The Jangalmahal Vote

Nirmalangshu Mukherji

After 34 years of rule (a world record), the Left Front government in the state of West Bengal in India has lost the elections decisively, winning just 62 of the 294 assembly seats. Except for the die-hard supporters of the left, the writing on the wall was loud and clear for several years. The left had been warned massively and repeatedly over the last three years through panchayat, parliamentary and civic elections. The fact that the left was unable to change course and win back the support of the people despite these warnings goes to show the depth of the rot that has set in after three decades of uninterrupted power. It was clearly beyond the left to enforce drastic organisational restructuring, alter the character of governance, and win elections at the same time. The election apparatus – consisting of expert commissars, corrupt cadres, gangsters, feudal apparatchiks, and promoters – was inconsistent with any attempt at basic reforms (my ‘Requiem for the left’, Revolutionary Democracy, Vol. XV, No. 1-2, April-September, 2009, The only way for the left to redeem itself is to face near-extinction. The people of West Bengal have made sure that is the case. If the left, especially the big brother CPM (Communist Party of India, Marxist), attempts to hide behind conspiracy theories to explain the debacle, the extinction will be complete.

The vote in West Bengal is an impressive affirmation of the essential salience of and people’s faith in electoral politics. With over 300 very rich people (called ‘crorepatis’) in the Indian parliament, forced voting orchestrated by criminal politicians, massive flow of money, liquor, and other ‘goodies’, and the alarming phenomenon of ‘paid news’, there are reasons to feel frustrated with electoral politics. As the neo-liberal order unleashed vast sums of tainted money in the system, it is natural that the dismantling of a fair electoral system is one of its prime targets; the other is to directly intervene in the parliamentary system by installing its own representatives.

Extremists, elites and big business, with considerable overlap between them, are historically uncomfortable with universal franchise in any case. Harnessing the beast is a messy enterprise, and it eats into direct control and profits. But after six decades of operation, the Indian electoral process has deteriorated to the point that even otherwise democratic individuals and groups have started to blink and advocate ‘direct democracy’ outside the parliamentary system.

The great mass of people seem to think otherwise. The vote in West Bengal demonstrated once again that the neo-liberal agenda to which the left had drifted in the past decade (Prabhat Patnaik, ‘In the aftermath of Nandigram’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 26, 2007) can be successfully resisted. As Noam Chomsky puts it,

‘The neo-liberal onslaught against democracy – its primary thrust – has imposed even narrower limits on functioning democracy, as intended. But it does not follow that the attack on democracy cannot be beaten back. Electoral politics has in the past achieved gains in human welfare that are by no means insignificant, as the great mass of the population understands very well.’ (Interview with Jean Bricmont, Chomsky Notebook, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 95.) 

The vote in the bitterly-contested Jangalmahal area, comprising of 40 assembly segments, is a powerful case in hand. In the rest of West Bengal, the choice was overwhelmingly binary between the left and the Trinamool-Congress alliance. Except for the Gorkha areas, this explains the virtual elimination of third-party options from the state. In Jangalmahal, there was no major third party, but there was a major third factor: a significant presence of maoist ideology in terms of a combination of maoist squads, frequent interventions by some urban intellectuals, and the maoist-backed popular organisation People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, PCPA, led by Chatradhar Mahato, currently in custody.

To cut a long story short, the Jangalmahal, spanning the forested areas of the districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, had been a traditional stronghold for the left. As the left front government brutally messed up in Singur and Nandigram and people’s anger finally came out into the open, the Lalgarh area of Jangalmahal became an epicentre of tribal protest leading to the formation of PCPA. As the left government responded by further police assault, the maoists moved in from the adjacent Jharkhand forests and were soon in control of the movement.

These developments did not have much electoral significance since the maoists advocated and enforced poll-boycott in their pockets of influence. As a significant section of tribals and other downtrodden people stayed away from elections year after year, the left was able to retain its electoral strength through committed voting enforced by its cadres. Even in the 2009 parliamentary elections in which the left was severely mauled by the rising Trinamool-Congress wave elsewhere in the state, the left secured leads in 31 out of 40 assembly segments of Jangalmahal.

