IN the face of a string of electoral setbacks, the Bharatiya Janata Party is now clutching on to the tiny State of Jharkhand in a last-ditch effort to revive the sagging morale of its cadre. Of the three States - Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana - going to the polls early next year, the BJP is in power only in Jharkhand. When the State was carved out of Bihar in 2000 the reins of power came to the BJP as it was the single largest party in the nascent Assembly.
Now the BJP is fervently hoping that the people of Jharkhand will give it a mandate for the next five years, though the party's leaders themselves admit that in the last four years it has done nothing substantial by way of governance. "We have not been able to achieve much because for so many years Jharkhand was part of Bihar and suffered from neglect. We need more time to show results," BJP president L.K. Advani told Frontline.
In his presidential address at the National Executive meet in Ranchi, the State capital, Advani said: "In Jharkhand we must strive to win a fresh mandate. Despite all the odds, our government here has performed fairly well. Indeed many of the difficulties it faced were a legacy of the bad governance that the Rashtriya Janata Dal government in undivided Bihar has left behind... . We should impress upon the people that the difficult work of repairing the damage done by the previous government needs five more years of BJP rule, to yield the desired results."
Indeed, the BJP expects Jharkhand to be the launching pad for what Advani described in his concluding remarks as "the giant leap forward in 2005". But the party is faced with serious odds. Its support base of uppercaste Hindus seems to have shifted its loyalty towards the Congress. This happened because of the BJP's wishy-washy attitude on the issue of domicile soon after the State was created.
The government policy on domicile, conceived by Babulal Marandi, former Chief Minister and now BJP vice-president, sought to render all those who had come from elsewhere and settled in the State after 1932 as "outsiders" or "settlers"; this meant that certain privileges, such as a certain category of jobs, would be open to "natives" (read tribal people) only. The policy was a brainchild of Marandi to wean away the substantial tribal votes in the State from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).
The issue gave rise to great social unrest two years ago. Though the issue is lying dormant at present thanks to the intervention of the High Court, there is a lurking fear among the non-tribal people that the BJP might rake it up again if it returns to power. Several people Frontline spoke to admitted that they were apprehensive of the BJP's "divisive" policies.
The people of Jharkhand rejected the BJP in the Lok Sabha election held earlier this year. The Congress-JMM-RJD alliance won 10 of the 11 seats. Another factor that goes against the BJP is its dismal record on the development front. When the State was created, people had great expectations and the party made matching announcements too. But most of the announcements have remained on paper. Jharkhand used to be an industrially advanced area, but most of its industries had closed down owing to the apathy of the Bihar government in the last decade. Law and order too has been far from satisfactory, with industry owners complaining of extortion and rampant goondaism.
To cap it all, internal feuds hounded the party. The fight between former Union Minister Karia Munda, who had chief ministerial ambitions, and Marandi ensured that the government never functioned properly. The tug of war between the two resulted in Marandi taking extreme decisions, such as the one on domicile, in order to consolidate his position among the tribal people. It not only damaged the social fabric, but also the BJP's base.
Meanwhile, the JMM, because of the hounding of its leader Shibu Soren by the State BJP government (which reopened many old cases against him), has earned the sympathy of the tribal people. As for the non-tribals, they seem to be rallying behind the Congress. People cutting across caste lines admitted that there was a swing in favour of the Congress.
The Congress high command has realised that with a bit of astute planning, the party can win the Assembly elections. "We will have to convince the JMM not to make it a tribal vs non-tribal affair. The election will have to be fought on the issue of development and law and order," said a senior Congress leader from the State.
The chemistry between the Congress and the JMM is bothering the BJP. "The Assembly elections were one of the reasons why Ranchi was chosen as the venue for the BJP's National Executive meet," said party general secretary in charge of Jharkhand Rajnath Singh. The top leaders of the party, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani, took time off to visit local people, participate in weddings and mingle with local-level leaders. " This boosted the morale of party workers," explained a senior leader.