The seat-sharing almost completed, the alliance led by the JMM and the Congress in Jharkhand hopes to ride the anti-incumbency wave against the ruling BJP in the Assembly elections.
THE Assembly elections in February are set to test the strength of the bonds among the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) partners at the Centre. If in Bihar, the ties between the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) would be put to test, in the tiny State of Jharkhand, which has 81 Assembly constituencies, it is the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) relations that will be on test.
These will be the first Assembly elections in Jharkhand, which came into existence in November 2000. An interesting contest is expected between the Congress and the Shibu Soren-led JMM for the chief ministership. The first round has gone in favour of the regional party. After almost three days of marathon meetings, the Congress and the JMM decided to contest 33 and 35 seats respectively. The remaining 13 seats have been earmarked for the RJD and the Left parties.
The Congress yielded ground to the JMM grudgingly when Shibu Soren insisted on contesting "at least one seat more than the Congress". At one stage, it appeared that the talks would break down as the Congress leaders holding the negotiations, including Arjun Singh, Makhan Lal Fotedar and Harikesh Bahadur, refused to grant Soren his wish. According to sources close to Soren, he walked out of the meeting with the Congress leaders, saying that he would hold any further talks only with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. He was irked by the Congress leaders' insistence on contesting an equal number of seats, that is, 34 each. It was only on Sonia's intervention (she personally called Soren for a meeting the next morning) that the deal could be clinched.
The RJD has nine sitting members in the outgoing Assembly. Besides, it has four MLAs who broke away from the Janata Dal (United). These four are not being counted either by the Congress or by the JMM for seat-sharing purposes. "The RJD will have to give them seats from its own quota if it so wishes," JMM leader and Rajya Sabha member Stephen Marandi told Frontline.
Explaining the formula adopted to decide the number of seats for parties in the alliance, Marandi said that "winnability" was the main factor. For this, the number of sitting candidates and those who were runners-up in the previous elections (held when Jharkhand was part of Bihar) were considered. As per this criterion, the JMM had 22 seats while the Congress had 25.
But the JMM insisted that this formula could not be followed because the situation had changed after the creation of the State and more so after the recent Lok Sabha elections, in which the party once again proved its strength. According to JMM leaders, if it were not for the JMM, the UPA would not have won all but one seat from the State. The JMM and Congress together won 10 of the 11 seats they contested, while the RJD won two. The Communist Party of India, which had the support of the Congress and the JMM, won one seat, defeating former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The CPI's Bhubaneshwar Prasad Mehta defeated Yashwant Sinha by a staggering margin of 1,05, 328 votes, which according to JMM leaders, would not have been possible without their party's help.
The JMM also reminded the Congress of an understanding between them during the Lok Sabha elections; according to this, the Congress was given more seats in the Lok Sabha elections since it was a national party, while he JMM would be given more seats in the Assembly elections. Interestingly, the combined might of the UPA wiped out the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Jharkhand in the Lok Sabha elections. It could win only one seat: that of Kodarma, where BJP vice-president Babulal Marandi, also a former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, defeated the JMM's Champa Verma. Significantly enough, this victory was made possible because the JMM and the Congress could not arrive at an understanding on the seat and the anti-BJP vote got split.
In fact, it was this fear of the BJP's return, in case more such "friendly contests" occurred in the Assembly elections as well, that finally forced the Congress to concede the JMM's demand for more seats. JMM leaders also point to another "friendly contest", in Rajmahal, in the Lok Sabha elections, in which JMM candidate Hemlal Murmu defeated State Congress chief of the time Thomas Hansda.
Now that the seat-sharing process is over, the other most important factor facing the alliance is that of leadership. This is one issue that will not be talked about until the declaration of results. The JMM argues that since it was at the forefront of the struggle for the creation of the separate State of Jharkhand, it deserved to get "rewarded" with the chief ministership.
"The JMM has fought for the tribal people here for more than 100 years now. If it does not get the Chief Minister's post, who should?" JMM leaders ask. According to them, the only compensation for the long-neglected tribal people of Jharkhand can be a tribal Chief Minister from the JMM. Who else will qualify for this but guruji, as Soren is fondly called by his supporters?
Ask guruji and he refuses to be drawn into a discussion on this issue. "Who am I to decide this? The people will decide," he says. But though he would not like to say it in so many words, this has been the prime consideration for insisting on the maximum number of seats. The JMM hopes that if it wins a higher number of seats than the Congress, its claim for the chief ministership can be strengthened.
The Congress, however, has given no indication yet whether it will accept his claim. "Have we rejected his claim? These things cannot be decided in questions and answers. Let the results be announced first," Arjun Singh, who has been entrusted with the task of negotiating with both Soren and Laloo Prasad Yadav (in Bihar), told Frontline. He said it was too early to talk about the leadership issue now. "Our first priority is to fight together in alliance and work in the interest of the nation to defeat communal forces. Everyone will get his due share when the time comes," he said.
Fotedar, however, was more forthright. He said such talks were meaningless at the moment. "Let the baby be born first; then we can decide the name," he quipped.
But indications are that though the Congress may have yielded ground to the JMM now, it may not do so after the elections. It could be a repeat of Maharashtra. The party knows that the JMM will have no choice then but to accept its terms. "The State needs a leadership that can provide stability - political, social as well as economic. The social unrest unleashed by the BJP in the last four years has taken the State to the brink of collapse. Only the Congress can provide such a leadership which can take the State forward on the path of progress," said senior Congress leader from the State and Union Food Processing Minister Subodhkant Sahay. Sahay, himself an aspirant for the Chief Minister's post, said the JMM might have led the movement for the creation of Jharkhand, but now the issue was who could provide development. "A party with a national perspective alone can take the State forward. If Jharkhand is not saved now, it can affect the entire country's economy because militancy in Jharkhand feeds on coal and it could paralyse the country's economy if not handled properly," he said.
But what can queer the Congress' pitch would be the role of RJD chief Laloo Prasad. Laloo Prasad, who has already tied the Congress up in knots in Bihar, would prefer a weak Congress in Jharkhand because it suits his political survival. A strong JMM is not threat for him; hence his support to Soren for the Chief Minister's post. He is known to be unhappy at the way he was marginalised in the seat-sharing talks in Jharkhand and is believed to have conveyed his displeasure to the Congress leaders.
Irrespective of the leadership tussle, there is no denying the fact that the UPA is on a stronger footing than the ruling BJP, which continues to grapple with the anti-incumbency factor on account of its dismal track record on the development front. Besides, the feud between the Arjun Munda and Babulal Marandi factions in the party is persisting. It is in view of this that the BJP has decided not to project anyone as Chief Minister and "fight the election collectively".
Besides, the people of Jharkhand are wary of the BJP's "divisive politics", which manifested itself in Babulal Marandi's decision to implement a domicile policy. The latest move of the Munda government, declaring Kurmis as tribal people, has also upset both tribal and non-tribal people. Although the move was put in abeyance because of the announcement of elections, people fear that the BJP will try to implement it if it comes back to power, fuelling further social unrest.
The people are disenchanted with the BJP also because it has achieved little on the development front in its four years in power. Industries that had closed down still remain so, infrastructure continues to be poor, and law and order has taken a beating. Despite BJP president L.K. Advani's fond hope that for his party this election will be a "giant leap forward in 2005", indications are that the party will find the going tough. It has alienated its core non-tribal voters, who constitute 73 per cent of the electorate, in its effort to wean away the tribal population from the JMM. In the process, it has been left with neither.