WEST MIDNAPORE/JHARGRAM: Inside a small shop with a photo of Sonakshi Sinha on the wall, he is busy with customers, hurriedly recharging cell phones with cheap data plans in the nondescript Dharampur area in Junglemahal’s Lalgarh. Called Junglemahal for the adjoining forests, this region of West Bengal goes to polls on Saturday.Instrumental in throwing out the Left Front government in 2011 amid the Lalgarh movement featuring the tribal community backed by Maoists against police atrocities, Junglemahal is in the limelight again. BJP did exceptionally here in 2019. How or whether TMC can pull votes back in this region will play a role in determining the fate of Mamata Banerjee’s government.
Gautam Patra was the face of the movement. Running a small mobile phone top-up business now, he was a Class IX student then and among the three arrested after the ‘rebels’ carried out a blast targeting the then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy. He was released five days later following public uproar.“Our arrests triggered the Lalgarh movement. This is the second Assembly elections after that,” Patra says. Will there be another saffron storm in Junglemahal, like in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? “Let’s see,” he replies with a smile.
Junglemahal is a backward region and part of at least four Lok Sabha seats and 25 Assembly constituencies dominated by tribal, Scheduled Caste and other backward class voters, who form 63 per cent of the total electorates. Their anger derailed CPI(M) and paved way for TMC. Two years ago, they welcomed BJP which won all five Lok Sabha seats from Junglemahal. The saffron camp secured lead in 19 of the 23 Assembly seats from the zone.“There were two reasons why Junglemahal rejected TMC in 2019. Corruption and selection of a wrong candidate, who led a demonstration and burnt the effigy of the sitting TMC MP months before joining the ruling party. But this time, they have fielded Birbaha Hansda in Jhargram, who is not only known for her clean image but also a famous actress in tribal films. She is an acceptable face among Dalits,’’ reckons Nitai Murmu, member of a tribal social body.
Things might have changed now. TMC has campaigned saying those who don’t have papers will be made to suffer when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is compiled. Poor and illiterate, many Junglemahal residents don’t have land deeds. Also, there is discontent brewing against BJP.“We voted for BJP in 2019 . But BJP leaders who came before polls disappeared after that. And despite us not voting for them, TMC leaders went door to door, apologising with folded hands for their misdeeds. They refunded cut-money to the beneficiaries of government schemes,” says local resident Lalmohan Sardar. This image makeover has been strategic move by TMC after 2019. Going by the pulse on the ground, it may not have been a bad investment. Developmental projects like providing drinking water in the drought-hit area and bulding roads have also not gone unnoticed.
BJP’s candidate in Jhargram Sukhmoy Satpati, however, is confident not only about his victory but also his party’s in all of Junglemahal. “We will perform better than 2019,’’ he said. Refuting his claim, Birbaha said the people of Junglemahal have taken a lesson from their ‘wrong’ decisions. “They have decided to renew their support in Mamata Banerjee. In this election, there will be no repeat of BJP’s previous performance,’’ she says. Junglemahal might just be in for another change.
Performance in Junglemahal
Purulia (9 seats) : 2016 Assembly polls: TMC 7, Congress 2; Lead in 2019: BJP 8, TMC 1
Jhargram (4 seats) : 2016 Assembly polls: TMC 4; Lead in 2019: BJP 3, TMC 1
West Midnapore (6 seats) : 2016 Assembly polls: TMC 6; Lead in 2019: BJP 4, TMC 2
Bankura (4 seats): 2016 Assembly polls: TMC 3, LF 1; Lead in 2019: BJP 4
Total in 30 seats: 2016 Assembly polls: TMC 27, Congress 2, LF 1; Lead in 2019: BJP 20, TMC 10