A roadside tea stall in Barapela village in Lalgarh is abuzz with young men coming in and out on bicycles, ringing mobile phones and loud conversations on politics.
This is the makeshift election office of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) whose leader Chhatradhar Mahato is the dark horse in the Jhargram seat going to polls in “Maoist-affected” Jangalmahal in West Midnapore on Tuesday.
Jailed for treason and other such charges, his group’s crime was that it had supported the armed Maoists who had “liberated” Lalgarh for a few days two years ago from the state’s two law-enforcement tools — police and armed CPM men.
An estimated 5,000 people had gathered on the day Mahato filed his nomination.
In his village and neighboring pockets in Lalgarh that excitement is almost palpable.
The Trinamool Congress’s tricolours and Communist red are as good as absent. Mahato’s political symbol — a wicker — is adorned on festoons and banners; his red and green flags decorate the huts and trees.
“They may have jailed him, but for all the villagers, he remains the only hope,” said Niyoti, Mahato’s wife sitting in their two-storey mud-house.
Mahato had appealed to Mamata Banerjee to not field any Trinamool candidate from Jhargram. But unwilling to be seen as a friend of an outfit widely known as a Maoist “front”, Banerjee declined. The CPM is hoping to benefit from a split in the anti-Left votes, but Mahato’s men insist there aren’t any CPM voters left in these areas.
“We will win anyway. We have an assured votebank of 40,000 in tribal villages. The rest will vote seeing Dada’s name,” said Shyamal Mahato, the campaign manager.
Instead of traditional issues — irrigation and electricity — this time the poll plank is about keeping the police and CPM’s armed cadre at bay.
“Our people must be protected. And nobody can ensure that except us,” said Mahatos aged father Ashutosh, a farmer.
For local residents, Netai stands as a symbol of things to come if CPM remains in power — on January 7, CPM’s armed cadres had allegedly opened fire and killed nine villagers. “We will not let a Netai happen here,” he says. “For that, we need one of us to be in the Assembly.”