamool flag will send the wrong message (to non-tribals) and enable the BJP to make it a big political issue, citing his link with Maoists,” another Trinamool leader said.
History stained in blood
2008-2009 What triggered it: Arrest of three schoolchildren in connection with a landmine blast targeting former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy in November 2008
More than 450 CPM supporters and local leaders killed by Maoists during Lalgarh movement 18 Maoists killed in a firefight with security forces More than 30 policemen killed by rebels
Who is Chhatradhar Mahato?
Brother of Maoist leader Sashadhar Mahato, who was killed in an encounter in 2009. Before joining the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, the Maoists-backed organisation fronting the Lalgarh movement, he was a saal-leaf vendor.