SARYU RAI, chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto committee in Jharkhand, was jubilance personified when he met journalists in Ranchi after the results of the Assembly elections were announced. He had enough reasons to be so. First, his prediction that Jharkhand would throw up a victory for the BJP like that in the Haryana elections had become true when the party and its ally, the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), won 42 of the 81 seats in the State.
Several BJP leaders and activists said the jubilation was all the more intense since it came after many tense moments during the counting of votes as well as during the campaign when the electoral fortunes of the BJP alliance seemed to waver. At several junctures it seemed as though the alliance would score fewer than 40 seats and make post-election negotiations with other regional forces necessary. However, at the end of it all the BJP got 37 seats and the AJSU five, leading to a barely there majority for the combine.
The verdict throws up many historical firsts. Though by one seat, a pre-election alliance has won a majority for the first time in Jharkhand since its formation in 2000. Again, for the first time in its 14 years of existence, the State has a non-tribal Chief Minister in Raghubar Das, who belongs to the Teli community. Jharkhand has a high concentration of the Scheduled Tribe people, who form 26.2 per cent of its population. Though the BJP had not projected any leader for the Chief Minister’s post, the general impression within the alliance and outside was that Arjun Munda, the party’s tribal leader who served as Chief Minister for five years over three terms in 14 years, was the front runner. However, Munda lost in Kharasawan, which was considered his stronghold, leading to the beginning of a new chapter in Jharkhand’s political history.
Making new inroads
The BJP performed well in all the five electoral regions of the State. It emerged number one in four of these regions. In Kolhan the party came a close second, behind the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM), the prominent regional party in the State, which headed the outgoing government. In the other four regions—South Chhota Nagpur, Santhal Pargana, North Chhota Nagpur and Palamu—the BJP was clearly dominant.
The party’s emergence in the tribal-dominated Santhal Pargana region is the most significant development. Here, of the total 18 seats, the BJP won seven, pipping the JMM, which got six. Five years ago in the 2009 Assembly elections, the JMM was the clear winner in the region with nine seats against the BJP’s three. Similarly, in the Palamu region the BJP doubled its strength, winning six of the 13 seats. In the other regions too, the BJP consolidated its position in its traditional strongholds and captured new areas.
According to many State BJP leaders, the alliance’s performance would have been even better had the JMM not put up surprisingly spirited fights in several constituencies. In Kolhan, the JMM emerged on top by winning three more seats as compared to that in 2009, despite the anti-incumbency factor. In other areas too, the party showed that the change of guard in the party, from veteran leader Shibu Soren to young outgoing Chief Minister, Hemant Soren, enhanced its electoral and organisational spunk. Its overall tally in the Assembly improved marginally from 18 to 19 seats.
Right through the campaign the State BJP leadership pointed out four factors that would help the party and its ally surge ahead in the elections. These were the BJP’s unprecedented victory in the Lok Sabha elections held six months ago, winning 12 of the 14 seats in the State; the absence of a grand secular alliance though parties like the JMM, the Congress and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) had tried for it; the anti-incumbency sentiment against the JMM government; and the persisting impact of the Narendra Modi factor.
Indeed, a major campaign slogan of the BJP revolved around the Modi factor and the call for a stable government in the State that would move along with Modi’s leadership at the Centre. All this, combined with the organisational manoeuvres under the supervision of BJP president Amit Shah, were considered enough to take the BJP alliance comfortably past the majority mark.
However, as the campaign and polling unfolded over five phases, there was doubt in the BJP State leadership and the rank and file of the party whether things would work exactly according to plan. After two rounds of polling, a senior State BJP leader told Frontline that the estimate on the minimum number of seats that the BJP would win ranged from 35 to 38. (“Mission impossible?”, Frontline , December 26, 2014).
The party’s final tally of 37 was in keeping with this estimate. Several BJP leaders, however, admit privately that the figures in the Assembly elections show the reduced electoral impact of the Modi factor.
A comparison of the electoral statistics of the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections is interesting in this context. The BJP got 52,07,439 votes and was leading in 56 Assembly segments when it won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections earlier this year. Barely six months later, it got 43,31,145 votes and 37 seats. However, the party doubled its vote and seat share in comparison to the 2009 Assembly elections (20,74,215 votes and 18 seats).
The JMM, on the other hand, got 15,67,655 votes and was leading in nine Assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Its vote and seat share doubled in six months to 28,30,749 and 19 respectively. The performance was better than what the party had put up in 2009 too, when it got 18 seats. Leaders of the JMM cite these figures to argue that under Hemant Soren’s leadership the party will become vibrant organisationally and politically. “We will be able to play the role of an effective opposition in the days to come and our political relevance will continue to grow,” JMM leader Stephen Marandi told Frontline .
Another factor the JMM thinks will help it in the post-poll scenario is the marginalisation of tribal leaders belonging to other parties. Arjun Munda’s electoral defeat has marginalised him in the BJP. Similarly, Babulal Marandi, the State’s first Chief Minister, lost from both Giridih and Dhanwar. Marandi was one of the tallest leaders in the BJP when he was anointed Chief Minister in November 2000. He left the party and formed the JVM in 2006, claiming to formulate a third pole in the State’s politics.
The JVM’s fortunes had been fluctuating over the past eight years, with 2014 marking its worst-ever performance. Its number of seats in the Assembly dropped from 11 to eight though the party sought to rope in some non-tribal communities by aligning with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. With the individual defeat of these two prominent tribal leaders, Hemant Soren is the only tribal leader to have made some gains in this election, though his party was ousted from power.
Along with the JVM, the Congress too has to get into introspection mode. It had 14 seats in the outgoing Assembly; this came down to six in this election. Its vote share too came down steadily. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress got 17,24,704 votes; this came down to 14,46,879 in the Assembly elections. However, in the Lok Sabha elections it led only in three Assembly segments, and despite the decrease in vote share, the number of seats went up this time. But, as many leaders of the party told Frontline, this is small consolation.
The BJP’s victory in the Assembly election has come as a setback to Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, who are busy scripting the merger of the Janata Parivar factions in a bid to stop that party’s rise in Bihar, where elections are due next year.
The two prominent regional parties of Bihar also suffered their biggest reverses since the formation of Jharkhand. For the first time in the history of the State both parties drew a blank. In the previous Assembly the parties had two and seven seats respectively.
Evidently, the BJP has made major gains in the Assembly elections and in the process changed many of the basic parameters of Jharkhand’s politics. The most important among them are a majority of seats for a pre-poll alliance and the emergence of a non-tribal Chief Minister. The party fought the elections on the slogan of a stable government, too. While technically the numbers indicate a stable government, both the dependence on the AJSU for a majority and a non-tribal Chief Minister in a State with a significant tribal population raise questions about the government’s political efficacy.
Leaders of the BJP such as Rai advocate patience and caution and are hopeful of a new and positive destiny for the State. “We have fought against odds and won. Now we shall fight against political problems raised by traditional thinking and provide good governance and a better future for Jharkhand,” Rai said.