This time as well, as the campaign for the elections was heating up, the maoists propagated vote-boycott in the earlier stage. However, two developments altered the scene. First, following the huge outcry on the Netai massacre, the left government was forced to shut down the armed camps of CPM-cadres. Second, the election commission enforced unprecedented security arrangements throughout the region, including especially the maoist-dominated areas. With the removal of the rule of the gun, people began to breathe freely for the first time in many years.

Sensing the mood of the people midway through the campaign, the maoists proclaimed that, although they continued to reject the electoral system, they will not object if people wanted to vote on their own. This was as clear an admission as we can get that, in the previous elections, the maoists had in fact physically prevented people from voting. In the final stages of the campaign, the maoists changed course again and directly asked people to vote for the Trinamool Congress in specific areas where the left still had some sway.

In a CD released to the media on Sunday, February 7, 2011, and a written statement issued in January, CPI (Maoist) leader Bikram declared the Maoists’ support for the coming to power of the TMC, which he labelled the ‘bourgeois alternative,’ in West Bengal. ‘Due to our joint efforts,’ declared Bikram, who is a member of the Maoists’ Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa regional committee, ‘the demon called CPM is on the back foot in West Bengal ... people want this ... we also want to maintain and strengthen our relationship with [TMC leader] Banerjee.’ The Maoist leader ... declared that ‘for the sake of peace and development,’ the Maoists will ‘not boycott the elections and will participate in the peace process proposed by you.’ The CD and the statement were reported both in The Hindu and in the official website of the Fourth International (

On the election day, over 85% of the voters showed up across Jangalmahal, including the maoist-controlled areas, under the scorching sun, walking for miles in some cases. The result is equally spectacular and uplifting. With negligible organisational presence, the Trinamool Congress secured 26 of the 40 seats mostly with impressive margins. As one commentator put it, the poor, marginalised, and brutalised people of Jangalmahal, joined the rest of West Bengal in voting out the rule of tyranny. Given just a marginal window of freedom, the people grabbed it with both hands; the maoist ideology of poll-boycott was comprehensively ignored.

More interestingly, although the left was severely mauled, it wasn’t routed in Jangalmahal. Jangalmahal itself returned 14 left candidates (with depleted margins) out of the 61 for the entire State. In other words, while the success rate for the left is 35% in Jangalmahal, it is less than 19% for the rest of the State; the left did not win a single seat in erstwhile left-strongholds in several districts. District-wise breakups suggest that most of these 14 seats for the left have come from the West Midnapore part of Jangalmahal comprising of Maoist and PCPA-dominated areas of Nayagram, Lalgarh, Gopiballavpur, and Salboni; so, in the West Midnapore segment of Jangalmahal, the left’s success rate is considerably higher than the 35% for the whole of Jangalmahal. Chatradhar Mahato, the earlier charismatic leader of PCPA, contested from jail and did manage to secure about 20,000 votes in the Jhargram assembly constituency; but he lost to the Trinamool rival by nearly 50,000 votes.

There are several aspects to this vote. First, people in Jangalmahal have been subjected to the poll-boycott politics of the Maoists for years. Yet, given a free (and safe) choice, they exercised their right to vote in magnificent numbers. Second, the mahatos are not Adivasis; they belong to the category of other backward caste (OBC) which has a substantial presence in Jhargram. It is most likely then that most of the (trifling) 20,000 votes for the ill-concealed Maoist representative Chatradhar Mahato came from the mahato community, rather than from the Adivasis.

Third and most importantly, as Santosh Rana pointed out, the mostly Adivasi and dalit cadres of CPM were engaged in a deadly battle with the Maoists in the West Midnapur area of Jungalmahal; hundreds of them lost their lives. Unlike the rest of West Bengal where the CPM was largely identified in terms of shady feudal elements and corrupt party apparatchiks, the people in Jangalmahal saw with their own eyes the desperate struggle put up by ordinary cadres of CPM to resist the gun-wielding Maoists attempting to grab control of CPM-dominated areas by force. In essence, at a crucial moment of freedom, the people of Jangalmahal, while expressing their anger at the tyranny of left-rule, rejected the Maoists as well.

After the resounding defeat of the left, maoists and their urban intellectual supporters might have begun to harbour opportunities for a renewed acceptance of maoist ideology as the only leftist alternative before the people. The message from the people of Jangalmahal is loud and clear: extremism which inevitably embraces opportunism has no place in democracy.

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