Stuck in controversy

Print edition : March 25, 2005

In Jharkhand, the Congress-JMM alliance converts a possible victory into defeat and benefits from a controversial decision by the Governor.

in Ranchi

Chief Minister Shibu Soren.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

THE fate of the first elected government of Jharkhand is hanging in the balance. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is up in arms against Governor Syed Sibte Razi's "blatantly partisan" decision to invite the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to form the government. Protesting against the decision, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA organised a day-long bandh on March 3, a day after the UPA government was sworn in. On the same day, NDA leaders met President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in New Delhi to request him to recall the Governor. The NDA presented before the President 41 legislators who, it claimed, supported the coalition. The support of 41 legislators is essential for a simple majority in the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly.

The Governor, who met the President on March 4, said the Shibu Soren-led government would have to prove its majority on the floor of the House before the March 21 deadline given by him earlier. Razi said: "In normal circumstances 30 days' time is given to prove majority. But I gave only 20 days. This will, however, have to be advanced now in view of the recent developments. I shall announce the new date after consulting everyone." He refused to divulge the details of his talks with the President.

That the political situation in the State would become volatile was clear from the fractured mandate. While the NDA, which was in power, won 36 seats (30 for the BJP and six for the Janata Dal-United), the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) alliance won 26 (17 for the JMM and nine for the Congress). The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which contested alone, won seven. Others, including independents and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), got 12 seats. The support of "others" is crucial to secure a simple majority in the House. The responsibility to assess the situation and invite a party or a combine to form the government fell on the Governor.

The Governor's role has come under a cloud owing to the way he swore in the Shibu Soren-led government. He allegedly denied the opportunity to the NDA though it had submitted a list of 41 legislators supporting it well ahead of the UPA. On March 1, when the NDA submitted its list, the Governor said he wanted to speak to the independent MLAs individually to satisfy himself of their position. On the other hand, he did not impose the same condition on the UPA delegation, which met him later in the day. In fact, the UPA submitted to him a list containing the names of two legislators who were in the NDA list. Razi held a more-than-two-hour-long discussion with JMM leader Shibu Soren, who was accompanied by senior Congress leader Harikesh Bahadur, and decided to invite him to form the government. A few hours before he made the announcement, five independent MLAs, two of whom figured in the UPA list too, met the Governor and pledged their support to the NDA. However, Shibu Soren was sworn in Chief Minister on March 2 at 4.45 p.m.

The fact that the NDA, which had emerged as the single largest bloc in the Assembly, was not going to find it easy to form the government became clear soon after the results were out. Its leaders met the Governor on February 28, a day after the results were announced, to stake their claim to form the government. But Razi told them that their claim was untenable unless they elected a legislature party leader and presented him a list of supporting MLAs. The NDA elected Arjun Munda as its legislature party leader on the same day and submitted his name along with a list of 41 MLAs to the Governor at noon on March 1. The five independent or other MLAs whose names figured in the NDA list were Sudesh Mahto, Chandra Prakash Chaudhary, Harinarayan Rai, Madhu Koda and Enos Ekka. The last two are from the All Jharkhand Students Union, Madhu Koda is a BJP rebel, and Enos Ekka is from the Jharkhand Party.

By 7.30 p.m. the JMM and Congress leaders, who meanwhile had ensured the support of the RJD to the combine, met the Governor after electing Shibu Soren the leader and submitted a list of 42 MLAs. The UPA list contained the names of Enos Ekka and Harinarayan Rai. The others included Stephen Marandi, the rebel JMM candidate, two members from the United Goans Democratic Party, Bandhu Tirkey and Joba Manjhi, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) member Kamlesh Singh and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and Forward Bloc members.

As news of the UPA delegation meeting the Governor spread, NDA leaders sat on a dharna in front of the Raj Bhavan, demanding that they be invited to form the government. The dharna continued through the night of March 1. But even as the dharna was on, Razi announced that exercising his powers under Section 164(1) of the Constitution he had appointed Shibu Soren Chief Minister. The Governor added that he had given Soren time until March 21 to prove his majority in the House.

