Tribal resentment

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in Lohardanga on April 24. Photo: PTI

The BJP seems armed with little apart from the Modi factor in a State where the consolidation of tribal and minority votes in favour of the opposition alliance seems to preclude the possibility of a 2014-like sweep by the party.

“Narendra Modi is the only issue in this election,” Sanjay Seth, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) nominee for the Ranchi Lok Sabha constituency, told this correspondent in a candid interview after filing his nomination on April 15, amid hectic campaigning. As one travels across the State, the real meaning of this statement becomes clear. Not a single BJP banner or poster features any other leader, not even local candidates. The only poster that greets one everywhere carries the Prime Minister’s picture with the slogan “Phir ek baar Modi sarkar” (Modi government one more time).

For the State’s BJP supporters, this is a veritable mantra. Ajay Kumar, a magazine shop owner in Bokaro in the Dhanbad Lok Sabha constituency, commented: “Sab Modimay hai [everything is coloured in Modi’s hues].” The BJP’s candidate in Dhanbad is P.N. Singh, considered a “clean” man with no criminal or corruption charges against him but dismissed by voters as a “non-performer”. They still plan to vote for the BJP: “We will vote for Modi, with our eyes closed” is the refrain. Ajay Kumar said P.N. Singh might not be popular but would still get votes because of Modi. “This election is being fought on caste and religion. People have no work, no jobs, but will still vote for the BJP,” he said. “There has been no leader like Modiji in my recent memory. He has made us feel that we too have some identity. Our prestige in the world has gone up. He has taught Pakistan a lesson,” said Pradip Kumar, an employee at Ginger Hotel in Bokaro. Ajay Sharma, from the same hotel, seconded him: “ Modiji has worked a lot for the country.” Sudhir Kumar Sinha, a BJP worker in Dhanbad’s Phutki block, said: “People will vote for Modi despite all their reservations about P.N. Singh.”

Voters who are unhappy with P.N. Singh might end up voting for him also because he is “at least a local man”, unlike the Congress candidate Kirti Azad, the cricketer-turned-politician and former BJP MP from Darbhanga in Bihar. In Dhanbad, Kirti Azad is perceived as an outsider, which makes P.N. Singh, as Ajay Kumar commented, a “compulsion” candidate.

Congress calculations

The Congress had failed to get the Darbhanga seat for Azad. Manoj Kumar, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) member from Bokaro, admitted that party workers in Dhanbad were initially not happy with Azad but claimed that they had now made their peace with his candidature and were campaigning for him. “It is the party which fights an election. Once the party has decided, people have to accept it,” he said. He added that the alliance arithmetic was working out well this time. A bonus in Dhanbad, he said, was the support of the Marxist Coordination Committee, which had a support base of over one lakh votes. “Our [the opposition alliance] numbers add up to over six lakh, while they have over two lakh votes. We are winning this seat,” he said. The presence of an independent candidate, Siddarth Gautam, in the fray was further helping the alliance, he said. Siddarth Gautam is the son of a local don, Surajdeo Singh, and will cut into the upper-caste vote and thus hurt P.N. Singh. Munnan Ali, veteran Congress leader from Dhanbad and an AICC member, said the social equation there made Kirti Azad’s victory a foregone conclusion. “P.N. Singh’s track record is not good. Besides, there are local problems in Dhanbad like the coal industry crisis, water and power problems and loss of jobs. People are so upset with the BJP that even if we did not campaign, they would vote for us,” he said.

Dissatisfaction with Policies

Unlike the BJP, which has only the Modi factor to showcase, the opposition alliance in Jharkhand is armed with a number of contentious issues arising out of some controversial decisions of the Raghubar Das government. His tampering with tenancy and land acquisition laws and the proposed move to close down government schools in rural areas have upset the tribal people. Vinod Pandey, general secretary of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which emerged as the champion of tribal rights through its years of struggle for a separate Jharkhand State, said: “The proposed changes in the Land Acquisition and Forest Rights Act are threatening to displace 10-11 lakh tribal families. This is being done to acquire land to create a land pool apparently for industrial purposes, but those facing displacement, mostly tribal people, are left in the lurch.” The JMM, which is contesting the election in alliance with the Congress, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, has successfully mobilised tribal support for the alliance in the name of protecting tribal people’s “jal, jangal, jameen” [water, forest and land].

The State government’s proposed move to club small village schools with bigger ones will lead to the closure of over 12,000 schools in remote areas. The government says the move is meant to save its resources. The reasoning does not cut much ice with the tribal people. Thousands of tribal children will be forced to drop out of school if the government goes ahead with the plan. Amrish Bharati, a local BJP worker in Lohardaga Lok Sabha constituency, which voted on April 29, admitted: “It is a difficult proposition to get tribal people to vote for us.” Ramesh Uraon, a former MLA from the Bishunpur Assembly segment in Lohardaga, agreed, saying the consolidation of tribal and minority (both Christian and Muslim) votes was posing a tough challenge for the BJP everywhere in the State.

Incidentally, Raghubar Das is the first non-tribal Chief Minister in the 19-year-old State, which was carved out of Bihar in 2000.

The veteran BJP leader Ram Tahal Chaudhary’s rebellion in Ranchi is also adding to the BJP’s woes. Chaudhary, the sitting MP from Ranchi, was denied the ticket, apparently on age grounds, but this did not go down well with the local people. Chaudhary was one of the founder members of the party in the State and was an active member of the Jana Sangh from 1964. He is now contesting as an independent candidate from Ranchi and threatens to seriously cut into the BJP candidate Sanjay Seth’s votes. Speaking to this correspondent, Chaudhary said: “This is not the party that Atal-Advani brought into existence. I have been one of the founder members of the party, ever since the days when no one knew of the Jana Sangh. To deny me the ticket, that too without any discussion, is humiliating. I have been punished for being vocal about the government’s mistakes, for asking for rational explanations. But now, there is no debate or discussion in the party and if you dare to question, you are the enemy. There is no democracy in the party now. This is not good for the country.” He added that he was now free to speak the truth because he was out of the party. “This truth will hurt them not only in Ranchi but in many more seats. They don’t know that unlike in Gujarat, here in Jharkhand people respect their elders.”

Chaudhary’s rebellion can cost the BJP dear. A respected figure in the State, he contested from the Ranchi Lok Sabha seat seven times in the past and won five times. After he announced his decision to contest as an independent candidate, senior State BJP leaders sent him feelers to persuade him to withdraw, but he stood his ground.

The BJP’s lone ally in the State, the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), admitted that the party was fighting against the odds. Jalnath Chaudhary, a senior AJSU leader from Ranchi, who was in the midst of campaigning for Sanjay Seth, admitted that the tribal vote was getting consolidated in favour of the opposition. “It is a tough task, but we are trying our best to lure at least some of them,” he said, confirming that the tribal people were angry with the BJP’s policies. He said however that the AJSU would be able to secure some votes for the BJP since the outfit had been born out of the struggle for the State’s creation.

The tribal anger against the BJP, however, cannot be wished away. The consolidation of tribal and minority votes in favour of the opposition alliance makes it a challenging contest for the BJP in Jharkhand. It is unlikely to repeat its performance of 2014, when it bagged 12 out of the State’s 14 seats.

Purnima S. Tripathi has travelled in Ranchi, Bokaro and Dhanbad for this story.