In West Bengal’s Jhargram district, with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees Celsius, door-to-door campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections has been ongoing in full force. Jhargram is one of the 42 seats in the state that has been reserved for Scheduled Tribes (Alipurduar is the other), making it an important one in the Lok Sabha elections, and much is at stake here when the seat goes to polls on May 25.

While the BJP has fielded Dr Pranat Tudu, a radiologist who previously worked at the Jhargram Government Medical College & Hospital, his opponent is Kalipada Soren of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Four of the seven Assembly segments of the Jhargram Lok Sabha constituency are in Jhargram district, two in Paschim Medinipur district and one in Purulia district, all of which are a part of what is known as the Jungle Mahal districts of West Bengal.

pranat tudu A political graffiti in Jhargram endorses BJP candidate Pranat Tudu. (Photo: BJP West Bengal)

Last month, on April 16, the BJP sent a complaint to the Election Commission concerning an alleged attack on its Jhargram candidate and demanded action against the attackers as well as police officers. “This is to bring to your kind attention about the attack perpetrated on the candidate set up by the Bharatiya Janata Party from 33 Jhargram (Schedule Tribe) Parliamentary Constituency Dr. Pranat Tudu on 16 April 2024 at around 1 P.M. at Village: Rohini under the jurisdiction of the Sankrail Police Station,” the BJP said in its complaint letter.

But the TMC rejected the accusation and party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh issued a statement saying, “BJP workers were in large numbers while there were only seven to eight workers of our party at that spot. It is them who attacked our workers but they are making claims to the contrary. We condemn such politics.”

Festive offer

The West Bengal state unit of the BJP posted a video on X, saying, “Sensing defeat in Jhargram (Lok Sabha seat), TMC goons attacked BJP candidate Pranat Tudu and its workers in front of the police, on their way from Rohini to Roghra in the area.”

bjp west bengal A political graffiti in Jhargram endorses BJP candidate Pranat Tudu. (Photo: BJP West Bengal)

‘An unusual seat’

According to the 2011 Census, over 29 per cent of Jhargram district’s population comprises Scheduled Tribes. While Santals form the largest indigenous group in terms of population, there are several other indigenous groups living here as well.

“Other politicians and candidates don’t really understand Adivasi issues but candidates from our community do. A large number of STs in our state and those across the country are still backward,” says Srijan Hansda, a Santali teacher in Jhargram’s Belpahari village and the Jhargram district convenor for West Bengal Save the Right to Santali Education, a community organisation.

“This is an unusual seat in comparison with others in West Bengal, in terms of the situation, the people who live there, the drawbacks they face and the backwardness in the forest areas,” says Dr Pulin Bihari Baske, a senior CPI(M) politician who won the Jhargram seat in 2009. Baske has been working in grassroots politics in Jhargram for over two decades and previously held Zila Parishad posts.

jhargram A political rally for BJP candidate Pranat Tudu in Jhargram, West Bengal. (Photo: BJP West Bengal)

“The people who live here are very disadvantaged in terms of all social indicators, whether you talk about agriculture, drinking water, medicine. It is a resource-rich place, but the people have not benefited because they don’t demand these resources, nor has the government given them to the common people. This place is also high in corruption,” says Baske. “But most politicians who stand for elections do not have any real connection with common people here,” he adds.

“The tribals who live here do not have proper places to stay, or proper food and water. They live in really desperate situations, but others don’t think about these things. Every tribe has its specific issues,” says Baske.

In 2019, BJP’s Kunar Hembram won the Jhargram seat, defeating TMC’s Birbaha Soren by more than 11,000 votes. But this year, just months before the Lok Sabha elections, Hembram quit the party citing “personal reasons”. “Due to personal reasons, I want to quit the party. I have no desire to join any other party. I am engaged in other social work. I will continue to serve the people through such initiatives,” Hembram had said then. While some sources had said then that the BJP was not keen to re-nominate him, others believed the decision had more to do with health reasons.

jhargram BJP candidate Pranat Tudu during a political rally in Jhargram. (Photo: BJP West Bengal)

This year, when the TMC decided to field Kalipada Soren, 66, they had chosen someone whom “everyone” knew, says Hansda. The TMC candidate is more well-known by his pen name ‘Kherwal Soren’ and belongs to the Santal tribe. In 2022, the Indian government awarded Soren the Padma Shri for his contributions to Santali literature and poetry over the decades.

