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Losing momentum

Published : Mar 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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The Rashtriya Janata Dal is all set to upset the chances of the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha alliance in Jharkhand.

in Ranchi

THE Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which was ignored by the Congress in its haste to clinch an electoral alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, has emerged as a major spoiler of the alliance's winning chances in Jharkhand. Although the RJD has fielded candidates in 51 of the 81 constituencies, it may not win many seats. But it will cut into the Congress-JMM votes and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will benefit from this.

When the electoral process began in Jharkhand, the Congress-JMM campaign appeared to have a clear edge. This favourable position has since dissipated owing mainly to the division of votes among the constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) who are contesting on their own in several seats. The Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC), are contesting 29 seats. In some of the seats, the RJD has an alliance with this combine.

Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been conducting a low-decibel campaign. Quietly wooing the voters through a door-to-door campaign, BJP leaders warned them against the "dangers" of voting the Congress-JMM combine to power. This, they said, would be tantamount to giving Lalu Prasad, who had denied them even basic infrastructure in 15 years of RJD rule in undivided Bihar, a backdoor entry. Initially, the BJP's pleadings did not appeal to the voters. But slowly even those who had been criticising the party's government for social unrest, lack of development and deterioration of law and order and for not generating employment, among other things, have started seeing some virtue in the BJP.

This turnaround in the mood was quite visible in the second phase of voting on February 15 when 29 Assembly constituencies went to the polls. The BJP had big stakes in this round as it held 19 of these seats, which are mainly in the urban centres. The 56 per cent voter turnout in this phase has made BJP leaders buoyant.

Surprisingly, in the rural pockets and in Muslim-dominated areas of these constituencies, the voter turnout was poor. The lack of enthusiasm among Muslim voters is a sure cause for worry to the Congress-JMM. In Ranchi, Hatia, Kanke and Khijri constituencies, this correspondent saw that Muslim voters had not come out to vote in large numbers as was expected. Even at noon, when voting should have reached the peak, many booths in the Muslim-dominated areas were empty or had few voters. This was in stark contrast to the swelling crowds at booths located in non-Muslim areas all through the day. Explaining this lack of enthusiasm, a Congress leader in Ranchi said that it was because of the prevailing confusion as a result of the multiplicity of "secular" candidates. In Ranchi, for example, the Congress candidate Gopal Sahoo seems to have been affected by the division of Muslim votes by the presence of the RJD candidate, Abhay Singh Yadav.

Congress leaders alleged that the administration had used some "tricks" to keep away Muslim voters. "The heavy deployment of armed guards in Muslim-dominated areas appears to have scared away the voters because the majority of them do not have a voter identity cards. In contrast, only one lathi-wielding Home Guard jawan was posted in every booth in other areas.

If this trend continues, there could be a close finish, in which there would be enough scope for "manipulation" in the post-poll period. It is in this background that the recent developments in the JMM have become significant. Stephen Marandi, a senior JMM leader and a Rajya Sabha member, quit the party after he was denied the ticket from Dumka, which he has represented since 1980, and is contesting as an independent. In the 2000 Assembly elections, Marandi won with 45 per cent of the votes.

JMM leader and Santhal Pargana strongman Shibu Soren allotted the seat to his son Hemant Soren. Sources close to Soren admit that this is going to cost the party dearly. Marandi enjoys the support of a substantial section of Christian voters and his new political position can make matters difficult for the JMM in three or four seats.

In the event of a hung Assembly, the BJP would seek out Marandi, even by offering him the chief ministership. Although Marandi and senior BJP leaders are tight-lipped about such a possibility, political circles in Jharkhand are rife with rumours to this effect. Political observers say that it is the possibility of a hung House that has discouraged the BJP from naming its chief ministerial candidate. Party insiders admit that the party will even consider the option of supporting Shibu Soren for chief ministership in case the Congress refuses to offer him the post.

Another precaution BJP leaders have taken is to keep their speeches free of Sonia-baiting. Instead they have focussed on price rise and the scarcity of essential commodities since the UPA assumed power. "The focus of our campaign is the sale of sugar at Rs.25 a kilo and the sudden disappearance of LPG [liquefied petroleum gas] cylinders from the market. This has struck the right note with voters," said Prem Kataraka, State secretary of the BJP, who was camping in Deoghar to oversee the campaign for the third phase of elections on February 23.

The third phase, when 28 constituencies go to the polls, takes place in the coal belt where the bullet, rather than the ballot, rules. It is here that the decisive round will be fought. Hence both the major political formations are going all out to woo the voter. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, senior BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and M. Venkaiah Naidu, among others, would be campaigning in Koyalanchal (the coal belt).While the Congress-JMM campaign would once again focus on development, the BJP has unearthed a "scam" worth thousands of crores of rupees involving the sale of 20 lakh tonnes of coal to the "non-core" sector in Uttar Pradesh. This "discovery" directly hits Shibu Soren, who is also the Union Coal Minister. According to BJP leaders, Soren sold coal to non-core industries at the cost of industries in Jharkhand, which are suffering owing to coal shoratge.

In the third phase, too, the division of votes is going to hurt the Congress-JMM alliance as in most seats the RJD or the Left parties are in the fray. In Bermo, for example, Rajendra Singh, Leader of the Congress Legislature Party, who holds the seat, is finding the going tough because of the presence of the CPI's Mohammad Aftab Alam Khan and the Samajwadi Party's Vijay Kumar.

Similarly in Jharia, Suresh Singh of the Congress is contesting against S.K. Bakshi of the CPI(M), Yogendra Yadav of the RJD, Meraj Khan of the S.P., Belal Khan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Kunti Devi of the BJP. As a result, Kunti Devi, widow of the coal mafia don Suryadeo Singh (a close aide of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar), is expected to sail past the victory post. Interestingly, although the Congress and the JMM have an electoral understanding, in Bokaro, P.N. Pandey of the JMM is in also the fray. Together they are making the election easy for the sitting legislator, Samresh Singh, who has held the seat since 1977 as an independent. He has his own party called the Vananchal Congress.

In the heart of the coal belt, that is Dhanbad, the BJP's P.N. Singh (a sitting MLA) is in a comfortable position because the vote of his opponents is getting split among the CPI(M)'s Gopikant Bakshi, the Congress' Mannan Malik, the RJD's Hatim Ansari, the LJP's Pankaj Sharma, the Bahujan Samaj Party's Neelam Singh and the S.P.'s Sushil Kumar Singh.

The BJP has mobilised the cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to get access to people. Besides, party workers from neighbouring Chhattisgarh, including women, have been deployed for campaigning. These women, including Vajpayee's niece Karuna Shukla, have undertaken door-to-door campaign and are believed to be making quite an impression.

The BJP has also deployed Dilip Singh Judeo (who resigned as Union Minister of State for Environment following a bribery scandal in 2003) in Jharkhand. Interestingly, he is camping in Ranchi at the residence of Lal Gopalnath Shahdeo, the Congress' candidate for Hatia. Shahdeo is the scion of the erstwhile ruling family of Ranchi and is Judeo's son-in-law.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 11, 2005.)

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