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In Bengal's red zone enemy's enemy is no longer a friend

kolkata Updated: May 10, 2011 15:28 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra

For the ruling Left Front, he was a class enemy who had to be hunted down and put in the jail. For Mamata Banerjee, he is a friend-turned-foe and a party pooper in this outback of Bengal, where the Maoists rule and the Marxists win elections.

As the historic election in Bengal enters the final lap, the spotlight is on Chhatradhar Mahato whose decision to contest from Jhargram has altered the electoral arithmetic of Jangalmahal - the forested tract of southwest Bengal and a Maoist hotbed.

Mahato allegedly has links with the Maoists, because of which he was jailed in 2009 and continues to be behind the bars.

To unseat the Left here, which has swept every election in Jangalmahal in the past 34 years, Mamata needed an undivided opposition and the support of Maoist sympathisers who make up a big number. Thanks to Mahato, she has neither.

The outcome in Jangalmahal, where 14 constituencies go to polls on Tuesday, will have far-reaching ramifications for West Bengal, as it would not just shape the next governments policy on tackling the Maoist insurgency but also trigger a new political realignment across the state.

In several places, the contest is now three-cornered, with advantage CPI(M). These include Jhargram, Binpur, Nayagram and Gopiballavpur - seats that were once considered low-hanging fruit for Trinamool and its allies.

"There is no Trinamool wave here. They don't get our support, they don't get anything here," said Bhagwat Hansda, the election agent of Mahato.

That is not how it was a month ago.

Mamata had the tacit support of Mahato and his followers until the latter decided to contest elections and Trinamool refused to withdraw its candidate for Jhargram in his support.

A tendu leave trader, Mahato rose to prominence after a local committee he had set up in 2008 to protest against police atrocities became the rallying force for anti-CPI(M) groups in the region. The CPI(M)-led government and central security agencies maintain that the committee - PCAPA - is a front for the Maoists.

Mamata openly supported PCAPA in its formative phase, but as allegations of its Maoist links gained weight she switched to a nuanced stance.

She would demand withdrawal of paramilitary forces deployed in the region to fight Maoists; she would often raise human rights concerns, including in one meeting where she called for an inquiry into the killing of top Maoist leader Azad in an encounter in Andhra Pradesh.

Perhaps, she miscalculated when it matters the most. She misread PCAPA's political ambition.

"If Trinamool had not given a candidate, then there could have been an understanding," said Hansda.

"If Chhatradhar Mahato was not in jail, we would have contested and won four seats." PCAPA wants to be in the fray, Hansda said, because it doesn't believe anyone else will take up its cause.

About 90 of its members are in jail and more than a thousand face criminal charges. Getting them out tops PCAPA's agenda. So are issues such as the introduction of local dialect alchiki as a language course in schools, better roads and a hospital in Jhargram.

"We don't get the sense that they are interested in solving our problems. We still live under fear," Hansda said.

The story repeats in neighbouring Binpur constituency, where Trinamool and the Congress party decided to support the sitting MLA's party - Jharkhand Party (Naren). The decision angered local congress workers, who have since picked Arjun Hansda of Jharkhand Samanya Manch as their candidate.

"Why should the onus of defeating CPI(M) be on us?" said local Congress leader Subrata Bhattacharjee.

"It's a question of our existence, our self respect. She (the sitting MLA) has always ridiculed us."

The CPI(M) couldn't have asked for more. At a time, when its edifice is crumbling elsewhere in the state, Jangalmahal offers a silver lining.

"We will win by at least 10,000 votes," said Pranab Haldar, a young CPI (M) activist in Silda, which is part of Binpur and was in news last year for a deadly Maoist attack on a paramilitary camp that left 24 soldiers dead.

(Kaushik Dutta contributed to this report)