Advantage Opposition

Print edition : February 11, 2005

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party faces an uphill task in Jharkhand as the anti-incumbency factor apparently outweighs the discord in the Opposition United Progressive Alliance.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in Ranchi

JMM leader Shibu Soren releasing the party's list of candidates in Ranchi.-

JHARKHAND is witnessing an inter esting political situation with less than a week to go before the first phase of polling for the Assembly elections. The Opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is in disarray, with its constituents putting up candidates against one another in about 90 per cent of the 81 Assembly constituencies. However, the UPA might still emerge the winner, thanks to the people's antipathy towards the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government.

The UPA ran into problems in the State because the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) ignored the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Left parties during the seat-sharing talks. The two parties decided to contest 68 seats (35 for the JMM and 33 for the Congress), leaving nine for the RJD and four for the Left parties. The RJD and the Left parties took exception to the decision. RJD president Lalu Prasad announced that his party would contest at least 68 seats. The Left parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Maoist Communist Centre - together decided to contest 29 seats.

The result is that two or more UPA constituents are pitted against one another in the same constituency. For instance, in Barkagaon, the Congress, the JMM and the CPI are in the fray. Similarly, in Ramgarh, the JMM and the CPI have put up candidates. "The alliance has gone totally haywire, but it will not affect the final outcome. It is the UPA that will emerge the winner because people have decided to vote against the NDA. They will vote for the strongest candidate who can defeat the NDA," said CPI leader Kanhaiya Singh, who is overseeing the campaign for Nadira Begum, the CPI candidate in Ramgarh.

The CPI leader's view seemed to be corroborated by popular opinion. It appeared to this correspondent, who travelled along the Ranchi-Hazaribagh road crisscrossing several Assembly constituencies, that people by and large were of the view that the four-year-old BJP government had failed to deliver. The State was created amidst great expectations, with the BJP government promising to address the basic problems of lack of development, unemployment, poor power supply and breakdown of educational and health services. But in the last four years, more than 2,000 factories were closed down and 1.5 lakh workers laid off in a State that was once known to be industrially developed. Among the major factories closed were the Sindri fertilizer factory, various cement factories in the Ramgarh area, and several factories in the Adityapur industrial area in Jamshedpur. Six months ago, the Indo Asahi Glass factory, which was taken over by the Khemka group, was closed down, rendering over 5,000 workers jobless.

RJD leader Lalu Prasad at an election rally in Ranchi.-

Interestingly, the anti-incumbency factor appeared to outweigh the discord among the UPA constituents. "The people will vote to defeat the BJP. So whoever wins, it is the UPA that will eventually form a coalition government here," said Bhupnath Mahto of Mandu, where the JMM's Ram Prakash Bhai Patel is pitted against the RJD's Abdul Shahid Siddiqui.

Muslims, who form 12 per cent of Jharkhand's population, too seem to have the same opinion. The Congress seems to have emerged as a clear favourite among Muslims, followed by the JMM and the CPI. The lack of favour for the RJD, in spite of it being a "secular" party, is attributed to its weak position in Jharkhand.

SUCH a situation could dampen the spirits of BJP leaders who have been secretly celebrating the cracks in the UPA alliance. Faced with a poor report card of its performance, the party has pinned its hopes on a division of the anti-BJP votes. Asked why he expected the BJP to come back to power, Chief Minister Arjun Munda said: "Look at the way they are fighting among themselves. This displays their lust for power and this would see us through." He said that from day one the Opposition tried to create "misconceptions" about the government's failures which, in turn, hampered its functioning. "Obviously we could not show results in four years, we need more time for that. What we need is people's real mandate to run the government for another five years so that we can deliver," he said. He said that another term is needed for a "horizontal leap forward, not a vertical high jump", in all sectors of development.

Chief Minister Arjun Munda after filing his nomination for the Kharasawan constituency.-

Adding to the BJP's worries is the intra-party feud, between Arjun Munda and former Chief Minister Babulal Marandi. In an admission that the feud cost the party dearly in the Lok Sabha elections, when it lost all but one of the 14 seats in the State, the party's top leadership has asked them to campaign together "as much as possible". Marandi said he would be Munda's sarathi (charioteer). The Chief Minister, on the other hand, said that the differences between them are "the same as between Atalji and Advaniji".

Unrest is rife among the BJP cadre. Even senior party workers with more than four decades of experience are frustrated. In Ramgarh, Shankar Chaudhary, Mahavir Lal Vishwakarma and K.P. Sharma, originally Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activists who had been associated with the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and then the BJP for several decades, were expelled from the party at the time of the Lok Sabha elections because they could not get along with former Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. "But even now, after such a humiliating defeat, the party has not learnt a lesson. Somebody who was rejected by the people, has been sent to the Rajya Sabha. Couldn't they send some old committed party worker to the Rajya Sabha," asks Chaudhary, who predicts that in this election the BJP will not win even 10 seats. Since his expulsion, Chaudhary has floated his own organisation called Satyam Jayate Front and has vowed to defeat the BJP. He is in the fray as an independent in the Ram garh constituency.

A projection of seats done on the basis of the 2004 Lok Sabha election results too does not give much hope for the BJP. If the trend in the Lok Sabha elections persists, the party will get 16 Assembly seats. It holds 32 seats in the outgoing Assembly. The Congress and the JMM, which together won 10 Lok Sabha seats, are projected to win 29 and 22 respectively. The RJD, which won two Lok Sabha seats, is projected to win seven seats.

However, Rajnath Singh, the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister who is in charge of the BJP's affairs in Jharkhand, hopes the party's "low-profile" campaign, emphasising on personal and door-to-door canvassing, will work in its favour. "We are adopting a Chhattisgarh-like strategy: a low-profile campaign, no projection of a candidate for Chief Minister, no stars, no glamour. Just personal, individual contact and only making sincere, doable promises while admitting our weaknesses simultaneously," he says.

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