Addressing a press conference in Ranchi on December 6, former Union Minister P. Chidambaram declared, “We dented them [the Bharatiya Janata Party] in Haryana, denied them in Maharashtra and we will defeat them in Jharkhand.” Many media persons were seen suppressing their laughter, as Chidambaram struggled to understand questions thrown at him in Hindi and answered in English. Not many could understand why he was there at all.
What seemed like wishful thinking then became the reality when the results for the 81-seat election came in. While talking to reporters, he had urged the people of Jharkhand to be beware of “empty high-sounding words” and not get “distracted by the diversionary tactics of the BJP”. The BJP lost the State, winning only 25 seats, down by 12 seats since the last Assembly election, though it garnered 33.4 per cent of the votes. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance registered a comfortable win with 47 seats between them. The JMM, which had contested 43 seats, won 30 with 18.8 per cent of the votes. The Congress, which had contested 31 seats, won 16 with 13.85 per cent of the votes. The RJD, which had contested seven seats, won only one seat.
Chidambaram had said: “You need to focus on these 81 seats. Jharkhand’s economy is in deep trouble. You need a government which understands what needs to be done. Jharkhand, one of the poorest States, will suffer more than others. Your economy has slid backwards in the last five years. Raghubar Das has been identified with backwardness and incompetence. The BJP must go.”
Cost of estrangement
The arrogance of the BJP’s State leaders, who treated all allies as dispensable, seems to have cost the party dear. Allies such as the Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) contested the election on their own. The biggest setback, however, was caused by the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), a BJP ally from the beginning. The AJSU fell out with the BJP when it announced its first list of 52 candidates, including in seats which the AJSU had claimed in closed-door conversations with BJP leaders. The AJSU had not been consulted. AJSU leader Sudesh Mahto responded by declaring a list of 53 candidates and announced that the party was on its own. The AJSU may have won only two seats, down by three seats since the last Assembly election, but it has secured roughly 8 per cent of the votes. A senior BJP leader in Ranchi admitted that alienating the AJSU had been a mistake.
BJP leaders seem to have expected an AJSU contesting on its own to mop up tribal seats that might be lost to the BJP because of tribal anger against the party. If tribal votes combined with votes from backward classes returned 10 or 12 seats for the AJSU, these could have helped the BJP in the event of its falling short of a majority, assuming that a post-elecction understanding could have been worked out. If this was the game plan, voters saw through it and gave the AJSU a wide berth. The JMM-Congress alliance repeatedly warned tribal voters that the AJSU was merely the BJP’s “B team” and would side with its anti-tribal policies if it came to power. , “The AJSU is not a political party but an organised political bargaining gang,” JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharjee told Frontline. It was a point that the alliance never lost an opportunity to drive home.
Chastening of Raghubar Das
Not only did the BJP lose the State, but even Chief Minister Raghubar Das was trounced, and that too by a party rebel, Saryu Rai. Known to be a crusader against corruption, a disenchanted Rai had stopped attending Cabinet meetings and even public platforms where Das was present. He quit after he was denied the party ticket, apparently at Das’ behest, in Jamshedpur West, where he was the sitting MLA. In choosing to contest as an independent against the Chief Minister in Jamshedpur East constituency, Rai declared, his sole purpose was to defeat Das, who had won the seat continuously from 1995. Das lost to him by 15,833 votes.
Das, who was a non-tribal Chief Minister in a State with a 28 per cent tribal population, was projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate yet again. The BJP leadership evidently believed him to be popular because the party secured 12 of the State’s 14 parliamentary seats in May under his watch. Yet, Das’ unpopularity was quite evident throughout the long-drawn-out campaigning in the State. His rudeness and arrogance upset party workers, common people and even journalists. He was reportedly abusive to officials and did not consult party colleagues on crucial matters.
