Dumka/Jarmundi: Once a fringe player in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to set the agenda for Jharkhand’s ongoing assembly elections—good governance and stable government—an accomplishment that has given it an edge even in the absence of a strong local leader.

The BJP is gaining from people’s desire for change, a fragmented opposition, the party’s popularity among young voters and a severe anti-incumbency against the ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).

In a state characterized by political instability and frequent change of governments—nine in the 14 years since it was formed—regional parties such as the JMM are losing their clout among Jharkhand’s tribal population, who make up more than one-fourth of the state’s total.

Mint spoke to voters across the tribal belt of Santhal Parganas, which goes to polls on Saturday. Out of the 16 constituencies going to polls, JMM has sitting MLAs in nine while the BJP has one. If the BJP is able to make a dent in this region, which a majority of voters and experts think it will, then it is likely to give its best ever performance in the state that was carved out of Bihar in 2000.

“None of the governments in the past decade have paid attention to two of the most important things in the state—education and jobs. We are living in a defunct state where students of four classes sit together and study, where one has to travel miles to get healthcare services and where the welfare schemes never reach those it is meant for. This calls for a change and this election will hopefully provide it," said Namita Tudu, a 32-year-old woman who works as a para teacher in Dumka district and is on election duty.

Para teachers are contract teachers employed by the state government under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA) universal education scheme.

Who stands where

While the BJP is running a spirited campaign, protecting the power equation between the centre and states to fast-track development, it is also looking to profit from an alliance with the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), a pro-Jharkhand movement party made up of young leaders from student politics and led by Sudesh Mahato.

After breaking away from the Congress party, the JMM is going alone and is seemingly the only other party which is putting up a tough fight in the state. JMM, the original pro-statehood and tribal rights party of Jharkhand, has based its election campaign strategically on the lines of the “freedom struggle" for the state. Its posters feature Shibu Soren, the first chief minister of Jharkhand, and his son Hemant Soren, the current chief minister, announcing “Humne banaya hai, hum hi sawarenge", loosely translated to “We built it, we will improve it".

Others in the fray include Babulal Marandi’s BJP breakaway Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), or JVM (P), and the Congress party, which is conspicuous by its absence from a low-key election campaign. Congress’ allies in this election—Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United)—are marginal players.

Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based political analyst associated with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) feels that owing to a “badly divided opposition", the BJP is likely to gain a clear majority in the state.

“In my opinion, the BJP is going to get an absolute majority in the state but with a vote share of less than 35%. This is simply because the votes of all the other parties are so divided that the BJP is benefiting from it. There is a complete failure of government, almost as if it does not exist, and the BJP has been able to build on that issue," Kumar said.

“The BJP is the main rival in the state and the party which everyone else, including the Congress, the JMM and the JVM (P), are attacking. And in such a scenario, where the national mood is tilted in favour of the BJP and almost the entire opposition is discredited, it is bound to have a lead," he added.

In the April-May general election, the BJP won 12 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand with a vote share of 40.71%, leaving only two seats for the JMM at 9.42% vote share.

Stable government, good governance

Since it was formed in November 2000, Jharkhand has seen five chief ministers, including an independent, Madhu Koda, and three stints of President’s rule.

In its short political history, former chief ministers Arjun Munda of the BJP and Shibu Soren of the JMM have held the post thrice each. While the maximum tenure of any chief minister in the state was 16 months, the shortest stint has been as less as 10 days.

This political discontinuity in governments is exactly where the BJP is looking to make it an election agenda. Its recent performance in the April-May general election, where a party wrested a clear majority after 30 years, bolsters its chances.

“Unless there is political stability in the state, no developmental work can be carried out. One government passes an order only for another to come after a year and cancel it. We have realized it the hard way, losing out on 14 full years, that how much difference a stable government makes," Sameer Kumar Gupta, a 24-year-old student who helps out at his father’s grocery shop in Jarmundi, said, adding that he will vote for a BJP government in the state.

“Poorna bahumat, sampoorna vikas, chalo chalein Modi ke saath" and “Hunar se judega rozgar, kendra-rajya mein Modi sarkar" are some of the key slogans the BJP has used, which reflect the party’s attempts to form a government on its own. Projecting the benefits of having a friendly centre led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party has promised political stability, making development its key plank.

Worrying the opposition parties, especially the Congress party, the issues seem to have resonated well with the voters and could well be the deciding factor when votes are counted on 23 December.

Many voters in constituencies across Dumka, Sarath, Jarmundi, Jamtara and Nala, which go to polls on Saturday, feel unemployment, lack of quality higher education, electricity problems, lack of drinking water and poor road connectivity are some of the problems holding back this natural resource-rich state.

“When Jharkhand separated from Bihar, it was touted to be one of the most promising new states. But the reverse happened. There is a total collapse of government machinery and there has been no development in the first one decade of formation of the state when it was required the most," said Mushtaq Ahmad Ansari, a 37-year-old shopkeeper in Asana village in Sarath assembly constituency which falls in Deoghar district.

Tribal votes

Jharkhand has a Scheduled Tribe (ST) population of 26.2%, according to data compiled by the ministry of tribal affairs in 2013, making it a key voting bloc in the state. Interestingly, Jharkhand has never seen a non-tribal chief minister. While the tribal factor plays a key role in the choice of candidates among the population, the lack of development is slowly becoming an important issue.

Many like the 27-year-old Jugun Marandi, a daily wage labourer at Kusum Dih village, have fallen off the development map. Marandi, who is a graduate by qualification, resorted to a job with a paltry pay because he was disillusioned after unsuccessfully trying for several government jobs. This is when Jharkhand has 26% reservation for tribals in government jobs.

“This government has done nothing for us; it is as good as having no government. This time, we are looking for change and to vote for a party which is able to give us a stable government," he said, adding that he was keen to vote for the BJP.

Interestingly, Marandi’s village falls in the Dumka constituency, which is considered to be a political backyard of the incumbent JMM. Party patriarch Shibu Soren is an eight-time member of Parliament from the seat and his son Hemant is the current chief minister from the same seat.

Of the total 81 seats, 28 are reserved for tribals and nine for scheduled castes. While the BJP is considered to be strong in the non-reserved seats, it is also expected to make a dent in the seats reserved for tribals in this election.

“The political leadership in Jharkhand has always used the tribal issue to its favour. All chief ministers have been tribals, everyone has promised to work for their welfare but it has never happened. The benefits of tribal schemes are not reaching the beneficiaries owing to a lot of corruption in the whole system," Anant Kumar, social scientist and assistant professor at the Ranchi-based Xavier Institute of Social Sciences (XISS), said.

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