Assembly Elections: Jharkhand

Mission impossible?

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with BJP leader Kariya Munda (left) and Rabindra Rai campaigning for BJP candidates in Ranchi on November 29. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren gives his blessings to a new party member ahead of the Assembly election in Ranchi on November 6. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s ambitious “Mission 45” plan in Jharkhand seems to have come unstuck over its inability to penetrate the tribal strongholds of the JMM.

“TAKE it from me. It will be a Haryana and not a Maharashtra,” said Saryu Rai, chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto committee in Jharkhand. He was confidence personified in the run-up to the first phase of the Assembly elections in the State, held in five phases. He was sure that the BJP and its ally, the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), would get a clear majority in the Assembly, in a repeat of the party’s performance in the recent Haryana elections and that it would not settle for the status of the largest single party without majority, as it happened in Maharashtra.

Talking to Frontline, Rai explained the reasons for this confidence. Firstly, the BJP scored an unprecedented victory in the Lok Sabha elections held seven months ago, winning 12 of the 14 seats in the State. Second, the BJP’s political adversaries, including the incumbent Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Congress and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), failed in their attempt to forge a united front against the BJP. Third, the BJP’s principal adversary, the JMM, is facing an anti-incumbency wave since it has been ruling the State for a year and a half under the leadership of Hemant Soren. Fourth, and most importantly, Rai believed that the Narendra Modi magic, which helped the party sweep the Lok Sabha elections, was still at work and that the people of Jharkhand were inspired by his leadership. It was because of these reasons that the BJP embarked on its campaign with confidence though it did not project a chief ministerial candidate.

However, after the first two rounds of voting, on November 25 and December 2, sections of the BJP, especially those involved in campaigning at the grass-roots level, were not as sure as Rai that Jharkhand would throw up a decisive mandate for the BJP. “The support that we have seen in the first two phases is not as overwhelming as we had imagined it would be. The final result could turn out to be like the one in Maharashtra,” said a Ranchi-based senior BJP activist who did not wish to be named. However, he was quick to add that the BJP would emerge as the single largest party in the Assembly. “The political climate is such that we will dramatically arrest the electoral free fall that the party has experienced over the last three rounds of Assembly elections,” he said. The BJP had 33 seats in the 81-member Assembly when the State was formed in 2000. The party could garner only 24 seats in the 2005 elections. In the Assembly elections held in 2009, its tally dropped to 18. “We expect to get 35 to 38 seats this time,” the senior activist said.

This favourable political climate, driven more or less by the four factors listed by Rai, has made the BJP a major contender in all the five political-geographical regions of the State: Kolhan, South Chhota Nagpur, Santhal Pargana, North Chhota Nagpur and Palamu. In each of these regions, the BJP is pitted against one or the other of its major adversaries. It is the JMM in the Kolhan and Santhal Pargana regions and the Congress in South Chhota Nagpur. In North Chhota Nagpur and Palamu, the JVM, the Congress, the JMM and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) will be its main adversaries in different constituencies.

The politically significant factor is that while the BJP has a widespread mass appeal across all the regions barring the tribal-dominated Santhal Pargana, the other parties only have pockets of influence. The Congress depends mainly on the support of some sections of the non-tribal Hindu communities as well as the minority Muslim and Christian communities, while the RJD’s influence is restricted to the Yadav-dominated constituencies contiguous to Bihar. Both the JMM and the JVM draw on tribal support and the former is the primary party of the tribal communities. The JVM has a sizable following among Christian minorities, while the JMM has traditionally had the support of Muslims.

In fact, the BJP was hoping to capitalise on its widespread mass appeal to get a majority on its own. However, according to the Ranchi-based BJP activist quoted above, the trends in North Chhota Nagpur and Kolhan indicated that the party’s adversaries were holding on to their pockets of influence. According to him and many other observers, the BJP’s “Mission 45”, aiming to win at least 45 seats, will only succeed if the party is able to sweep North Chhota Nagpur and makes decisive gains in Kolhan. “But the expected sweep of North Chhota Nagpur does not seem to have happened, though the BJP will be the party with the highest number of seats in both the regions. The party needs to perform beyond expectations in the other three regions [where polling has not taken place at the time of writing] to achieve Mission 45,” said the leader.

The BJP has a strong base in the South Chhota Nagpur and Palamu regions, while the Santhal Pargana has traditionally been a JMM stronghold. So, while the party is expected to do well in South Chhota Nagpur and Palamu, the big question is how far it has been able to penetrate into the tribal-dominated Santhal Pargana. This may ultimately decide the fate of Mission 45.

Ineffective campaign

During the campaign, the BJP has primarily focussed on political instability. Jharkhand has had 10 governments in 14 years. The party holds the dynastic politics of the JMM and the Congress’ “corruption” responsible for this situation. However, this campaign has not been as effective as it was in the Lok Sabha elections because the BJP itself has been responsible for the political instability in the State.

The first BJP government in 2000 was headed by Babulal Marandi, but he had to quit within two years because of infighting within the party. The party has often had electoral alliances in the past with the JMM, which has now been dubbed as a “dynastic” party. The infighting in the BJP rose to such levels that Babulal Marandi, arguably the tallest leader the BJP has had in Jharkhand, left the party and floated the JVM. The removal of Babulal Marandi as Chief Minister was obviously influenced by powerful corporate interests that have a big stake in the State’s economy, especially in the mining sector.

Both Babulal Marandi and the Sorens have highlighted the BJP’s inconsistencies on this issue in their campaigns. Talking to Frontline, former Deputy Chief Minister Stephen Marandi pointed out that the BJP’s track record on this issue in Jharkhand was as bad as any other party’s. Indeed, the overt support extended by a large number of corporates, including the Adani Group, to the BJP has also become an election issue. While this support has clearly increased the financial resources of the BJP, it has also led to adverse reactions from sections of the population, particularly the tribal and the minority communities.

Reacting to these inconsistencies, sections of the BJP admit that their campaign has deficiencies. “Of course, the stability campaign does not have as much credence as it had during the Lok Sabha elections, but still ours is the campaign with the highest relative credibility,” argued the BJP leader.

The BJP’s prospects will depend on two things. Firstly, the extent to which the “relatively credible” campaign of the BJP has succeeded in overcoming the regional and constituency-based influence of parties like the JMM, the JVM and the Congress. Second, the level of organisational penetration that the BJP has been able to make in Santhal Pargana. But, would even a Haryana-like verdict ensure stability in terms of governance to Jharkhand? That is a moot question, given the intense rivalry within the State BJP between leaders such as the former Chief Minister Arjun Munda, senior leader Saryu Rai and former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha.