Jharkhand, a State with a history of defections and fragile coalitions, witnessed a high-voltage political drama beginning with the resignation of Chief Minister Hemant Soren on January 31 and his subsequent arrest by the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged land scam case.
Governor C.P. Radhakrishnan kept leaders of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-Congress-RJD alliance waiting for over 24 hours for the oath-taking of JMM’s Champai Soren as the next Chief Minister, even though the Opposition alliance had submitted a list of 43 candidates on the evening of January 31, just hours before Hemant’s arrest. This added to the tension.
The issue resonated in Parliament as well, when the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, raised questions on February 1 about the needless delay.
On February 2, the new Chief Minister took oath along with two others. Jharkhand was without a Chief Minister for nearly 40 hours between Hemant Soren’s resignation on January 31 and Champai Soren’s swearing-in. The latter was finally given the invitation on the night of February 1, hours after his letter to the Governor drawing attention to the absence of “a government in the State for 18 hours”.
Conspiracy theories and poaching fears
High political drama unfolded during those 40 hours as the Opposition, sensing trouble and fearing poaching by the BJP, gathered its MLAs, herded them onto a bus, and took them to Birsa Munda airport in Ranchi to fly to Congress-ruled Hyderabad on a chartered plane.
Panic increased in the Opposition camp when the flight could not take off on January 31 due to fog, and some Opposition leaders saw a conspiracy even in this. On the way to the airport, Jharkhand Congress chief Rajesh Thakur said, “You know what kind of people they are; they can do anything anytime.”
JMM contrasted the Governor’s avoidable delay in inviting Champai Soren to form the government with the urgent early morning oath-taking of Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra in November 2019 and of Nitish Kumar in Bihar in December 2023 when the governments in question had the BJP’s participation.
As the JMM filed a petition before the Supreme Court challenging the arrest of Hemant Soren, MLAs from JMM and Congress counted themselves, standing in a semi-circle from one to 43 on February 1, to buttress their claim to form government, and released a video for public viewing.
The Supreme Court on Febraury 2 declined to entertain the matter directly and asked Hemant Soren to first approach the Jharkhand High Court. Champai Soren was sworn in and asked to prove his majority.
Meanwhile, Congress leader from Jharkhand Alok Dubey blamed the BJP for the political uncertainty, saying, “The Modi government is hell-bent on the politics of dictatorship. We will not be cowed down. We will fight and win.” On January 29, when an ED team visited Hemant Soren’s Delhi residence and did not find him there, the BJP had initiated a social media campaign claiming “CM laapata hai (The CM is missing)”.
Congress spokesperson in New Delhi, Alok Sharma, told Frontline, “There was no problem about support. The Governor deliberately delayed inviting Champai Soren. After the oath-taking, everything will be okay. There is no threat to the government.” However, some leaders in the Jharkhand Congress did not hide their apprehension even later. “There is no trust in what Central government’s agencies will do. All these agencies act only against the Opposition,” a State leader said.
There is still some trepidation in the Opposition camp that attempts may be made to poach their MLAs. Even as Champai Soren exhibited confidence in having the support of 46 or 47 MLAs during the trust vote, the fear is palpable. Hence, MLAs have flown to Hyderabad for a few days until the new government takes the trust vote and secures its stability for at least six months.
A history of instability and defections
The fears are not unfounded given the fragile politics of Jharkhand in the past.
The State has seen three spells of President’s rule. Keeping the Assembly in suspended animation to explore friendly governments has been a trend in the State, with political poaching more a rule than an exception. It predates even the coining of “Operation Lotus” in Karnataka, where the BJP engineered defections to win.
In the 23 years since it was carved out of Bihar in 2000, Jharkhand has had 12 Chief Ministers. The State had nine governments and four Chief Ministers between 2000 and 2014 until the BJP provided the first full five-year government led by a non-tribal Chief Minister, Raghubar Das (2014-2019).
Hemant Soren’s father and JMM founder, Shibu Soren, served three terms as Chief Minister in 2005, 2008, and 2009, including the shortest term of any Chief Minister—just 10 days (March 1 to March 12, 2005). In his other two terms, he was Chief Minister for 145 days and 153 days, between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, respectively.
Jharkhand also made history when a lone independent MLA Madhu Koda became Chief Minister, the first such in any State in the country. He was later sentenced to a three-year jail term in a coal scam case.
Hemant Soren is the third Chief Minister to be sent to jail, following the footsteps of his father Shibu Soren, who was jailed in a kidnapping and murder case.
The jinx of instability has persisted in Jharkhand. Its first Chief Minister Babulal Marandi had to resign first as CM in 2003 and then from the BJP. His successor Arjun Munda became Chief Minister in 2003, 2005, and 2010, all for short terms. While all the Chief Ministers have had an average lifespan of one and a half years in power, a leader of a party with just five MLAs became Deputy Chief Minister in two successive governments led by rival parties. Sudesh Mahato of All Jharkhand Student Union (AJSU), with only five MLAs, served as Deputy Chief Minister in governments led by JMM’s Shibu Soren in 2009-2010 and BJP’s Arjun Munda (2010-2013).
Apart from the Soren family (Shibu and Hemant), BJP provided three Chief Ministers—Babulal Marandi, Arjun Munda (both tribal), and Raghubar Das (non-tribal) in 2014. In 2014, the first full-term government provided by BJP’s Das was possible only after he managed to poach six MLAs from Babulal Marandi’s JVM (P) in 2015. Das had won 37 of 81 Assembly seats for the BJP in the 2014 election and formed a government with the help of independents.
The loss of credibility of leaders, the many small parties, and the presence of strong independent candidates are cited as the reasons behind the fragility of Jharkhand’s politics. The 2019 Assembly election saw the JMM-Congress alliance winning 47 seats, with the BJP not only losing the election with just 25 seats but Chief Minister Das too losing his seat to a rebel, his first loss in 24 years of electoral politics.
After losing Jharkhand in 2019, the BJP did a course correction and brought back tribal face Babulal Marandi to lead the State. Marandi had headed the first BJP government in the State in 2000. He quit the party in 2006, floated JVM-P, and returned to the BJP after 14 years.
Except for 2014 when BJP made Das the Chief Minister, Jharkhand, with its 27 per cent tribal population, has always had a tribal Chief Minister since its inception.
Identity politics back?
With a JMM government led by “Tiger” Champai Soren back in the State, identity politics over the alleged “witch hunt” of tribals is set to gain momentum. This is uncomfortable for the BJP, which has assiduously expanded its reach among tribal communities, helping it win Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2023.
Champai Soren, a close associate of “dishom guru” Shibu Soren, played a key role in the agitation for the creation of a separate Jharkhand State in the 1990s but lacks the mass appeal and charisma of the other two Sorens.
Ranchi-based social activist Sudhir Pal believes that despite the corruption case JMM could benefit from the sympathy factor. “Be it Shibu Soren’s cash for votes or the case of Madhu Koda, corruption cases have not had any negative impact on the mass support for these leaders. They managed to pull a crowd banking on their tribal identity and could project the cases as witch-hunts. A similar scenario will be seen for Hemant Soren. But if he does not get out of jail during the elections, it will affect the party’s outreach, as JMM has no other leader who can draw as much crowds as the Sorens,” Pal told Frontline.