How the BJP lost Jharkhand in 2019?

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BJP lost Jharkhand Narendra Modi
Image: India Today

When it comes to elections, social chemistry often takes precedence over poll arithmetic. In Jharkhand, it looks like the Raghubar Das-led BJP had both imponderables–electoral chemistry and poll arithmetic–working against it.

A section of BJP leaders are already citing the tribal backlash as the single biggest reason for the party’s massive drubbing in a state it always believed was its backyard. After all, it was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that had carved out Jharkhand as a new state in November 2000 and the BJP has never shied away from taking credit for it.

With experts putting the actual numbers of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population higher than the 2011 Census figure of 26.3 percent (28 of the 81 assembly seats are reserved for STs), the importance of tribal votes just cannot be overstated here. In 2014, when the BJP bagged its highest tally of 37 assembly seats in Jharkhand, it was largely possible because a significant section of the tribal community voted for the saffron party. It was manifested in the BJP’s performance in the 28 ST seats, where it was almost on par with the JMM, often seen as the first claimant of tribal votes in Jharkhand (the BJP had bagged 11 seats whereas the JMM tally was 13). Five years later, the JMM-Congress combine has now won 25 of these 28 seats. The BJP, which contested all the seats, managed just two.

The BJP’s pathetic performance was not limited to the reserved seats. The sentiment that the tribal communities have no trust left in the BJP travelled across the state and reverberated in all the constituencies. The message was loud and clear: a majority of the tribal community were not to vote for the BJP. It impacted their final tally,” says a senior JMM leader.

Jharkhand is home to four major tribal groups – Santhal, Munda, Ho and Oraon. While the BJP is traditionally known to control the Munda votes, the JMM has a following among the Santhali vote while the Congress is believed to have the backing of the Ho and Oraon. The 2019 assembly polls, however, saw even the Munda deserting the BJP.

Incidentally, the BJP improved its performance in seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Of the nine SC assembly seats in Jharkhand, the BJP bagged six, one more than its 2014 tally of five. Clearly, the trust deficit that BJP faced among the tribal community was not relevant for the Scheduled Caste population of Jharkhand.

All of Raghubar Das’s predecessors, including Jharkhand’s first chief minister Babulal Marandi, have been from the tribal community. The BJP tried to change the pro-tribal script in 2014 when it picked a non-tribal, Das, to head the state. The saffron party was then riding on the unprecedented simple majority that the NDA had secured in the assembly polls. It was an audacious move, and Das was left with the responsibility of maintaining a fine balance in a socially volatile state.

It was a huge opportunity for him too. He had the cushion of a simple majority, which none of his predecessors had enjoyed. The elevation of Das, from the backward Teli caste, was also part of the BJP strategy to win over the numerically significant non-Yadav backward class votes. While the BJP already had the Munda tribe behind it, it wanted to reel in the non-Muslim, non-tribal votes while projecting Das’s credentials as an OBC leader.

Das had every opportunity to win over the tribals too. With a favourable Modi government backing him at the Centre, he had the means and open purse-strings to do good for the marginalised tribal community.

But Das, the first chief minister to complete a full term in office, proved anything but a deft politician. His attempts to change the tribal tenancy laws in 2017, which sought to dilute the protection the scheduled tribe had over their land, created a huge trust deficit for BJP in Jharkhand. The Congress-JMM led opposition along with the Church opposed the proposed amendments.

The Das government had brought two bills in 2017 to change the two tenancy acts-the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNTA) and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SPTA)–to allow commercial use of tribal land. The move was largely seen as a pro-corporate and anti-tribal. Sensing the anger of the tribal community, the BJP had put the decision on hold before the Lok Sabha polls, but the opposition succeeded in conveying the message that Das would push the bills through if voted back to power.

As if this was not enough, the Das government pushed in another polarising legislation called the anti-conversion bill in August 2017. Though the Das government had argued that the move was to stop those who “fiddle with tribal culture by making religious conversions through inducement, blackmailing or coercion”, the BJP government’s move was largely seen as a proposal to divide the tribal population along religious lines.

Jharkhand election results in 2014 & 2019
Image: Hindustan Times

A senior BJP leader admitted the tribal backlash was evident from the beginning, and that the BJP leadership had ignored it. From December 2015 to December 2018, Jharkhand witnessed by-polls for seven assembly seats. The BJP won just one of the seats. “The leadership perhaps trusted Das a little too much. The way he spilt Babulal Marandi’s JVM to poach six of their legislators and later brought in more turncoats, the party obviously trusted him as a master of managing people,” says the BJP leader.

Indeed, Das appeared head and shoulders above the rest when it came to winning over politicians from other sides. Unfortunately, he failed to do the same with the people. Das’s loss in his own East Singhbhum constituency-and BJP’s loss of face in Jharkhand-are telling testaments to this.

With Inputs of India Today