“Kalipada Soren is a senior member of the Santal community. Many of his books on literature and poetry in the Santali language are taught in high schools, colleges and universities as part of the syllabus. So many youth recognise him, but they recognise him more through his pen name,” says Hansda. It is also why across Jhargram, political graffiti features both of Soren’s names.

Kalipada Soren: A writer with humble origins

Born in Jhargram district’s Raghunathpur village, Soren came from humble origins. He graduated with a master’s from Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata in political science and worked as a bank employee for several years, while simultaneously pursuing his writing career which won him several prestigious awards, including those given by the Sahitya Akademi of India. While in Kolkata, in the 1990s, Soren also started the Kherwal Dramatic Club, a theatre group that produced plays written by Soren in Santali.

For over two decades, Soren and his theatre group took their performance art outside Kolkata to the Jungle Mahal lands where they would travel from village to village, performing plays that focused on social issues relevant to the Adivasi communities of the region.

tmc jhargram TMC candidate Kalipada Soren, more commonly known as Kherwal Soren, during a political rally in Jhargram, West Bengal. (Photo: Kherwal Soren

“Kalipada Soren’s drama team has broken up, but he still writes. His theatre group would go to Jharkhand, Bihar and other parts of West Bengal. He used to act and sing himself. The jatra would happen from November to March. It is why even outside India, in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, where the Santal community lives, they know his name,” says Hansda.

In the Santal community, Soren is considered a respected elder. But more importantly, says Hansda, Soren has been visible for his work at the grassroots level. “In 2003, through his plays, he was involved in the protests that the Santal community started for the inclusion of Santali in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution,” says Hansda.

Soren is hopeful that he will win. “I have worked for 40 years in the community. People here want schools, roads and educational facilities. These have to be done by speaking with the community and government. Many are illiterate here and I am going to every village and have been pressing on education,” says Soren.

A major part of his campaign focuses on education and community development, says Soren. “The people here don’t have awareness about how to uplift themselves. If education can be given, this will be possible,” he adds.

Dr Pranat Tudu: A candidate with a passion for healthcare

In comparison, for ordinary people in Jhargram and the larger Jungle Mahal region, his opponent, BJP’s Pranat Tudu is less well-known. “Pranat Tudu was never visible to the Santal community here. So we don’t know if he can do much for the community because he was not a part of it at the grassroots,” says Hansda.

Tudu grew up in Dobati village and later left to pursue higher education at Calcutta Medical College. In 2012, Tudu moved back to Jhargram and joined the radiology department in Jhargram Medical College in 2012.

“The only reason why I came into politics was because of the lack of healthcare for the public. In Jhargram, we do not have facilities for trauma patients, but this is the problem in most districts in the state. The medical facilities are very basic and it is not sufficient. Not much can be done by doctors here. All doctors have here is usually a stethoscope and they don’t have more resources. Fixing this is only possible with politics,” says Tudu.

For most of his life, Tudu stuck with education and his job. “In college, I was involved in student politics. I would also do medical camps so that was my involvement with social service. But I was not into active politics. In December 2023, I was selected by BJP,” says Tudu.

BJP on the back foot

Much has changed in Jhargram in the five years since the 2019 general elections. A political analyst in Jhargram who requested anonymity says that when BJP won in Jhargram in 2019 on the back of Kunar Hembram, the party had a lot of workers on the ground. But over the past five years, many of these grassroots workers have left politics or joined TMC or other local social organisations.

That has left the BJP floundering in Jhargram, which was reflected in the 2023 Panchayat polls, where TMC won almost effortlessly, says the political analyst. “The issue is that BJP does not have sufficient party workers this time and TMC has its party workers in every village campaigning aggressively in Jhargram,” the analyst adds.

