Tinku Das drives an e-rickshaw decorated with saffron “Jai Shree Ram” flags he was given at the Bharatiya Janata’s Party’s Ram Navami rally in March. He is excited with the political winds of change sweeping through his town, Midnapore, in West Bengal. “I have seen Trinamool leaders running around all week,” Das said. “They are clearly worried.”

The flurry in the ranks of the state’s ruling party was caused by a rally planned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday at the Midnapore Collegiate grounds, ostensibly to speak about the problem of low farmer incomes. Modi’s rally is part of a pattern. Last month, BJP chief Amit Shah had addressed a rally in Purulia. Both towns are a part of the area called “Jungle Mahal” – literally forest estates – that borders Jharkhand and has a large proportion of Adivasi residents. The area spans the current-day districts of Jhargram, Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura in the south-west part of West Bengal.

The increased attention on the Jungle Mahal area by the Trinamool Congress is driven by how well the BJP did in the area in the panchayat elections held in May. In Purulia district, the saffron party won 33% of all gram panchayat seats. In Jhargram, that figure went up to 41%.

The Jungle Mahal region has three Lok Sabha seats, currently all held by the Trinamool Congress. Driven by the Trinamool’s organisational failings, support from its mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and a strong Hindutva sentiment, the BJP is hoping to beome a serious challenger in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

RSS and Hindutva mobilisation

Sitting in the BJP office in Jhargram, party district president Sukhamaya Satpathy spoke of his family’s long association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “The RSS has a good presence in Jhargram,” he said. “It has worked here for 50 years.”

Satpathy is not an exception. A large number of BJP leaders in the area have links with the RSS – something that at least partly explains the party’s quick rise from having almost no presence here just a few years ago. Jhargram has a Vansvasi Kalyan Ashram – a residential school targeted at Adivasi students – as well as a network of Sishu Mandirs (primary schools) and Ekal Vidyalayas (single teacher-run tuition centres). All three organisations are affiliated to the RSS.

At the ground level, it is often difficult to make out where the RSS ends and the BJP begins. Manoranjan Mahato is a gram panchayat member from Salboni, Jhargram, and is involved in setting up Ekal Vidyalays in the area. “We are starting an Ekal Vidalaya here soon and I made sure it came up in Chandipur Colony, given its distance from a school,” Mahato explained. The BJP has swept the Salboni gram panchayat, winning all eight seats.

In February, the West Bengal government gave orders to shut down 125 Shishu Mandirs with plans to close down 370 more. In her public messaging as well, Mamata Banerjee frequently hyphenates the BJP and the RSS, attacking both in the same breath.

A sticker outside an RSS office in Jhargram town which reads, "Call yourself a Hindu with pride".
A sticker outside an RSS office in Jhargram town which reads, "Call yourself a Hindu with pride".

While the organisational strength of the RSS works in the background, the BJP has managed shows of political strength using the device of Hindutva mobilisation. In March, the BJP’s Ram Navami rally in Midnapore town was impressive with the party replicating the TMC’s tactic of using “bike bahinis”, motorcycle rallies to project party strength. The head of the BJP unit in Binpur, Jhargram Ajoy Chakroborty, is clear about the political uses of such rallies. “It is when I saw little kids, this high, shouting ‘Joy Shree Ram’ that I knew I had this area,” he said. The BJP has won a majority in the Binpur gram panchayat.

Power vacuum

From 2008 to 2011, large parts of the Jungle Mahal area experienced a militant, tribal-dominated movement led by Maoists against West Bengal government controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “We were not allowed to operate in many areas,” explained Santosh Rana, the 2016 Left Front candidate for the Midnapore state Assembly seat.

This violence actually helped the Trinamool come to power in the region in the 2011 Assembly elections. After this, the Maoists were gradually pushed out by security forces.

Ironically, the process ended up helping the BJP. Once the Maoists had been pushed out, the RSS moved into the area. With the Left getting driven out, there was an Opposition vacuum, which the BJP filled. “Today, the BJP is the only one that looks like it can defeat the TMC,” admitted Santosh Rana. “There is an anti-incumbency sentiment, people hate the TMC. So they vote for the BJP here to try and remove the TMC”.

Left workers have shifted too. “If you analyse the situation on the ground, the Left cadre have moved en masse to the BJP,” said Manas Bhunia, a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool hailing from West Midnapore.

Santosh Rana from the Communist Party of India, admits that the Left has ceased to exist as a viable political force in the Jungle Mahal area
Santosh Rana from the Communist Party of India, admits that the Left has ceased to exist as a viable political force in the Jungle Mahal area

TMC’s local dysfunction

The last piece in the puzzle is the local Trinamool Congress, seen to be beset with corruption. This was acknowledged by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself last month. “Only Mamata Banerjee will work and others [referring to party cadre in Jungle Mahal] will enjoy the fruits of being in power – that cannot be the way,” said Banerjee on June 21, addressing her party.

Ajit Maity, TMC chief of West Midnapore admitted that the BJP is taking advantage of the Trinamool’s weakness on the ground. “The BJP has won seats in areas in which our own workers and members misbehaved with the people,” said Maity. He, however, denies that the people are angry with the TMC as a whole, only disgruntled with the local units of the party. “TMC has won every zilla parishad in Jungle Mahal, so this is actually a pro-state government vote,” he said. “Local corruption has caused some anger but it is only at the village level”.

In Kankurrama, an Adivasi-dominated village in Jhargram that voted BJP in the panchayat polls, this differentiation between the upper leadership of the Trinamool and the local party is often visible. “We know Mamata is sending so much money for Jungle Mahal,” said a man named Lilu Mandi. “But why does it never reach us? This is why we voted for the BJP.”

In Garro village, populated mostly by Mahatos, an Other Backward Caste that is numerically significant in the Jungle Mahal area, there is anger that the local panchayat did not distribute tarpaulin sheets during the monsoon to plug leaks in thatched huts. “Every panchayat gives us one?” asked an irritated woman named Nirmala Mahato. “Why did this one stop?”

Lilu Mandal, a Santhal from Jhargram is angry with the local Trinamool unit but – as yet – does not blame the party central leadership for any wrongdoing.
Lilu Mandal, a Santhal from Jhargram is angry with the local Trinamool unit but – as yet – does not blame the party central leadership for any wrongdoing.

Fire fighting

In order to try and stop discontent from spreading, the Trinamool Congress has taken steps to reform its local units. On June 5, Churamani Mahato, an MLA from Jhargram, was forced to resign his post as Minister for Backward Classes Welfare. On July 3, the party fired six out of its eight block presidents in Jhargram. On July 6, Mamata Banerjee bypassed her local units and directly met 100 Adivasi leaders from Jungle Mahal in Kolkata. The West Bengal government has also constituted a new Tribal Development Board and ensured jobs to the two sons of Chhatradhar Mahato, the head of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities that had led the agitation in Jungle Mahal under Maoists supervision. The move is being seen as an attempt to woo the large Mahato community of Jungle Mahal.

While Jungle Mahal has only three Lok Sabha seats, since the Trinamool government has used it to underscore its development record in West Bengal, any inroads here by the BJP carry political significance. In the run-up to the 2016 Assembly election, Chief Minister Banerjee, for instance, claimed that peace in Jungle Mahal was her government’s “biggest achievement”.