In Jharkhand it is issues vs emotions
“We dented the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in Haryana, denied them in Maharashtra and we will now defeat them in Jharkhand,” declared former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference in Ranchi on December 6. Chidambaram, who had walked out of Tihar jail just two days prior to the press meet, flew straight to Ranchi to caution people against voting for the “incompetent, corrupt government” of Raghubar Das. The Congress, which is contesting the election in alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) as a junior partner, is hoping to turn the tables on the BJP with help from Chidambaram, by making him talk about the poor state of the economy. There is an opinion in the Congress party that people would listen to him out of sympathy for his 106-day incarceration.
Senior Congress leaders told Frontline that people would start feeling the impact of a shrinking economy and would be forced to reconsider their electoral choices, notwithstanding the BJP’s battle cries of Article 370, the Ram mandir in Ayodhya and triple talaq. “How long can the BJP ride on the nationalistic frenzy if jobs are hard to get, if people are dying of hunger, if poverty has made lives miserable, if prices of essential commodities are soaring? Bread-and-butter issues will finally make people rethink,” said a senior Congress leader in Ranchi.
And this may be the thinking behind pitching Chidambaram, who cannot even speak Hindi, into the electoral battlefield in Ranchi. Chidambaram, while answering questions with party general secretary R.P.N. Singh acting as the translator, dwelt at length on the poor state of the economy and on how it would impact Jharkhand, already reeling under poverty. “Jharkhand will suffer even more as the economy slides: your growth rate is already 2 per cent below the national average. As far as per capita income goes, out of 37 States and Union Territories, Jharkhand is at number 30; it was at the 28th position in 2014. Poverty has increased by 8 per cent during 2011-12 and 2017-18; the State’s debt has increased from Rs.43,000 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.83,000 crore in 2018-19; 44 per cent of all industries have closed down in the last few years; unemployment is the 4th highest in the country at 15.1 per cent. Nothing moves in Jharkhand,” he said. He urged people to “vote for a government which understands what needs to be done”. He said the economy was in incompetent hands today: “Raghubar Das is identified with backwardness and incompetence. The BJP must go,” he said.
The Congress campaign, it seems, has been formulated around the idea of cautioning people not to be misled by the high-sounding, high-voltage propaganda of the BJP and asking them, instead, to focus on the “81 seats” in Jharkhand. It “will mark a turning point in the struggle with the BJP,” Chidambaram said. According to him, the BJP succeeded in misleading people at the time of the Lok Sabha election by diverting their attention to Pulwama, Balakot and the surgical strike, but this time people must be aware and should not get misled.
As the five-phase election progresses, the opposition, mainly the JMM-Congress alliance, is focussing on issues central to Jharkhand such as the poor state of the economy, the BJP’s tampering with the Chhotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, changes made in land acquisition laws, the closing down of schools in remote areas and the increasing number of lynching cases. The JMM, which is contesting 43 seats, is banking on tribal anger against the Raghubar Das government, which proposed an amendment to tenancy laws which would have taken away the protection enjoyed by tribal people over their land. Though the proposal has been dropped for now, the opposition has kept the issue alive by stoking the anger and telling the tribal people that if Raghubar Das comes back to power, he may once again introduce these amendments to tenancy laws.
“For tribals, jal, jangal aur jameen [water, forest and land] are the main issues as they fear losing their land. The BJP tampered with this once and they might do it again. We have to guard against this at all costs,” said Supriyo Bhattacharjee, general secretary of the JMM. The party is also harping on the BJP’s Adivasi vs Moolwasi policy, saying by making 1985 as the cut-off year for domicile, the BJP was going against the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution which had clearly mandated that land records dating back to 1932 would be the basis for deciding domicile.
The opposition is also emphasising the unpopularity of Chief Minister Raghubar Das. His behaviour with bureaucrats and mediapersons is a big issue for the BJP now. “Raghubar Das is like an inflated balloon, much like those elephant-shaped balloons he released at the time of Momentum Jharkhand, an investors’ meet. He has acquired a larger-than-life ego and is rude with everyone, including journalists,” a senior journalist said. The BJP, sensing his lack of popularity, has changed the tag line of its campaign from “Ghar ghar Raghubar” to “Jharkhand pukara, Bhajpa dobara” (Jharkhand calls for BJP again). Interestingly, the first page of the BJP manifesto, which has the slogan, does not even carry a photograph of Raghubar Das. It carries the photo of Arjun Munda, former Chief Minister and now a Minister in the Modi government, among others.