The tribal factor
His tampering with tenancy laws, which provoked an uproar and forced him to retreat; the land acquisition policies of his government; and the controversial move to close down small schools in remote areas were all seen to be striking at tribal interests. For the State’s tribal people, this election was a fight to save their “jal, jangal, jameen” (water, forest, land) because they believed Raghubar Das would take away their land if he came to power again. The BJP won only two out of Jharkhand’s 28 tribal seats, Khunti and Torpa. The verdict is being seen as a measure of tribal resentment against the party, though ironically the two seats it won are in Khunti district, the epicentre of the Pathalgadi movement, which symbolises tribal opposition to the government’s tampering with their rights. The JMM won 19 tribal seats, while the Congress won six.
Babulal marandi and JVM
This election also busted the myth of Babulal Marandi being a tribal leader in his own right. His Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), which was part of the opposition alliance during the Lok Sabha election, contested all seats on its own this time but won only three. The former BJP leader was Jharkhand’s first Chief Minister and was credited with having a vision for the fledgling State’s development. But his controversial domicile policies landed him in a soup and caused embarrassment to the BJP, which replaced him with Arjun Munda. Marandi left the BJP to establish the JVM. In the 2014 Assembly election, the JVM won eight seats, but Babulal Marandi lost. Six of his MLAs then shifted to the BJP, which won only 37 seats in 2014, notwithstanding the Narendra Modi wave, and was short of a majority. The six MLAs from Marandi’s party helped it to secure the numbers in the Assembly.
The winning formula
Timely decision-making, agreement on common issues and the chief ministerial face were the factors that worked for the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance. The alliance, stitched together at the time of Lok Sabha election, stuck together and both the Congress and the RJD respected the decision taken then to project Hemant Soren as the Chief Minister. This was seen as a surrender to the regional party by the Congress, and many senior State Congress leaders were known to be sulking. But in 2014, the party won only six seats, though it contested all, with a little over 10 per cent of the votes. It had clearly lost ground in Jharkhand, and there was no option but to ally with the JMM if it wanted a foothold in the State.
For the JMM, it has been an upward journey since the first State election in 2000. So far known only for the infamous bribery scandal involving its patriarch Shibu Soren (to save Narasimha Rao’s minority government in 1991), this is the first time that the party has broken out of its past shackles and emerged as the party with the largest mandate. From 12 seats in 2000, 17 in 2005, 18 in 2009, and 19 in 2014, the JMM has now, with its tally of 30 seats, overtaken the BJP as the single largest party. What now remains to be seen is how the alliance, derisively called “mahamilavati” (hugely adulterated) by the Prime Minister, goes about the task of government formation and governance. Some of the announcements made by P. Chidambaram on December 6 at his press conference, which also find mention in the Congress manifesto, would need huge resources: for example, one member of each family to be given a job or unemployment allowance; a house for each family; increased allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; increased minimum support price for paddy at Rs.2,500 a quintal; waiver of crop loan up to Rs.2 lakh. “No ifs, no buts,” Chidmabaram said.
He also announced that a common minimum programme would be formulated a day before the government took oath. The alliance has pledged to return to farmers unused land acquired for projects and to delink the public distribution system from Aadhaar. Big promises, all.
The election result in Jharkhand should drive home to the BJP that its hyper-nationalistic propaganda may work once or even twice, but not every time. It is all very well to talk about a gaganchumbi (sky-high) Ram Mandir or Article 370 or triple talaaq or weeding out ghuspathiya (intruders) with the Citizenship Amendment Act. But when people are dying of hunger, violent mobs go on lynching sprees, educated young people fail to get jobs, prices of essentials go through the roof, people want to hear the Prime Minister talk of solutions to these problems.
Modi addressed nine rallies in the State; Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed 11; and a bevy of other BJP bigwigs lined up to sing paens to the Prime Minister. Yet the unimpressed Jharkhand voter decided to give the low-profile Hemant Soren a chance to see if he had solutions to his/her problems.