Skirting real issues

Print edition : May 16, 2014

Outside a polling station at Nirsa in the Dhanbad constituency on April 24. Photo: PTI

BETWEEN nine different governments and three spells of President’s Rule in its 13-year-old history, Jharkhand has earned a reputation not only as the most ill-governed State in India but also as a place where wealth from natural resources has benefited only the powerful. Human development indices and poverty levels took a massive dip even as successive governments invited huge private capital investment in the power and mining sectors. Land-grabbing and the ensuing displacement have transformed Jharkhand into a big political platform for agitations against big corporates and the development model that is dependent on them. It was, thus, no surprise that Narendra Modi’s speech in December 2013 at a public meeting in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, blaming the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments for the State’s backwardness and exhorting people to give his party one chance to overturn its fortunes elicited bitter criticism.

The BJP and its allies have ruled the State for the highest number of days in 13 years—3,134 days cumulatively, to be precise. Independent MLA Madhu Koda’s 709 days in government, supported by the Congress, is the second highest. Despite this fact, the BJP, in its campaign, has been successful in projecting Modi as “a strong and effective leader”, a political pitch that has many takers in this underdeveloped State, and in putting “price rise” as its primary agenda, the most crucial issue among the electorate.

However, unlike in other north Indian States, the mood in Jharkhand is not particularly against the Congress or any regional party. There is a perceptible disdain among people towards the political class, a public sentiment the BJP seems to have capitalised on. “It is because of this contempt against the political class that the BJP has projected Modi as a figure who would not only cleanse the political system but also tame the corrupt BJP leaders of the State,” said a political commentator who did not want to be named. Not surprisingly, this correspondent noted that in the Dhanbad constituency, where the incumbent BJP Member of Parliament P.N. Singh is seeking re-election, BJP activists were campaigning door to door with the slogan: “ P.N. Singh toh majboori hai, Modi magar zaroori hai. (P.N. Singh is just a compulsion, Modi is a necessity).” In most other constituencies, many BJP activists seemed energised while cheering, “ Har Har Modi, Har Ghar Modi”, a popular north Indian Saivite chant converted into a slogan for Modi.

Most people this correspondent talked to admitted to a general enthusiasm for Modi in the absence of a viable alternative or a vision for development. “We do not expect Modi to come and transform the State but we hope that he fixes the problem of drinking water,” said Lalchand Mahato, a driver in Dhanbad, referring to the scarcity of potable water in the State. The popularity of Modi is visible among the majority Hindu electorate across caste groups. This is based upon very small expectations from him, one of which is to make the State governments, including that of the BJP, accountable. In a State where people are bothered about survival, the scams that unfolded during the United Progressive Alliance-II government have caught little imagination. And that is, perhaps, why the personality cult of Modi works best in the BJP’s electoral campaign.

Realpolitik considerations

Consequently, the BJP State unit did not advance the Gujarat model of development in Jharkhand as it would have backfired. “Vikas (development) is a dirty word in Jharkhand. It means more land-grabbing,” said Xavier Dias, a Ranchi-based activist. None of the political parties, except the Left political groups, is addressing the problems relating to displacement as a political issue even if it has the capability to strike a chord with the masses. There seems to be a consensus among mainstream political parties in Jharkhand to sweep the issue of indiscriminate industrialisation under the carpet.

“If you look at the State’s recent history, there is an emergence of a rich class among the Adivasis who have benefited from the indiscriminate industrialisation. They are there in both the Congress and the BJP. What the BJP has done is to protect these people and help them manage their black money. The Congress, despite being a party to the State’s plunder, has failed to do that. And that is why the BJP has become very strong in the State,” Dias said, explaining why real issues like land-grabbing, unemployment and poor education facilities are not even symbolically important in the political dialogue of the mainstream parties.

Such a state of political affairs and a consensus for the neoliberal model of development among the political class, irrespective of parties, reflect in the realpolitik in various ways, and often compel the mainstream parties to exploit the existing caste and religious fissures in society. Despite the Modi cult becoming popular among Hindus, the BJP has depended on systematically polarising votes across religious lines. “We have seen unprecedented Hindu-Muslim polarisation in Jharkhand. And most of it is because the Muslims see Modi as a Hindutva leader,” said Vinod Ojha, a Ranchi-based journalist. In the first two phases of the elections in the State, there were reports of Muslim consolidation against Modi in favour of the candidate who was best placed to defeat the BJP in each constituency.

According to Mahtab Alam, an anti-communalism activist based in Bangalore, Census 2001 figures show that 37.3 lakh people, or 13.8 per cent of the population, in Jharkhand are Muslims. This makes it the largest minority community in the State where there is also a substantial population of Christian Adivasis (4.1 per cent). Around 14 per cent of the population are Adivasis, into whose heartland the BJP has made inroads in the last few years.

Such minority consolidation has happened over the last six months after Modi was made the prime ministerial nominee. “BJP activists showed increased aggression against Muslims in the run-up to the elections. Existing stereotypes about Muslims were reinforced,” said a political commentator.

The BJP’s tactic is to clearly unite the Hindu votes against Muslims and Christians. Coupled with the projection of Modi as a strong leader, the BJP’s campaign to polarise voters along religious lines is strategically the best bet for the party’s fortunes in the State. In response, the other three main parties—the Congress, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) or the JVM—have depended on forging electoral alliances to capitalise on caste equations.

Congress-JMM alliance

The Congress-JMM alliance hopes to get the support of Hindu caste groups that have supported the Congress in all the 14 constituencies and substantial tribal votes that the JMM commands. Its political campaign is based on three main considerations: JMM leader Shibu Soren’s emotional appeal among the people, caste-wise candidatures, and the consolidation of anti-Modi votes, primarily of Muslims. However, the JMM’s workers are visibly unhappy over the seat-sharing arrangement. The JMM is contesting only four of the 14 seats, ceding 10 seats to the Congress. This was the exchange offer the Congress had made for support to the government led by Shibu Soren’s son, Hemant, last year.

The JVM, led by former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi, is supported by the Left parties and is fighting elections on the issues of tribal identity. It has been talking about issues of dignity and the tribal self-governance model.

Clearly, non-BJP parties are banking on constituency-level caste and religious equations to beat Modi’s rising popularity among the Hindu electorate. His popularity is mostly concentrated in cities and urban hamlets, but voting in the State has seen strong communal polarisation. However, what can become an additional advantage for the BJP is that unlike the Congress and other parties, it has built a strong cadre-driven organisation, with its activists coming mainly from a substantial population of Hindu upper castes and backward-class Kurmis.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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