BJP president L.K. Advani and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Arjun Munda (second from right) with five legislators from Jharkhand outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan.-V. SUDERSHAN

The oath-taking ceremony was organised in such a haste that Raj Bhavan officials did not even have the time to put up tents on the lawns. The function was organised in a small hall inside the Raj Bhawan. Besides Soren, those who took the oath of office were Stephen Marandi, who was made Deputy Chief Minister, Bandhu Tirkey, Joba Manjhi, Kamlesh Singh, and Girinath Singh and Annapurna Devi of the RJD.

The Governor, while interacting with mediapersons after the ceremony, justified his decision by saying that he used his discretionary powers to infer that only Shibu Soren could give a stable government. When asked whether his decision was based on the numerical superiority of the UPA, he said: "It is not a question of numbers alone. If it is only about numbers then what is the role of a Governor? Anybody getting a majority can go and become the Chief Minister and form the government. The Governor would not have been required there. The Governor uses his discretion as per the powers given to him in the Constitution to arrive at an inference as to who can provide a stable government and who can command majority support in the House. The Governor has no business counting the numbers. The Bommai judgment is very clear that majority should be proved on the floor of the House." He denied that he was acting under political pressure. Razi said: "I have been a Union Minister. I have my own political experience and have done a little study of the Constitution myself. There was no political pressure on me whatsoever."

The Congress, which worked hard to install Soren as the Chief Minister, has not joined the government yet. The credit for ensuring that Soren assumed power goes to Congress leaders and Union Ministers Subodhkant Sahay and Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, All India Congress Committee secretaries Harikesh Bahadur and R.P.N. Singh, and former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. Dasmunshi said Congress president Sonia Gandhi was yet to take a decision on the party joining the government. He said: "We are a national party. Our commitment was to install a secular government, which we have fulfilled. Now our party president will decide when to join and who all will join. We can't be seen jumping in at the very first opportunity to grab power." He justified the Governor's decision saying that since the ruling alliance (NDA) had failed to get a majority it had forfeited its moral right to rule. Hence the Governor was right in giving the first chance to the alternative available. "Besides, both the Sarkaria Commission and [the Supreme Court's judgment in the] Bommai case are clear that majority can be decided only on the floor of the House," he said.

THE post-election developments deflected attention from the results, which have thrown up some important political indicators. It is evident that the RJD, which held nine seats in the outgoing Assembly and contested 51 seats on its own, spoiled the chances of the Congress-JMM combine in several seats by splitting the votes. The margins of defeat of the combine in several seats are smaller than the numbers of votes polled by RJD candidate in those seats.

Meanwhile, despite antagonising its urban non-tribal support base, the BJP managed to get its votes. It won seats mostly in urban areas such as Ranchi, Dhanbad, Jharia, Jamshedpur, Chaibasa, Deoghar and Daltonganj. The verdict proved that the Congress, which won only nine out of the 33 seats it contested, has a long way to go before it can claim to be a major force in the State.

The result came as a shock to Shibu Soren. Both his sons Durga Soren and Hemant Soren, who contested from Jama and Dumka respectively, were defeated. Hemant Soren lost to Stephen Marandi, a JMM rebel. The JMM lost five seats in its stronghold region of Santhal Pargana. It seems that Soren's decision to project his sons did not go down well with JMM workers.

The percentage of votes each party and combine got offers an insight into the electorate's mindset. The BJP, which was widely expected to lose its support base to the Congress, held its ground. Along with its ally, the Janata Dal (U), the party secured 27 per cent of the votes polled, compared with 25.13 per cent in the 2000 Assembly elections when Jharkhand was part of Bihar. The Congress and the JMM together got 27 per cent, much less than their combined vote percentage of 36 in 2000. The RJD, which secured 11.56 per cent of the votes polled in this region in undivided Bihar in 2000, fared much better this time with 15 per cent. The RJD's performance belies the JMM-Congress combine's stand that the party had no substantial influence in Jharkhand. In fact, this belief prompted the combine to ignore the RJD during seat-sharing talks. It goes without saying that if they had contested together the outcome would have been different.

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