From all appearances, the Jharkhand Assembly polls later this year look like a cinch for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If the Lok Sabha election outcome is a hot lead — the National Democratic Alliance won 12 of the 14 seats and secured a vote share of 55.29 per cent— the BJP and its partners, the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), can stage an encore in this neck of the woods that seldom gives a winner an absolute majority in the legislature.
Jharkhand has an Opposition that a ruling party would dream of. In this case, the BJP and the AJSU (the LJP does not have a legislator) governed for five years after winning the 2014 elections with a bare majority. “It is the most conducive Opposition a party in power can hope for. Even if people search for an alternative, they can’t find one. The BJP gains by default,” a Ranchi-based veteran political observer said.
The BJP’s Jayant Sinha, Hazaribagh MP and a former central minister, remarked: “The Opposition alliance doesn’t have a leader, an ideology, a common minimum programme or the skills to work together. People saw through this hotchpotch combine.” The “combine” comprised the Congress, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) or JVMP, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Recent developments support the observations on the Opposition’s plight. Jharkhand Pradesh Congress chief Ajoy Kumar quit his post on Friday, accusing some colleagues of indulging in corrupt practices and promoting their own interests over the party’s and said “worst criminals look better” than them. A few days ago, Kumar was roughed up allegedly by allegiants of his rivals in the party, Subodh Kant Sahay, former Union minister, and Pradeep Kumar Balmuchu, Rajya Sabha MP.
The RJD split vertically, which gave birth to the RJD (Democratic), led by Gautam Sagar Rana. The JVMP, helmed by former BJP chief minister Babulal Marandi, suffered a setback after its MLA and Marandi lieutenant, Pradip Yadav, was jailed on an attempted rape charge. The JMM, the mainspring of the Opposition grouping, hit a rough patch after its patriarch Shibu Soren was defeated in the Dumka Lok Sabha seat, his fief, for a third time and his son and heir apparent, Hemant, led the coalition to a defeat in the last state polls.
With a spring in its step, the BJP encapsulated its target in the “Mission 65 plus” slogan, based on the fact that in the parliamentary polls, it led in 63 of the 81 Assembly constituencies. In 2014, the BJP and the AJSU together won 40 seats. Shivpujan Pathak, the BJP’s state media minder, claimed: “The ambience hasn’t changed. Our biggest achievement is we offered Jharkhand its first stable government lasting five years. Before 2014, there were instability and Maoist attacks. Under our government, there is inclusive development, fuelled by a double engine because we have a government at the Centre too.”
According to Sinha, the “double engine-driven growth” was a force multiplier in at least three sectors. Under the Ujjwala Yojana, a targeted scheme to provide cooking gas connections to BPL households, the Jharkhand government distributed free burners, with the first costless cylinder; it plans to hand a second cylinder shortly so that women do not revert to the “chulha” if the wait for a refill gets long and uncertain. Second, the Ayushman Bharat Health Protection scheme was universalised to cover any person having a ration card. “In effect, two-thirds of Jharkhand’s population are covered,” said Sinha. Third, the Rs 6,000 annual minimum income support to farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi was enhanced by the state government — additional Rs 5,000 per acre to farmer who owned less than an acre, not as a loan or an amount to be redeemed. The scheme was projected to benefit nearly 2.3 million small and marginal farmers who already received interest-free loans and a crop insurance cover.
However, even BJP sources conceded there were “challenges” to face and loopholes to plug. The Santhal Pargana region, accounting for 18 Assembly seats, is on the BJP’s radar because of concerns that tribal voters may turn to the JMM and the Congress for succour. “Our government is backward caste-driven,” a senior BJP leader said. Chief Minister Raghubar Das is from the backward caste Vaish community.
Memories of 2016 still anger tribals. That year, Das amended the Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts to permit the acquisition of tribal-owned land for “development”. These Acts proscribed the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people and favoured community ownership. After huge protests, the government withdrew the amendments in 2017.
The BJP sought to assuage tribal people’s sentiments by resorting to symbolism. It kicked off 2019 with a 15-day campaign to collect soil from the villages of pre-Independence martyrs and build a statue of tribal legend Birsa Munda on the old jail campus in Ranchi. BJP President Amit Shah visited Munda’s village, Ulihatu, to felicitate his descendants.
Will the gestures help? A central leader’s answer was: “Jharkhand’s demography is diverse. The BJP has to portray itself as an inclusive entity and not a sectional one.”