Prime Minister Narendra Modi with CM Raghubar Das and other BJP leaders during an election campaign rally for the Jharkhand Assembly polls, in Palamu. For around a decade after the first state polls in 2005, Jharkhand has been marked by political instability (Photo: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with CM Raghubar Das and other BJP leaders during an election campaign rally for the Jharkhand Assembly polls, in Palamu. For around a decade after the first state polls in 2005, Jharkhand has been marked by political instability (Photo: PTI)

Can the BJP hold on to Jharkhand?

The party is up against anti-incumbency and a united Opposition, which is trying to shift the discourse for the coming assembly polls towards local issues

After sub-par performances in Haryana and Maharashtra, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to face a tough challenge in the upcoming assembly elections in Jharkhand. The party is facing issues with establishing alliances while the major opposition parties – Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) – have formed a united front. This makes the Jharkhand elections a direct contest between the BJP and the JMM-Congress-led alliance (which also includes the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a smaller player in the state). Data from previous elections and from post-poll surveys conducted by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Lokniti-CSDS) suggests it could be a keenly contested election.

For around a decade since the first state assembly elections in 2005, Jharkhand has been marked by constant political instability resulting in fragile post-poll coalitions, even including one led by an independent MLA (Madhu Koda). In both 2005 and 2009, the state elections delivered fragmented verdicts with the single largest party, the BJP (in 2005) and JMM (in 2009) falling well short of a majority.

The 2014 assembly elections, though, was a landmark moment in the state's politics as the BJP and its pre-poll partner, the All Jharkhand Students’ Union (AJSU), secured a simple majority (42 seats) of the 81 available. The AJSU has not entered into an alliance with the BJP yet. In 2014, the two most successful parties after the BJP were the JMM and Congress who are now both allies. In as many as 14 seats the combined vote share of Congress and JMM --- which had contested against each other then --- was higher than the BJP-led alliance. The AJSU and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), another regional party whose MLAs had crossed over to the BJP in 2015, could play spoilsport in some seats.

Though the BJP-AJSU alliance swept the state in the recent Lok Sabha elections, winning 13 out of the 14 seats and securing 55.3% votes, there can be sharp vote swings between general and state elections, as recent state elections, and several state elections since 2014 have demonstrated. Historically, Jharkhand itself has seen different patterns of voting in state and national elections.

In the 2014 state elections, support for the BJP came mostly from upper castes, other backward castes (OBCs), and certain tribal groups, according to post-poll survey data by Lokniti-CSDS. Around 50% of the state’s upper castes and 40% of OBCs voted for BJP. Adivasi or scheduled tribe (ST) voters, the dominant social group in the state accounting for 27% of the population, were split between the BJP (30% of all ST votes) and the JMM (29%). The 25 seats where ST constitute a majority are crucial in Jharkhand’s elections. In 2014, these seats were split nearly equally between the BJP (11 seats) and JMM (12).

The Congress failed to win a single seat among the 25 seats despite securing 10.8% of the votes. If the 2014 trends are repeated in 2019, then the JMM-Congress alliance could enjoy greater success in these seats.

Finally, the BJP will also be tested by state-level anti-incumbency. Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has had mixed success in retaining power in states.

In Gujarat, it just about managed to ward off a spirited challenge from the Congress. In Goa and Haryana, it had to rely on post-poll alliances to retain power as it failed to secure a majority on its own. In Chhattisgarh, it faced a massive defeat while it lost Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh narrowly. In Maharashtra, it was unable to garner majority support after the collapse of its pre-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena.

As in Haryana and Maharashtra, the Opposition in Jharkhand has been trying to shift the discourse towards local issues, focusing on the performance of the state government.

In contrast, the BJP is expected to make national issues such as Ram Mandir and nationalism central to its campaign. The verdict in Jharkhand could well be decided by which one of these two—local and national issues—prevails in the minds of the voters.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, US

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