Too Close to Call

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As Jharkhand prepares for the first phase of the 16th Lok Sabha election on 10 April, in which 10 of the 14 seats will be up for grabs, capital Ranchi is buzzing with activity. The NaMo chant is yet to resonate with the local residents and political parties are seeking votes on the lines of caste, religious and tribal status. While the BJP holds seven of the 14 seats, it remains to been seen if it will increase its tally.

In fact, the fractured mandate in last year’s Assembly polls, which pushed the state under President’s rule, mirrors the political state of affairs in Jharkhand. With no party enjoying a clear mandate, politicians and parties are engaged in intense parleys for alliances.

The Ranchi Lok Sabha constituency, held by former Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay, will see a pitched battle between the Congress, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) and the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

While the JVM(P) has fielded Amitava Chaudhary, former IPS officer and special secretary to the state home department, the AITC candidate is Bandhu Tirkey, a former Sahay confidant. For the Congress, neither candidate is good news, especially considering the infighting within the state unit of the party.

The Congress maintained its sway over the seat for a decade by bringing together a coalition of tribal, Muslim, OBC and youth votes and entering into an alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). While Sahay rallied together Congress voters, JMM secured the tribal votes, Tirkey was instrumental in gathering Muslim support for the party and former deputy CM Sudesh Mahato of the All Jharkhand Students’ Association (AJSU) brought together the OBC and youth votes.

This time, however, individuals who helped the party stitch together the rainbow coalition are contesting against the Congress. While Tirkey is contesting against Sahay, Mahato is helping the BJP in other constituencies. Sahay’s own fortunes took a tumbling after he was named in the coal block allocation scam. Then there was the conflict between him and Rajya Sabha MP Pradeep Balmuchu, the then state Congress president, which led to Sahay’s younger brother losing the Hatia Assembly constituency.

Analysts believe that the OBC vote being distributed among several candidates would result in a large section of Muslim and tribal votes swaying in Sahay’s favour.

The Lohardaga constituency, held by the BJP’s Sudarshan Bhagat, will witness a battle between him and Tirkey’s associate Chamra Linda. Linda is also vying for an AITC ticket. While parts of Lohardaga are Maoist-affected and tribal-dominated, the sitting MP is known for his honesty and a clout amongst tribals and non-tribals — a reason why the Maoists have not declared a war against him.

Of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in Jharkhand, eight are afflicted with Maoist insurgency. The Palamu Lok Sabha constituency is known as the headquarters of the insurgents. There are three former parliamentarians contesting for this Scheduled Caste-reserved seat, including Manoj Kumar, Ghuran Ram and former Maoist Kameshwar Baitha.

Arrested in 2005, Baitha won the 2009 General Election on a JMM ticket while still in jail. He is notorious for the number of serious cases lodged against him. However, people in the region are sympathetic to him because they believe he was framed for being a Maoist.

The BJP is fielding VD Ram, the former director general of Jharkhand Police, from Palamu.

Another Maoist-affected area that requires special security apparatus is Khunti constituency. Kariya Munda of the BJP, also the deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, represents it. Munda, a tribal leader, is close to the BJP’s top brass. The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded tribal activist-turned-politician Dayamani Barla against him.

In nearby Chatra constituency, former Maoist leader Keshwar ‘Ranjanji’ Yadav is contesting on a Samajwadi Party ticket despite offers from the JVM(P) and AJSU. He contested on a CPI(ML-Liberation) ticket in 2009, securing third position with a high vote share, while being lodged at the Ambikapur jail in Chhattisgarh.

Deep in the hinterland, gun-toting militia dictates whom to vote for, even though they claim that they will boycott the polls. This time, the Maoists are unhappy at the RJD not contesting seats in Jharkhand, except from Palamu.

Maoist-hit areas are difficult to access, but parties are trying their best to push through, despite the threat of IEDs and ambushes. A leaked Intelligence Bureau report said that the Maoists were targeting JVM(P) leaders, including former chief minister Babulal Marandi and his brother Nunulal Marandi. In 2008, the Maoists in Chikhadia village killed Marandi’s son and 17 others.

In another Maoist-hit constituency, Singhbhum, the Congress has fielded former BJP worker Chitrasen Singh Sinkhu. It is believed that former Congress MP Bagun Sambrui, who won the seat five times, was instrumental in getting him the ticket. After being embroiled in corruption charges, former CM and sitting Singhbum MP of the BJP, Madhu Koda has passed on the seat to his wife Geeta Koda.

“There were many strong contenders but the party high command decided to field a new member who just joined, knowing that he would not get the BJP ticket. The party has done this earlier and is doing it again,” says a senior Congress leader.

The reason, perhaps, lies in the rumour of a possible tie-up between Madhu Koda and the Congress. The BJP has put up Laxman Gilua, who had lost twice but commands a safe 30 percent vote share in the region.

The JMM, one of the oldest political parties in Jharkhand, claims to have the solution to all tribal issues in the state. However, the support for the party has been waning. Party supremo Shibu Soren is contesting from Dumka. In 2013, the JMM withdrew its support to the BJP led government to form a government with support from the Congress and the RJD. The JMM entered into an arrangement with the Congress in exchange for its support, wherein the latter was granted 10 of the 14 ls seats. That has cost the JMM dearly.

The BJP has been actively poaching politicians across parties. Bidyut Baran Mahto, JMM MLA from Baharagora, quit the party to join the BJP and is contesting from Jamshedpur. The BJP also poached former health minister Hemlal Murmu, another senior JMM tribal leader. It is said that Murmu, though a follower of Shibu Soren, does not like the younger Soren and did not want to serve under his leadership. Former CM Arjun Munda, a former JMM cadre himself before joining the BJP in 2000, was looking for an opportunity and snapped up Murmu.

“The BJP is in a crisis because they do not have suitable candidates and are poaching from us,” says JMM general secretary Binod Pandey. “These candidates have won all this while only because they were contesting on JMM tickets and have no chance otherwise.”

Pandey is defensive about the JMM’s decision to contest only four seats. “We will keep our end of the commitment for the alliance with the Congress and the RJD,” he says. They hope to repeat the 2004 LS election performance when the Congress had won six of the nine seats contested and JMM won four. This year, they have one seat less to contest and word on the ground is that JMM cadres, especially in rural areas, are unwilling to campaign for the Congress.

What is interesting is that the BJP’s face in the state, Arjun Munda, will not be standing for election. A state BJP leader confided that there are two reasons for this: firstly, Munda had asked that Ravindra Rai be made the state president, and secondly, Munda has the feeling that the Modi wave would help him sweep the Assembly election, which will be held later this year.

In 2013, when the state BJP presidents were being elected, Munda placed his confidant Ravindra Rai as the state unit chief. Now, Munda has to prove himself and thus, preferred to steer the campaign rather than contest the election.

What will help the BJP is the spread of not just its own organisation but of the RSS throughout the state and some of the other members of the larger Sangh Parivar in the urban centres.

In Jharkhand too, the BJP’s Modi-led central election committee is facing criticism from within for distribution of tickets. In Hazaribagh, former Union finance and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha has dropped out of the race and the party has instead given the ticket to his son Jayant Sinha, though the older Sinha has been critical of ‘dynastic’ politics.

In Koderma, Ravindra Rai was given a ticket to contest against Babulal Marandi. In 2009, Marandi won with a good margin and enjoys a lot of popularity, while Rai has lost most elections he stood for. Rai was the vice-president of the BJP’s Kisan Morcha before he became the president of the Jharkhand unit, which drew him closer to the national leadership, along with Munda acting as his guardian angel.

Come 16 May, Jharkhand would throw up an interesting mandate.

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