As we approached Jhargram town through the brown-leaf-carpeted road meandering through the Lodhasuli forest, around 160km west of Kolkata, the tiny fresh-green leaves atop the barren trees in the spring sun seemed to hold the promise of winds of change for the 4 seats, which go to polls on March 27 in the first phase of the eight-phase marathon West Bengal Assembly elections.
The dry and arid region, which is a part of the Chotanagpur plateau sharing borders with Bihar and Jharkhand, had been a hotbed of Maoists for years and had formed the Red corridor that extends from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Progressing towards our destination with tea halts in between, conversations with the local people revealed the trend of ilaaka (area) bandi, which implies that villages have separate political affiliations and remain segregated according to such basis. The divide among people is so palpable that it even drives the local journalists into pursuing propaganda-based journalism. To the extent that they may try to influence visiting scribes.
On reaching the Jhargram town, we met a hotelier who hosts workers of all political parties. The gentleman confessed that he would not be able to come on record in the face of a possible backlash against him or his family but said there was actually simmering discontent among sections of people in the region against the present dispensation. And there was this BJP worker, working silently for the party who had a confession of a different sort to make — that he had been sidelined by the BJP he loved so dearly all his life. The ostensible reason — to accommodate those crossing over from the Trinamool to the BJP and to address the bigger task at hand — to ensure the defeat of the ‘grassroots’ party so that the lotus could bloom in all its glory in Bengal.
Though the public, in general, was pleased with the good roads and streetlights — something unthinkable during the 34-year rule of the Left Front government — that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government had lavished on Jhargram and Jangalmahal, there was a simmering discontent — lack of employment opportunities. Most were reluctant to give out their names or reveal their political affiliations or who they would vote for. But what binds them together was the grouse against the Trinamool having played a double game with them.
Trinamool Congress has fielded a new entrant, actress June Maliah, who is a popular face of the Bengali film industry. Once considered to be a stronghold of CPI, Tarun Kumar Ghosh, son of former MLA Kamakhya Ghosh is the party’s candidate. BJP has fielded their former district president Samit Kumar Dash from the seat. On the other hand, in the Jhargram constituency, actress of Santhali films and daughter of former MLA Chunibala Hansda, Birbaha is contesting on Trinamool Congress’s ticket. CPM leader Madhuja Senroy is contesting against Sukhamoy Satpathy has been fielded by the BJP.
In the late-2000s, when Jhargram and Jangalmahal were synonymous with incidents of Maoist unrest, the Trinamool was accused to have threatened the Maoists to surrender and join its party or face the bullets or be implicated in fake cases. The name of one person, who was instrumental in helping carry out the ‘peace process’ or sort of ‘atonement’ of the Maoists surfaced during the conversations was that of erstwhile police chief of Jhargram, Bharati Ghosh. Once known to be close to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, she had referred to the chief minister as ‘ma (mother)’ at a public event.
The name of one person, who was instrumental in helping carry out the ‘peace process’ or sort of ‘atonement’ of the Maoists surfaced during the conversations was that of the erstwhile police chief of Jhargram, Bharati Ghosh. Once known to be close to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, she had referred to the chief minister as ‘ma (mother)’ at a public event. The former IPS officer, a graduate from Harvard University and London School of Economics, first worked in the criminal investigation department (CID) of West Bengal Police. After taking early retirement, she joined the BJP in 2019 and was subsequently nominated to contest the 2019 elections from Ghatal constituency.
In the 2021 Assembly elections, Ghosh is contesting from Debra constituency in Paschim Medinipur, 103 km from Kolkata, against ex-IPS officer Humayun Kabir, who joined the Trinamool in February this year. Following the killing of Maoist leader Kishan Ji, Trinamool Congress, in a tacit understanding with the lower-rung Maoists, managed to bring so-called peace to Bengal. Kishan Ji’s second-in-command Chhatradhar Mahto was inducted into the Trinamool Congress in 2020. Mahato, the face of the Maoist-backed tribal movement of 2008-2011 in Lalgarh, was freed on bail a few months ago after spending almost 11 years in jail.
In the run-up to the West Bengal Assembly elections, Mahato’s induction in the TMC attracted a lot of attention. Villagers admitted the presence of Maoists in the region but in the absence of leadership, was a spent force and could in no way take on the government in its present form. At an eatery in Bankura’s Harigram, the bonhomie among workers of different political hues was hard to miss. Most admitted that the roads and the lighting had improved but an elderly gentleman did not mince his words while narrating his disgust about the local primary health care centre. “The PHC started out with three nurses and a doctor. But now, it has got just one nurse, forcing people in an emergency to rush to Bankura Medical College and Hospital or to Kolkata.”
One of the young men sipping tea narrated how the Trinamool had resorted to ‘unnecessary violence’ during the panchayat elections in 2018 to prevent any opposition party to file nominations. Predictably, Trinamool won unopposed. He went on to say: “Here, people have put behind the horrors of their hard-earned money they lost in the Saradha, Narada and Rose Valley chit fund scams. But lack of job opportunities has forced most of us to leave our native place and go to Kolkata to get decent jobs in the private sector. In the absence of industries, who would even get a job here?” Jatin Lahiri, a proud BJP supporter, would bet his money on his ‘favourite Modi sarkar’ coming to power this time. He based his calculation on the 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats the BJP had bagged in the 2019 general election. But one of Jatin’s co-villagers, in contrast, spat venom against Modi and his policies, the farmers’ protests and alike.
As the EwokeTV team neared the end of its journey of the western districts, one thing was for sure — even the seasoned of political pundits would find it difficult to predict the final outcome at the hustings this poll season, with no clarity about the Bengal’s silent voters or the fence-sitters till the last moment. Though it’s do-or-die for the veteran Mamata Banerjee, the BJP, which tasted blood (read seats and vote share) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, is not willing to let go of its golden opportunity of capturing the throne of ‘Sonar Bangla’ (golden Bengal) and ushering in ‘asol poriborton’ (real change) with its double-engine model of governance.
(This ground report has been brought to you by OpIndia, in collaboration with Ewoke.tv).