With the Election Commission announcing a five-phase voting schedule for Jharkhand, which has 81 Assembly constituencies, from November 30 to December 20, the stage is set for a keen contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance. The counting of votes will take place on December 23.
Jharkhand is known for throwing up unexpected election results. If there was one State where the BJP was expected to lose ground in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it was Jharkhand. In 2014, the party swept the Lok Sabha election, winning 12 of the 14 seats, and also formed the government in the State, led by Chief Minister Raghubar Das. However, his proposed changes in tenancy laws and the plan to close down small schools in remote areas of the State made him unpopular and the State was widely being perceived to have turned against the BJP. And the mahagathbandhan of the Congress, the JMM, the RJD and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) was expected to make huge gains.
That was not to be. Turning all political forecasts upside down, the BJP combine won 12 seats again—one seat was won by its ally, the All Jharkhand Students Union(AJSU)—in the Lok Sabha election, while its vote share too remained over 40 per cent.
The failure of the opposition alliance to effectively exploit the widespread anger against the State government has emboldened the BJP to once again repose faith in the leadership of Raghubar Das and declare him its chief ministerial candidate. Also, the BJP has already declared its list of 52 candidates without consulting the AJSU, which is reported to be upset about the manner in which it has been treated.
The Congress, which had gone into hibernation following the Lok Sabha debacle, has clearly learnt some lessons from its performance in the Maharashtra and Haryana elections. It has announced a pre-election alliance with the JMM and the RJD.
The party, accepting the ground realities, has given the larger share of seats to the JMM, which will contest 43 seats. Now the Congress will contest 31 and the RJD seven. This subordination to the JMM, however, has not gone down well with many senior Congress leaders, who were camping in New Delhi to get the ticket for their supporters. Much to the chagrin of such leaders, however, the party has also declared that JMM president Hemant Soren will be the alliance’s chief ministerial candidate.
“This was already settled at the time of the Lok Sabha election. We had decided that the Congress would be the bigger partner for the Lok Sabha election while the JMM would be the big brother in the Assembly elections. Hemant Soren’s name as the chief ministerial nominee too had been decided back then,” said Vinod Pandey, general secretary of the JMM.
If electoral arithmetic is anything to go by, the grand alliance has its calculations right. Tribal people account for 26.3 per cent of the State’s population and 28 constituencies are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, and so it makes sense to have a tribal person as the chief ministerial nominee, especially when Raghubar Das, a non-tribal person, is believed to have earned the ire of the tribal people and many of his policies are being viewed as anti-tribal. For example, the proposed changes in the tenancy laws, which take away the protection tribal people enjoy over their land, were a sore point during the Lok Sabha election. Sensing the anger of the tribal community, the BJP put the decision on hold then, but the issue still remains controversial. During Raghubar Das’ visit to Khunti before the Lok Sabha election, where he had gone to pay tributes to martyrs of the Munda uprising, slippers and shoes were hurled at him. But this obviously did not stop the people from voting for the BJP nominee, Arjun Munda, in the Lok Sabha election.
Arjun Munda, a former Chief Minister, who was contesting his first Lok Sabha election, was pitted against the veteran Congress leader Kalicharan Munda. All the tribal angst and so-called consolidation of non-BJP votes could not prevent him from being elected. (Kalicharan Munda lost to Arjun Munda by 1,098 votes.) This likely spurred the BJP to declare Raghubar Das as its chief ministerial candidate once again although speculation in Ranchi was rife at the time of the Lok Sabha election that he may not be the face of the party in the Assembly election.
If the last Assembly election results are anything to go by, the BJP has no reason to worry. In 2014, it comfortably won 43 seats. The opposition parties had all contested separately and the Congress won only six seats, the JMM 19 and the Babulal Marandi-led JVM eight. Six of Marandi’s MLAs later defected to the BJP, giving it a comfortable majority.
The coming together of the opposition parties for the Lok Sabha election did not lead to a consolidation of anti-BJP votes, thereby establishing that the people of the State vote differently in national and State elections.
In this scenario, the forthcoming battle does seem heavily tilted towards the BJP, unless, of course, one looks at it in the context of the recent electoral outcomes in Maharashtra and Haryana, where the BJP’s tally fell from its 2014 score.
Besides, the BJP’s allies such as the AJSU and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) might create problems for it. The AJSU joined hands with the BJP for the 2014 Assembly elections and won five of the eight seats it contested. This time, the party wants 19 seats but the BJP is in no mood to concede so many seats. The AJSU has declared the names of candidates for 12 seats and four of these overlap with the BJP.
The LJP, which had contested one seat with the BJP in 2014, and lost, wants to contest all the seats on its own this time. The AJSU, which brings in the tribal vote for the BJP, could prove to be a big headache.
The BJP remains confident of sweeping the election once again. Its optimism likely stems from the fact that it had won several Lok Sabha seats where the opposition was tipped to win. For example, Dumka, considered a stronghold of the JMM patriarch Shibu Soren, was won by the BJP’s Sunil Soren by about 48,000 votes. Similarly, Koderma, supposed to be the stronghold of former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, went to the BJP with a huge margin. Marandi was pitted against Annapurna Devi, who had switched loyalties to the BJP from the RJD, where she was the State president. But Marandi, who was the mahagathbandhan candidate, lost by 4,55,600 votes.
“The Lok Sabha election was a different story altogether. The BJP had turned the pitch on nationalism so high that we couldn’t match it. It was sheer madness which propelled voters at that time,” said a senior Congress leader from Jharkhand.
The opposition is hoping that issues affecting the people, such as tenancy laws, land acquisition policies and clubbing of schools, would make people think twice before voting for the BJP this time.
“The land acquisition policies of the government, seeking to create a land pool, will displace 10-11 lakh tribal people from their land. Similarly, clubbing of small schools with bigger ones will result in the closing down of 12,000 schools in the remote areas. We are just hoping that these issues will weigh on the minds of voters,” said a senior Congress leader.
Also, Jharkhand witnessed a spurt in the number of lynching cases during the Raghubar Das regime and reports of conviction are hard to come by.
This has resulted in a feeling of insecurity among Muslims, who, together with tribal people and Christians, form a huge vote bank.
However, what may queer the pitch for the opposition is the announcement by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief, Asaduddin Owaisi, that his party will contest all seats in Jharkhand. Owaisi, who is seeking to expand his party beyond Hyderabad, is eyeing Jharkhand and Bihar where he thinks Muslims are looking for an alternative to the Congress and other secular parties.
“I was in Ranchi for a meeting recently and I was surprised to see that thousands had gathered for the rally despite pouring rain. Muslims are looking for an alternative all over India as they feel they have only been used by other secular parties, which have failed to give them either representation or empowerment,” he told Frontline recently. Political observers are of the view that if the Muslim vote shifts to the AIMIM, the BJP will get a walkover in Jharkhand.
But it is a long process and the equations may change during the course of the five phases of voting. An interesting contest is on the cards.