As Hemant Soren is poised to become the next chief minister of Jharkhand, the election results confirm the emerging trend of a strong regional leader halting the BJP victory march by privileging the regional and local issue over the national one, besides fusing the identity politics as a subtext of developmental issues. In fact, the people’s verdict in Jharkhand come not as a shocker but simply as a validation of what many political analysts, including us, had predicted way back. It was expected that the BJP would fail to repeat its 2014 Assembly election performance, while the opposition alliance would improve its tally.
In the Assembly of 81 seats, the ruling BJP won 25 seats. The main opposition JMM won 30, and its alliance partners Congress and RJD won 16 and one respectively. The BJP’s ex-partner AJSU had bagged two seats and JVM(P) of ex-CM Babulal Marandi was on three; the remaining four seats were with other smaller parties or independents.
The Mahagathbandhan: One big development of this verdict is the emergence of the JMM as a pan-Jharkhand party. The JMM not only continued to dominate its old stronghold of Santhal Parganas, winning around half of the one-and-a-half-dozen seats of this sub-region, but also made its presence felt in the Palamu and North Chhotanagpur sub-regions where it had remained weak.
That JMM candidate Mithilesh Thakur won in the upper caste-dominated Garhwa seat and party’s tribal candidate Mahua Maji polled more than 73,000 votes in the capital city Ranchi’s non-tribal seat (she lost by a small margin to BJP’s seven-time MLA and minister C P Singh) signals a clear shift in terms of the party becoming more acceptable among the general caste voters. Further, the JMM simply swept the tribal belts of South Chhotanagpur and Kolhan, winning over three-fourths of the ST seats of these regions.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this election is the Congress, which simply reaped the dividends of the hard work of the JMM, anti-incumbency and being part of the grand alliance that avoided a split in opposition votes. That it won seats in all five sub-regions and in all categories (ST, SC and general seats) of the state and succeeded in reaching a double digit tally shows the extent of its gains. The coming together of the JMM and Congress helped in uniting the Christian voters and the non-Christian voters from the tribal communities, thereby marginalising the BJP’s Hindutva pitch.
BJP's downfall: On the other hand, the BJP is facing an erosion on all levels. That it could win or was leading on only two of the 28 ST reserved seats of the state clearly signals a massive tribal backlash. The prime reasons for this are attempts by the party to dilute the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act designed during the colonial era to protect tribal land possessions, and anger against it for choosing and continuing with the non-tribal Raghubar Das as chief minister despite anti-incumbency. The BJP’s win in Khunti’s both seats despite the Patthalgarhi movement and tribal anger could simply be understood from the fact that the gathbandhan failed to unite anti-BJP votes as the JMM candidate from Khunti was unknown to even local JMM cadres, helping the BJP’s veteran leader Nilkanth Singh Munda to sail through, and denial of ticket to sitting MLA Paulus Surin in Torpa of Khunti also cost JMM dear.
Even urban/middle-class voters were angry with the party as seen from the cases of Ranchi, Jamshedpur East (where Chief Minister Raghubar Das himself lost to former minister and senior BJP leader Saryu Roy) and Jharia where the Congress candidate was leading, with Dhanbad and Bokaro coming as a saving grace. That the party had to struggle hard to win in its erstwhile urban strongholds signals that misgovernance, non-performance on the issues of economy and lack of development in cities were damaging its popularity.
The issue of corruption has always been extremely important in Jharkhand given the fact that even former chief ministers like Shibu Soren and Madhu Koda have faced jail on corruption charges. The BJP always used to take lead in that respect as the ‘clean party’ and senior leader Saryu Rai was considered a leading figure in anti-corruption struggles; his activism greatly contributed in getting convictions in the fodder scam. The fact that Rai was denied a ticket and expelled from the party when he raised his voice against ‘shielding of the corrupt’ by the Raghubar Das government became indefensible for the party, causing it huge damage in the war of perceptions. The BJP’s only respite is that it is still getting OBC votes due to OBC leaders like CM Das himself, Dhullu Mahato and Ramchandra Chandravanshi, but this time the AJSU acted as an irritant even in that. The party is clearly paying the price for the arrogance of sidelining alliance partners, going all alone and breaking even previous alliances, making it less trustworthy for smaller parties.
National Implication: To begin with, it merits attention that in the span of a year, the BJP has lost two tribal-centric states in mainland India, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, despite claiming to champion their material and cultural interest.
Secondly, as we argued in a previous piece on the Jharkhand elections, the result also counters the post-May 2019 argument that economic and material issues like unemployment, rural inflation, land alienation, economic recession and organised corruption have ceased to be electorally relevant. In fact, it offers a template for the revival of opposition parties, which requires a dynamic combination of three factors—a strategy to privilege regional and local issues over the national ones; promotion of a strong regional anchor with the ability to effectively champion regional issues vis-a-vis emotive cultural and national issues of Hindutva; and, if required, taking the lead in stitching effective alliances at state levels.
In this backdrop, Hemant Soren joins the league of opposition regional satraps like Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Bhupinder Singh Hooda in Haryana and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, who revived the opposition prospects, the prime minister’s avalanche of populism notwithstanding. Though these insights are more useful for the state elections, they offer one important lesson even for the Congress at the national level wherein the electoral dividend of stitching a constellation of strong regional leaders against the ruling BJP far outweighs the quest to find one national anchor against Modi and getting trapped into the slippery slope logic of Modi vs Who? Thus, after the Jharkhand verdict, the coming Delhi election would be an interesting case to test the tenuous interplay of BJP’s populism vs the opposition’s regional satraps.
Rajan Pandey is a Political Science professor at Christ University, Bengaluru. Sajjan Kumar is a Political analyst associated with People’s Pulse. You can email Sajjan Kumar at email@example.com.