Jharkhand: The BJP’s mineral-rich ‘ATM’ state has had enough

One-size-fits-all rhetoric, anti-minority virulence, and talk of Bangladeshi infiltrators do not have the traction they do elsewhere

JMM workers demonstrate against the BJP over the arrest of ex-CM Hemant Soren
JMM workers demonstrate against the BJP over the arrest of ex-CM Hemant Soren

Nandlal Sharma

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) is disappointed that President Droupadi Murmu, a former governor of Jharkhand, couldn’t spare time to meet a delegation of party leaders led by chief minister Champai Soren, who had sought audience with her. The new chief minister gave vent to his frustration by saying that BJP leaders seem to treat mineral-rich Jharkhand like an ATM machine. “They neither have any emotional connect with the people of Jharkhand, nor are they serious about our issues”, he added.

Amusingly, the present state BJP president and former chief minister Babulal Marandi had quit the BJP saying he was expected to raise money all the time. Marandi, whom critics call ‘Babulal Marwari’ for his alleged proximity to businessmen, is back to being the BJP president, but his anti-corruption plank has lost much of its heft with his party patronising mine-owners and moneybags.

This is also the reason why the continued incarceration of former chief minister Hemant Soren has not dented his image or popularity. It has impacted the JMM’s election campaign and alienated tribals who believe that Soren was implicated in a frivolous case to prevent him from campaigning in the Lok Sabha election.

The sense of hurt and alienation was evident in the traditional spring festival of Sarhul, when several floats in the pageant figured Soren behind bars. Adivasis tend to be stoic about injustice, and prisons do not intimidate them; but the simmering anger one senses beneath their surface calm is unmistakable.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is finding it hard to justify Soren’s imprisonment on corruption charges, and not only because its own hands are not quite clean. Soren is in prison for a benami land deal, an allegation he has denied. His arrest, however, is not the only grievance that tribals, who constitute less than one-third of the population of the state, hold against the saffron party.

Its troubles have been compounded by the PM and the home minister’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Jharkhand, though no stranger to communal riots and mob lynching incidents, has seen a spurt in communal rhetoric over the last decade. When Modi, addressing a rally in Chaibasa, asserted that he would not allow Jharkhand to be turned into Bengal, there was incomprehension among the people, simply because Muslims have lived in relative harmony in the state for so long.

Modi and Amit Shah’s claim that reservation for SC-ST-OBCs is safe only as long as they are in power has failed to cut any ice. This is partly because it was the Hemant Soren-led government that passed the Bill to give OBCs 27 per cent reservation, which was stalled by the governor, a nominee of the Centre. (State-level BJP leaders are unable to explain why.) And partly because, contrary to the BJP’s expectations, the Congress manifesto has actually become a reference point.

On a campaign stop in the state, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spoke of the Opposition’s commitment to a ‘Sarna’ code. The BJP and the RSS have always treated non-Christian tribals as Hindus. Tribals, however, have been demanding a separate identity, pointing out that they worship nature and follow the ‘Sarna dharma’. They want the state to recognise their distinct identity, a demand to which the BJP has been cold.

There are other undercurrents. Resentment has been brewing against outsiders and migrants into Jharkhand after the state was formed in November 2000. These ‘rent seekers’ have usurped jobs, land, mining leases and contracts. They are also seen to dominate political parties, especially the two national parties. While the BJP, after experimenting with non-tribal Raghubar Das as chief minister has fallen back on Marandi, the Congress continues to be led and micro-managed by non-tribal leaders from outside the state.

The clamour for a ‘domicile’ policy based on land records or the Bihar Bhumi Khatiyan dating back to 1932 is another major electoral issue, but is not reflected in the media. The INDIA bloc is cushioned somewhat because a bill proposing a new domicile policy was passed by the state Assembly and sent to the governor for assent by the JMM-led coalition government.

The governor has neither returned it nor given his assent. BJP leaders have stayed mum on an issue which it recognises as a minefield. On the ground, though, it is an important talking point not only for older people, but both tribal and non-tribal youth. They want preference to be given to local residents in at least Group C and D jobs in the state and Central government, as well as in the PSUs.

The sizeable and politically empowered Kurmi community, known as the ‘Mahatos’ in Jharkhand, are also up in arms. They had played an important role in the Jharkhand movement. Leaders like Binod Bihari Mahato and Nirmal Mahato had led the agitation from the front with Shibu Soren and A.K. Roy.

The restive Kurmi youth have now come together under the banner of Jharkhand Loktantrik Krantikari Morcha led by Jairam Mahato. The JLKM has fielded eight candidates for the Lok Sabha and could chip away at the votes of both the BJP and the INDIA bloc, making elections in the state even more unpredictable.

The BJP was pressured to drop its sitting MP from Dhanbad, P.N. Singh, who has been winning the Lok Sabha seat for the last three elections, and forced to field one of its ‘local’ MLAs, Dhulu Mahato, from the seat. In the Giridih Lok Sabha seat too, three Mahato candidates fielded by different political parties are the main contestants. The domicile policy is a key issue in both these constituencies.

The party was compelled to field a new candidate from Hazaribagh as well, to counter the heat generated by the JLKM, which has spearheaded agitations in the region demanding employment for local people in this belt dotted by coal mines, thermal power plants and steel plants.

In the last Lok Sabha election, the BJP had won 12 of the 14 seats in the state, bagging the Dhanbad seat by a margin of over 4 lakh votes, while Giridih was also won by the BJP’s ally, Chandra Prakash Choudhary of the AJSU (All Jharkhand Students’ Union). This time, the stiff challenge comes not just from the INDIA bloc but also the JLKM.

The Kurmis in the state, it is believed, had voted en masse for the BJP in both 2014 and 2019. The community has been asking for reservation and inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list. In 2022 and in 2023, agitations had led to three ‘rail roko’ campaigns, which effectively brought train movement to a standstill for several days. The BJP had then promised to consider their dual demands. With the realisation that this could alienate tribal voters in several states, the BJP has now decided to maintain a studied silence. Kurmis feel betrayed and are infuriated.

When Union minister Arjun Munda was chief minister in 2004, recalls Ranchi-based activist Manzar Imam, he had forwarded a recommendation to include Kurmis in the ST list to New Delhi. As a Union minister dealing with tribal affairs, however, Munda dragged his feet and sought a report and recommendation from the Tribal Research Institute (TRI) in Ranchi.

This too has added fuel to the fire and Munda, who is contesting from Khunti, is feeling the heat. Ram Tahal Choudhary, a veteran Kurmi leader who had briefly left the BJP this year before returning to the fold, was heckled and manhandled when he went to campaign for Munda in the Tamar Assembly segment.

Jharkhand is a microcosm of India with diverse communities, cultures, languages and dialects. The BJP’s one-size-fits-all prescription, its anti-minority virulence, and talk of infiltrators from Bangladesh do not have the traction they receive elsewhere. The chances that the BJP would be able to repeat its 2019 performance in the state are slim.

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