Another headache for the BJP is its allies who have broken away from it. The All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), one of its oldest allies in the State, is contesting 53 seats on its own. It had asked for 26 seats, but the BJP refused and offered only 12. The two are pitted against each other in many seats now. This may cost the BJP some seats in the tribal belt. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan is also contesting in many seats against the BJP. Though the LJP has limited traction in Jharkhand, the perception about smaller allies fighting big brother BJP could prove politically costly for the BJP because the opposition is leaving no stone unturned to impress upon voters that the BJP cannot carry all sections of society together.
“In a State where people of many religions and caste identities live, it is important for political parties to carry everyone along. Alliances are a way of reflecting the aspirations of all sections of society. We have succeeded in doing that while the BJP has failed,” Chidambaram said.
Senior BJP leaders admitted in private that this could be a worry for the BJP and might result in reducing its tally. In fact, in 2014, when the Modi wave was at its peak, the BJP won only 37 Assembly seats in Jharkhand. Its strength went up to 43 because six of the eight MLAs of Babulal Marandi’s party, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), crossed over and joined the BJP. Now, when the Modi magic is not that powerful, especially after the Haryana and Maharashtra outcomes, it is anybody’s guess how many seats the party will win. The BJP’s slogan “Abki baar 65 paar” (Will cross 65 this time) is reminiscent of its Haryana slogan “Abki baar 75 paar”.
The BJP is banking on the AJSU to bail it out if it falls short of a majority. Even the opposition agrees that the AJSU is the BJP’s B team and their alliance is a foregone conclusion. The BJP has fielded no candidate against AJSU chief Sudesh Mahto in Silli, while the AJSU has not fielded any candidate against Raghubar Das in Jamshedpur East. “If we fall short, the AJSU will bail us out,” a State BJP leader agreed. This, however, makes the opposition’s task easier in the fight for tribal people’s votes. “It suits us because the voter knows who stands where. The AJSU supported the amendment to the tenancy Act in the Assembly, while the party opposed it outside. Its doublespeak stands exposed. The AJSU is not a political party but a political bargaining gang,” said Supriyo Bhattacharjee.
Given that the BJP is so hamstrung, one expected the opposition to mount a more aggressive campaign but that is not the case. While the BJP campaign is omnipresent, highly visible and emphatic, the opposition campaign hobbles along. The alliance is yet to put up a joint show. This makes one wonder whether the government formation process will be smooth if they win. Chidambaram, however, said: “We will have a common minimum programme before we take the oath.” The JMM spokesman explained that not holding joint meetings did not mean a lack of coordination but simply that the JMM had only two star campaigners, its chief Hemant Soren and party patriarch Shibu Soren, making it difficult for the party to plan joint programmes with the Congress. Rameshwar Oraon, State Congress president, agreed that the party’s campaign was less visible, but said: “Our workers have reached each and every booth. They have been campaigning in the villages and are getting a very positive response from people.”
What is making the contest even more interesting is the fact that the election is spread over five phases and a lot can change over such a staggered time frame. “This has been done to allow space for the BJP to manipulate voting,” said Supriyo Bhattacharjee. And as if to prove him right, even as the voting in the second phase was under way on December 7, reports came in from Sisai in Gumla of security forces opening fire on people at a booth in a minority-dominated area. One person was killed and three persons were injured. According to eyewitnesses there, the firing was completely unprovoked. “This will now scare away Muslim voters and will have repercussions in other areas. This will lead to further division among voters on religious lines,” said Vinod Pandey, senior JMM leader. This incident showed the BJP’s desperation, he said.
But whether it is desperation or not, this election is crucial for the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already addressed four meetings in the State and is scheduled to address another five. Other senior BJP leaders, like Rajnath Singh, J.P. Nadda and Amit Shah, have also lined up several meetings. Significantly enough, they focus on Article 370, the Ram mandir and the triple talaq issues in their speeches, not on issues that are specific to Jharkhand. It remains to be seen how much they succeed in wooing the voters. But the common refrain on Ranchi roads is “BJP dawadol hai” (the BJP is on wobbly ground).