Hembram’s win in 2019 was likely a one-off for BJP in Jhargram, people interviewed for this report say. The win can be attributed to his opponent, sources tell “Hembram won in 2019 because (TMC’s) Birbaha Soren was opposite him. Soren’s husband, Rabin Tudu, pushed his wife to stand for elections. We have an unwritten rule in our Santal community that if someone is the leader of a community organisation, he cannot go into politics. Rabin Tudu did not resign from his organisation and instead made his wife stand for elections. So people rejected this,” says Hansda. Rabin Tudu is the state president for the Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal, an organisation in West Bengal that describes itself as “non-political”.

west bengal TMC candidate Kalipada Soren, more commonly known as Kherwal Soren, during a political rally in Jhargram, West Bengal. (Photo: Kherwal Soren)

The BJP cannot take credit for Hembram’s win in 2019, agrees Hansda. In 2013, an engineer by profession, Hembram created a software application that could be used to send messages in the Ol Chiki script used by the Santal community. For several years before this, Hembram had also worked on other projects that involved making the Ol Chiki digitally accessible to the community. “Kunar Hembram is also a senior community leader. So people knew him (for his work) and voted for him for his achievements and not for BJP,” says Hansda.

There were also other factors at play – a major one being the influence of Kurmi votes which largely went to the BJP in 2019. But the party has lost the support of this community, particularly in the Jhargram constituency. “They have done nothing for us in the past five years although BJP has many representatives in Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha from Bengal,” says Manoranjan Mahata, a member of the Adivasi Kurmi Samaj group, a community-based organisation that works for the interests of the Kurmi community in West Bengal.

The Kurmis have three main demands, in a list of 26: they want inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list from which they believe that they have been unjustly excluded; they want the Indian government to make efforts to save their culture and language; and they want Kurmali language to be included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. All these demands were key in the widespread protests that Kurmis staged last year in West Bengal, including a disruption of train services.

A Kurmi candidate raises the stakes

This year, after believing that they got no support from any political party, particularly over the past five years in West Bengal, the Kurmis have decided to field their own candidate from Jhargram – 42-year-old Barun Mahato, who filed his nomination papers on April 29.

Manoranjan Mahata told that he believes that most of the approximately 3.5-4 lakh Kurmi voters will vote for Mahato.

“I decided to stand in the elections for the recognition of rights and demands of backward communities, including those who have been made to live in backward circumstances through policies. This includes the Kurmis. Along with these, we have 26 other demands for the Kurmi community,” says Mahato, a farmer and small-time trader who stays in Balibhasha village in Jhargram.

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is also something that the indigenous community of West Bengal’s Jungle Mahal districts does not support because it goes against the indigenous faiths practised by them. “BJP gives too much importance to Hindu religion and so indigenous people reject the party,” says Hansda.

kherwal soren TMC candidate Kalipada Soren, more commonly known as Kherwal Soren, with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee during a political rally in West Bengal. (Photo: Kherwal Soren)

Tudu however, believes that BJP supports indigenous communities. “BJP was the first to make a tribal Santal our President. (The BJP-led) Centre included Santali in the 8th schedule of the Constitution. The fact that Jharkhand is a separate state is because of the BJP. These were the main demands that Santals had and BJP has done this. So the BJP is not against Adivasis,” says Tudu.

“BJP did not win Jhargram in 2019 due to Hindutva. Hindutva was there, but the major issues were grievances that people had with local TMC leadership and the manner in which panchayat elections were rigged by TMC in 2018. The results of 2019 reflected these issues. But then also, BJP was able to win by only 11,000 votes,” says Spandan Roy Basunia, a political analyst in West Bengal.

It is unlikely that BJP can pull off a similar win this year in Jhargram, say political analysts. “Since 2019, TMC has been able to improve its position. Firstly, because of development projects where Jhargram has been made a tourist destination. The local economy is getting stronger and the TMC also solved whatever inner rivalries they had. Yes, BJP’s chances are low this time, because in 2019, it was a majorly anti-TMC vote which went to them. Another major reason is that Jhargram shares its borders with Jharkhand and they have some cultural traditions in common. So, it is said that the politics of Jharkhand influences this bordering district of West Bengal to some extent,” says Basunia.

He points to how in 2019 when the BJP government was in power in Jharkhand, the party did well in Jhargram too. But since Hemant Soren became chief minister of Jharkhand in 2019, BJP’s influence witnessed a corresponding decline in Jhargram, he adds. “This time, Hemant Soren is in jail, if the Opposition parties can send this message well, then it can backfire for BJP,” says Basunia.