A violent first phase

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

In Jharkhand, while the ruling BJP is battling massive infighting and its dismal track record on development, alliance partners at the Centre, the Congress, the JMM and the RJD, are involved in "friendly fights".

in Ranchi

THE first ever Assembly elections in Jharkhand were marred by naxalite violence in the first phase of polling on February 3, in which seven policemen and one civilian were killed and many were injured. All the 24 seats that went to the polls on that day are in the naxalite-infested areas of the State.

While driving from the capital Ranchi to the naxalite strongholds of Lohardaga and Latehar on election-eve, Frontline found that the security forces, including police and paramilitary personnel, had taken charge of most of the vulnerable areas and had even spread out deep into the forests.

The naxalites had given a boycott call and the people in the villages seemed to be scared of even talking about the elections. Through pamphlets and posters the naxalites asked the people not to vote. The security personnel removed the posters, but that did little to erase the fear in people's minds. The 45-50 per cent voting on February 3 indicates a poor turnout in the rural areas.

"The force is there till February 3 only, what happens after they go? We have to live here and we cannot afford to antagonise the naxalites," said Kusheshwar Prasad of Latehar constituency. In 2000, only 22,000 votes were cast in this constituency of 150,000 voters; Baijnath Ram of the Janata Dal (United) defeated his nearest rival by over 3,000 votes but polled only 7,700 votes. At Chandwa village in the constituency residents refused to talk about the candidates or their prospects.

Latehar, which is a segment of the Chatra Lok Sabha constituency, has the partners of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) pitted against one another. The Congress left the seat to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which has fielded Ramdev Ganju, while the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) (whose Dhirendra Agrawal represents Chatra in the Lok Sabha) has fielded Prakash Ram. Such "friendly fights" between the UPA partners could help Baijnath Ram retain the seat even though he has done little for the area.

The area does not have drinking water and electricity, roads are virtually non-existent, and there are no employment opportunities or avenues for self-employment. A number of collieries in the area have been closed for years, leaving many coal-field workers unemployed. As for farming, there are no irrigation facilities and farmers depend on the rain to grow one crop in the year. For the rest of the year they join the growing number of unemployed persons. Add to this the thick forest cover and the bad roads that make fast movement of security forces impossible and it is not difficult to understand why the area is an ideal breeding ground for naxalites.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party government took over four years ago there were only eight naxalite-affected districts, now there are 16. (There are 18 districts in the State.)

Travelling to the interior areas of Ranchi district alone is enough to understand the lack of development in the State. Promises were made and money was sanctioned for various projects but in vain. Corruption ensured that no work was done. "Drinking water is a major problem in entire Jharkhand. I initiated a project worth Rs.3.24 crores for my constituency, but by the time work could begin elections were announced," said Neelkanth Munda, Minister of State for Public Works and the BJP candidate for the Khunti Assembly seat. That it should take almost four years for work to begin on a drinking water project is perhaps an indicator of the priority for development projects in the State.

But it should be said to Munda's credit that he got roads laid here. The road from Ranchi to Khunti and even to the interior areas is in good condition and this could help him in his battle against the Congress' Roshan Surin, owner of Roshpa Towers, a commercial complex in Ranchi. Surin is the son of State Congress president Sushila Kerketta and is contesting elections for the first time. Sushila represented Khunti in the Assembly for many years and now represents Khunti in the Lok Sabha. In the Lok Sabha elections, which Surin managed for his mother, the Congress won seven of the 12 Assembly segments, including Khunti, where the party had a lead of 12,248 votes.

As for Munda, people admit that he made roads but complain that nothing has been done to solve the problems of drinking water, power and unemployment. "They make promises but forget it once they go back," said Rupan Devi of Pilawal, echoing the sentiments of many others in the village. All of them swear by the "haath chhap" (hand symbol of the Congress), hoping the change would be for the better.

The disillusionment with the BJP is widespread. In Torpa constituency, for example, wild elephants are a major problem in the interior areas, causing loss of life and crop every now and then. The people are angry that there has been no initiative, despite many representations, to tackle this problem.

Interestingly, the disenchantment with the established parties is forcing people to look at independent candidates. For instance, in Mandar, which is a part of the Lohardaga parliamentary constituency, Bandhu Tirkey is contesting as an independent and has emerged as a huge favourite of the local people because of his penchant to get work done by whatever means. He has even floated his own party, the Jharkhand Janadhikar Party. When he went to file his nomination papers Tirkey was arrested on the charge of rioting in 2002. The incident related to an agitation in favour of a domicile policy. He had not been released until February 2. He faces Dev Kumar Dhan of the Congress, who is also in jail in connection with the same issue. Also in the fray is Diwakar Minj of the BJP, who is the brother-in-law of Rameshwar Uraon, who represents Lohardaga in the Lok Sabha.

In fact, in the present Assembly independents hold 17 of the 81 seats with a vote share of 27.29 per cent. And going by the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, they are projected to win seven seats this time, with 25.76 per cent of the vote share. In the event of a hung Assembly, independents could play a major role.

THE Greater Ranchi project is perhaps symbolic of the lack of development in the State and the people's anger against a BJP wracked by internal feuds. The BJP government of Babulal Marandi initiated the multi-crore project of building a city spread over thousands of acres of undulating, rocky land, modelled on the lines of New Delhi. Land was earmarked and about 22 km of concrete road was built when Arjun Munda replaced Marandi as Chief Minister and the work stopped.

The foundation for the city was laid by L.K. Advani when he was Deputy Prime Minister, in the presence of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) stalwarts of the area. All that remains of the Greater Ranchi project is a broken foundation stone in the midst of nowhere. The concrete road ends abruptly, and there is no mention of the project in the BJP manifesto.

The internal feuds are so severe that in Hazaribagh constituency, which voted on February 3, BJP supporters attacked the campaign rath of the party's candidate Dev Dayal Kushwaha on January 30 despite the presence of central leaders such as Yashwant Sinha and Ananth Kumar. They tore down the rath and attacked all the three leaders even as Sinha kept appealing to them to "vote for the party, not for the candidate". Security personnel whisked away the three to safety. The BJP tried to play down the incident and removed the damaged rath immediately from public sight, but Frontline managed to secure a picture of the rath, which perhaps illustrates best the problems plaguing the BJP in Jharkhand.

The UPA, too, is riven by internal feuds, and in many seats alliance partners - the Congress, the JMM or the RJD - are pitted against each other. In Latehar, the JMM and the RJD are vying with each other for the anti-NDA vote. In Torpa the JMM's Peter Bange and the RJD's Violet Kachchap are pitted against each other, making the task of the BJP's Koche Munda that much easier. There are many such seats where the Congress, the RJD, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the JMM are in the fray. This is bound to help the NDA to some extent.

But one thing that is increasingly becoming clear is that Muslims, who constitute a substantial 12 per cent, are consolidated behind the Congress-JMM alliance, which seems to be working fine at the grassroots level. Congress and JMM candidates campaign with both parties' flags, indicating that there are no serious problems at the workers' level. Whether it was Mohammad Arshad and Mohammad Hassan at Chandwa village in Latehar constituency or Mohammad Sherajuddin Ansari at Chanho in Mandar or Naseem Iqbal in Khunti, Muslims are giving the thumbs up to the alliance. But will this translate into victory for the alliance's candidates, especially in view of the fact that other "secular" contenders like the RJD also are in the fray? The country will know on February 27 when the votes are counted.

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