The Quiet Gambler

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He may not hold all the aces, but Babulal Marandi still seems the best bet in the murky politics of Jharkhand. Tusha Mittal meets the state’s first chief minister on his home turf

Comeback moves Marandi’s relatively clean image is a big advantage
Comeback moves Marandi’s relatively clean image is a big
advantage
Photos: Vijay Pandey

OF ALL the places where one expects to meet Jharkhand’s first chief minister, this wasn’t it. By the light of a dimming lantern outside a nondescript tea stall in Koderma district, on a thin strip of road between open fields, Babulal Marandi is reclining on a plastic chair with studied grandeur. “If I were CM now, you and I wouldn’t be talking in darkness,” he laughs, the red ruby on his finger sparkling.

Marandi who has been dashing from one election rally to another projecting himself as Jharkhand’s next chief minister, has addressed more than a hundred public meetings in the last month. This is where he pauses to talk. He seems as comfortable sipping chai from an earthen cup as when he was sharing the dais with UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi weeks back, and with Opposition BJP leader LK Advani in years past.

Marandi, who became CM after the state was carved out of Bihar in November 2000, resigned in 2003 following an internal power tussle in the BJP. Sources say this was because Marandi would not allow cabinet ministers postings of their choice and refused to bow down to the leaders who had propelled him as CM. Yet he stayed on for another three years before finally quitting the party in 2006. “It’s all in the timing,” he says. “I didn’t want people to think I’m greedy.”

Marandi, 52, is a quiet gambler – one who plays with suave restraint, but always with an eye on the main chance. In light of the recent Madhu Koda scam, Marandi’s USP has become his relatively clean image. There is no suggestion in him of insatiable greed – which is why the Congress chose to partner with him instead of old ally and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) president Shibu Soren. (Koda, the disgraced ex-chief minister, stands accused of laundering a whopping Rs 4,000 crore through hawala transactions and secret bullion trade.)

In the semiotics of Marandi’s speech there is no negativity, belligerence or shrill rhetoric. His composure strongly suggests a man who knows the road leading up to his destination. And though in these Assembly elections he has no clear agenda to sell, he could, in these circumstances, emerge as a major regional force after the verdict is announced on December 23.

If that indeed happens it would help him come out of Soren’s shadow and make it to centre-stage. For Soren is old and has no real successor within his party – the space that Marandi is eager to occupy and redefine. “My identity is of someone development oriented,” he says. “I can’t imitate others. If I try to be pro-tribes or pro-Santhal like Soren, pro-Hindu like BJP or pro-backward classes like Laloo Yadav, I’ll only disfigure my own face.”

By rejecting narrow identity and caste politics, he could be a new kind of leader – connecting the centre to the grassroots

While Soren came to power speaking the language of tribal rights, Marandi has adapted himself to the current climate. “The tribals must first change themselves. They can’t be preserved as museum specimens. We’ve moved ahead from the days of bows and arrows to the atomic age, but we tell them to stay in their jungles,” he laments. “I became what I am by travelling out. To progress, you have to allow change.” Ironically, it was Marandi himself who had proposed the controversial domicile policy that gave land and job rights to only those families settled in Jharkhand since 1932. The proposal was later rejected by the Jharkhand High Court.

But ask him about tribal rights now and he dismisses them as non-issues, except to say, “When good people govern Hindustan, keeping not the Tatas and the Mittals but the poor in mind, these problems will be solved.”

Marandi is now at a key bend in the road. By rejecting narrow identity and caste politics, he could become a new breed of tribal leader – a bridge connecting the Centre to the grassroots base he comes from. With his conviction that only regional parties can be effective at the state level, he could trigger a new kind of politics in Jharkhand. But there is also the danger of blindly mimicking Delhi’s rarefied language of development and ignoring what it translates to on the ground; of sacrificing the interests of the local community in lieu of greater national concerns.

That of 81 assembly seats Marandi has agreed to contest only 20 is being seen as a compromise with the Congress alliance. His party, the Jharkhand Vikas Manch (JVM) floated in 2006, has the strength to contest about 40 seats on its own. Supporters from his right-wing days have left the JVM in protest. But Marandi insists that the compromise is for the welfare of the state. “Without such an alliance there can’t be a stable and clean government,” he says. Most of JVM’s 20 seats are in BJP strongholds where the Congress has little hope of winning.

MARANDI ROSE from very humble beginnings. The eldest son of a small wheat farmer Chotu Marandi, he worked as a teacher in the early 1980s to sustain his parents and five siblings in Kodia Bandh village. He quit after he was asked for a bribe and took up a small job that paid him Rs 250 a month. He now began working for the VHP – first as a foot soldier spreading its message and later as office secretary. It was at this point that Marandi came in contact with the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and started attending sangh meetings; also when his meteoric rise began.

By rejecting narrow identity and caste politics, he could be a new kind of leader – connecting the centre to the grassroots

In 1991 the BJP was searching for a clean candidate who could take on Shibhu Soren on his home turf Dumka, which falls in the key tribal district of Santhal Paraganas. By then Marandi, also from the Santhal tribe, had explored the region extensively as VHP’s district head and become the automatic choice as BJP’s Dumka candidate. “He was very eager to learn English,” says former BJP state spokesperson Ramesh Puskar. “He’d ask us to translate speeches and try to read newspapers and books.”

Though Marandi lost to Soren in 1991 he became the BJP’s Jharkhand head; and a surprise win in 1998 catapulted him onto the national political stage. Not only did he defeat Soren from Dumka, but under his leadership the BJP also won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand. That won him a significant place within the party, and he was appointed Union Minister of Environment and Forests and later Jharkhand’s first CM in the NDA government. “My role in the RSS was confined to doing social service,” says Marandi a decade later. “The RSS does do some work for the nation’s welfare. But they also do other things I don’t agree with. Those who talk of Hindutva aren’t practicing what they preach.”

This isn’t the only shift in Marandi’s vision. “I don’t see myself as a tribal politician,” he now says. “I’m concerned with the entire Jharkhand state. That’s why I can contest from anywhere. Soren made the mistake of leaving Dumka and contesting from Tamar, and he lost the by-election.”

It was perhaps this need to shed the tribal label that made Marandi move from the reserved Dumka constituency to the non-reserved seat of Koderma – his home ground, from where he’s been an MP since 2003.

‘I don’t see myself as a tribal politician. I’m concerned with the entire Jharkhand state,’ says Marandi

Personal tragedies only seem to make Marandi more determined. In 2007 his younger son Anup was among 17 killed in a Naxal attack during a cultural programme. Yet his response to the crisis is marked with no aggression. “Governance must be more transparent so people’s grievances can be heard,” he says. “We won’t let Jharkhand reach the stage where a massive combat operation is required.”

Marandi certainly has a fine track record. He is the only chief minister to have done so much concrete development work – extensive roadways, canals and power connections in over 2,000 villages. “Between his tenure and President’s rule there has been barely any progress,” says Sailesh Sinha, state Congress general secretary.

Unlike the others in the fray, Marandi has never served a jail term; nor are there any reports of mining scams or doling out of corporate favours. Though there are allegations against some of his former cabinet ministers, his personal integrity remains mostly unquestioned. Only, his wife Shanti Murmu, barely literate, continues to live in his village and has never stayed in the CM House.

Though he may not be spotless, if Marandi does emerge victorious it will be on the strength of his own personality – which like that sputtering lantern in Jharkhand’s darkness may be the best there is so far.

WRITER’S EMAIL
tusha@tehelka.com

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