BJP on a sticky wicket in Jharkhand

In the shadow of the Maharashtra humiliation, the ruling BJP in Jharkhand is immersed in an Assembly election that is not going according to script.

BJP on a sticky wicket in Jharkhand

Poll woe: There is increased anti-incumbency against CM Das and the ruling party.

Saba Naqvi

Saba Naqvi
Senior journalist

In the shadow of the Maharashtra humiliation, the ruling BJP in Jharkhand is immersed in an Assembly election that is not going according to script. Just two months ago, the party had been confident that its government was popular and the campaign pitch was planned around the name of Chief Minister Raghubar Das -- "Ghar Ghar Raghubar" (home to home, it's Raghubar) was to be the slogan. 

But as the election date came closer, internal surveys showed increased anti-incumbency against the CM and the ruling party. So, the focus on Das was dropped; in all campaign material, the CM (an OBC) is now shown along with PM Narendra Modi and small photographs of former tribal CMs of the BJP pantheon are also included. The slogan now is "Jharkhand Pukara, Bhajpa Dobara" (Jharkhand calls for BJP again).

The BJP worries about losing support of two social groups. One is the Adivasis that constitute 27 per cent of the population. The BJP had broken through in a section of the tribal society following diligent organisational work by the Sangh Parivar since the 90s in what was south Bihar. After the formation of Jharkhand in 2000, the party projected various tribal leaders, although they often won with support of non-tribals.

The backbone of the BJP's base, however, has been the OBCs and the numerically small but economically significant upper castes. Now this is a local election, fought between BJP and the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance, with two smaller parties in the fray, both of which can act as spoilers for either side. The AJSU (All-Jharkhand Students Union) that was in alliance with the BJP is contesting on its own and essentially represents the Mahto OBCs (akin to Kurmis). On the ground it is creating more problems for BJP candidates. 

The larger worry is that without a wave, will the BJP's OBC votes splinter? That is why Home Minister Amit Shah has given interviews to say they would get a majority on their own (something that's never happened in Jharkhand) and the AJSU will support them after the elections as well. The BJP national leadership has been speaking of ideological issues like the Ram Mandir, Article 370 and NRC, but till the second phase of voting in a five-phase election, this did not appear to be a Hindutva election. 

There are parts of Jharkhand that are deeply communalised, but as the Muslim community has not done any public protest against the SC verdict on the Ram Mandir, the fizz has gone out of the issue. The NRC, repeated in the BJP manifesto for Jharkhand, could have been an issue in areas bordering West Bengal, but as it turned out to be counter-productive in the recent byelections in Bengal, the BJP cannot depend on it in Jharkhand. Still, in a state where hate crimes and lynchings have taken place, the communal tinderbox can be stoked at any point and the Muslims remain guarded even as there is a migration into areas where they feel there is safety in numbers. Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM is contesting some seats, but is unlikely to make a mark, although he draws crowds. The state has a 14.5 per cent Muslim population and a section of tribals are Christians. The BJP would like to play on both fronts but so far ideological issues are not connecting and local issues are dominating the discourse. 

Land is the big issue of these elections. Das is the first non-tribal CM and an impression has gained ground that he represents forces that would like to take over tribal lands. His government tried to amend the century-old Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act and Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act. Such amendments would have eased handing over tribal lands to private investors and/or given ownership to local non-tribals who still need a tribal front. The government had to backtrack after protests, but mid-election, any travel to tribal-dominated parts reveals that the damage has been done.

Khunti district has elected BJP representatives in the last three elections. But the Munda tribals of these parts, when they agree to talk, say they will probably vote for the bow and arrow (symbol of the JMM) and not for the "phool": the BJP's lotus. Some of them will not vote as they are in the process of declaring "independence' from the republic. For, this region is known for the Pathalgadi movement that began in 2017 and picked up momentum in 2018 when villages installed stone tablets, declaring they were only answerable to the gram pradhan (village council) and that state and central writ would not extend to them. The stone slabs on roads in parts of Khunti, are an embarrassment for the Das government. The administration admits that the movement has spread to over 100 villages in Khunti and some villages in adjoining districts and even parts of Chhattisgarh. 

Jharkand has about 40 per cent of India's natural resources, so the truth about the quality of life is tragic. The state has been wanting in spreading equitable justice to people, particularly in tribal areas. Yet, mighty fortunes have been made in the mines and manufacturing hubs and all political parties are tainted by corruption. 

Some hours' drive from Khunti, where some people believe there is greater protection, is disconnecting from the state, a dystopian reality is playing out in Jamshedpur, the town set up by the mighty Tata. The economic slowdown has hit both Tata Steel and Tata Motors and there are block closures on several days in the factories. While the Tata workers still have their jobs, the worst hit are the thousands of labourers that worked in auto-ancillary units around Jamshedpur. Estimates of job losses range from 10,000 to 30,000 and daily wagers who earned Rs 450 are ready to do any work that pays even far less. 

BJP workers point out that Adityapur does not lie within the constituency of Jamshedpur East from where the CM is standing and that daily workers are often not voters in the place where they seek work. That is indeed true and a practical but sad reflection of how political calculations are made.

But equally true is the spectacle of the CM being challenged in his own seat by his former minister Saryu Rai who is standing as an independent after being denied a ticket. Saryu Rai is a veteran from the RSS/BJP stable and represents the rebellion of the old guard. BJP workers can be found in his camp office talking about the corruption of the Raghubar Das government as Rai presents himself as an anti-corruption crusader. To add a twist to the tale, Rai has got the support of the JMM, although the Congress has a candidate in the seat. Still, most locals say that the CM will pull through in the seat he has always won since 1995 with a reduced margin. The script for Jharkhand, therefore, has twists and turns. It is not a done deal for the BJP, although conventional wisdom says it will be the single largest party in a house of 81. 


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