Soren and a signal

Print edition : December 31, 2004

JMM leader Shibu Soren with Manmohan Singh. -

Shibu Soren's reinduction into the Union Cabinet implies a Congress-JMM alliance in the Jharkhand Assembly elections due next year and some hard bargaining for seats and posts.

THERE is more to Shibu Soren's reinduction into the Union Cabinet on November 27 than meets the eye. It is a signal that a Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) alliance in the forthcoming Jharkhand Assembly elections is a foregone conclusion and that Soren's claim for chief ministership remains as firm as ever despite the resurrection of a 20-year-old massacre case and other charges against him. The JMM leader went underground for more than 10 days in July after a non-bailable warrant was issued against him in the case and then surrendered and resigned his ministership on July 24. He returns as Coal Minister but without the Mines portfolio, which has gone to the Congress' Sis Ram Ola.

Leaders of the JMM say that Soren's reinduction reiterates their position that the cases against him are "politically motivated" and will not come in the way of his becoming the Chief Minister of Jharkhand. "All my life I have fought for the rights of tribal people. In the process any number of cases have been registered against me. But that does not make me a criminal. The people of Jharkhand know this and will give their judgment when the time comes," Soren told Frontline.

Soren is confident that the first ever Assembly election in the State in February 2005 will "fulfil the aspirations of the tribal people". He said that going by the response to his public meetings, a JMM-Congress alliance "will sweep the Assembly elections".

Talks with the Congress on sharing seats are still to begin, but Soren does not hide his ambitions. He said: "I have been fighting for the tribal people ever since Nehruji's days. I have single-handedly waged the struggle for a separate State along with my people. These parties [both the Congress and the BJP] did not exist then. How can they now usurp the role of the champion of tribal welfare?" Soren is confident that the Congress will give him his "just and due share" in the State's power politics.

"I have full confidence in [Congress president] Sonia [Gandhi] ji. She has proved that she is fair and even-handed in dealing with allies and is not motivated by any vested interest. I am sure she will understand the aspirations of the tribal people," he said.

Leaders of the JMM assert that the reinduction of their leader is the first step in the Congress leadership admitting his "due claims". "If this (reinduction) had not happened, our claim for the chief ministership would have become untenable. Now our claim is all the more justified," senior JMM leaders told Frontline. JMM leaders maintain that their party's good showing in the Lok Sabha elections has bolstered their claims. "But for guruji (as Soren's supporters call him) the Congress would not have won a single seat in Jharkhand," a leader said. "He personally ensured that Congress candidates got the votes of JMM supporters. Otherwise, would somebody like Subodh Kant Sahay have won from Ranchi?"

They may have a point. In Rajmahal parliamentary constituency, the alliance partners were involved in a "friendly contest" after the Congress, which held the seat, refused to concede it to the JMM, which insisted that its prospects were better there. The JMM candidate, Hemlal Murmu, won the seat with 32.76 per cent of the votes. The defeated Congress candidate, Thomas Hansda, who was the party's State unit chief, got 32.33 per cent. Hansda had won the seat in 1999 securing 44.68 per cent of the votes.

In Ranchi, Shibu Soren at a JMM rally. The bow and arrow is the party's election symbol.-RANJEET KUMAR

Kodarma, too, witnessed a "friendly contest" between the Congress and the JMM, but the seat went to Babulal Marandi, the only seat that the BJP won of the 14 in the State. Marandi got 44 per cent of the votes, while the JMM's Champa Verma got 26 per cent. The Congress' Tilakdhari Prasad Singh secured only 7 per cent.

This, the JMM leaders say, should make the Congress realise that if it did not give the JMM its "due share", the JMM could win on its own or, in the worst-case scenario, the BJP could come back to power. Said a JMM leader: "If the Congress wants to rid the State of four years of BJP misrule, it should listen to us. The BJP government has ruined the State in these four years. The tribal people are still exploited. Who can understand their problems better than we, who have been fighting for their rights for more than 50 years?"

The Congress high command has so far not given any indication of its thinking on Jharkhand. But senior Congress leaders agree that the reinduction of Soren into the Union Cabinet means that "an alliance with the JMM is on the cards". According to Thomas Hansda, the party should contest 50-60 seats keeping in view its good performance in the Lok Sabha elections, in which it won six seats.

A projection done by State Congress leaders based on the Lok Sabha election results gives the Congress 29 Assembly seats, the JMM 22, the BJP 16 and the Rashtriya Janata Dal seven. The RJD, led by Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, was an ally of the Congress and the JMM for the Lok Sabha elections and won two seats in the State. But to contest 50-60 seats the Congress will have to drive a hard bargain with Soren, who believes that the JMM should contest most of the 81 seats.

Senior Congress leaders said that to defeat the BJP the non-tribal voters should be given as much importance as the tribal voters. " The tribal people form only 27 per cent of the population, the rest are non-tribal people who came from Bihar and settled here. Too much emphasis on the tribal factor could antagonise the non-tribal section, which could go with the BJP," said Thomas Hansda. For this reason, according to him, projecting a Chief Minister at this stage could become counterproductive. However, he admits the reality remains that "only a tribal person can become the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, whether from the JMM or from the Congress."

According to him, one positive signal coming from the JMM is Soren's statement that he has full confidence in Sonia Gandhi's leadership. "This means he would be willing to discuss things," said Hansda. He believes that the situation is ripe for the formation of a Congress-JMM coalition government as "the people are fed up with the non-performance of the BJP". He said the Marandi government's attempt to implement a domicile policy, which resulted in large-scale violence in the State, had alienated the non-tribal voters from the BJP and they were looking up to the Congress. "We should keep this in mind while arriving at any understanding with the JMM," said Hansda, who has been in the Congress for 28 years.

Senior Congress leader Harikesh Bahadur, who is in charge of Congress affairs in Bihar and Jharkhand, also thinks the JMM should not insist on contesting more seats than the Congress for the simple reason that "non-tribal people are more numerous than the tribal people". The reinduction of Soren, which was done despite the realisation that the Opposition would raise a hue and cry, did point to the direction in which Jharkhand politics is heading. But one can expect to see hard bargaining for seats because both the parties feel emboldened by their good performance in the State.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor