Jharkhand Debacle Proves BJP Failed to Read Electorate, Yet Again

The verdict from Jharkhand has to be seen in conjunction with those in October in Maharashtra and Haryana.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
The verdict from Jharkhand has to be seen in conjunction with those in October in Maharashtra and Haryana.
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From when Prime Minister Narendra Modi authored the innovative slogan of ushering in a 'Congress Mukt Bharat' and the party making this its electoral mantra as the expanse of saffron spread across India, he and his colleagues, principally Union Home Minister Amit Shah, now face the ignominy of witnessing a re-emergence of 'Congress Yukt (or infused) Bharat'.

The verdict from Jharkhand has to be seen in conjunction with those in October in Maharashtra and Haryana.

It is evident, the results underscore the limits of political mass hypnosis. Although Jharkhand is a small state electing just fourteen Lok Sabha members, Modi and Shah personally invested heavily on the campaign.

Despite being taught a bitter lesson by the electorate in the previous two states that when it comes to Assembly polls, they are chiefly driven by economic or local factors against the 'national' issue of muscular nationalism, Modi lost no opportunity to play the big card and vitiate the atmosphere.

Communal Card vs Livelihood Concerns

On 16 December, before the campaign concluded in Dumka, the heart of Santhal Pargana region, and when protests against CAA-NRC were being waged across India, the prime minister made his most provocative statement in recent days. Referring to the violence, he said: "Jo aag laga rahe hain, TV pe unke jo drishya aa rahe hain, yeh aag lagaane vaale kaun hain, woh unke kapdon se hi pata chal jaata hai" (These arsonists... their visuals are streaming on television...who are they...you can make out by their clothes.)

In this constituency, the contest was between likely Chief Minister Hemant Soren and BJP's Lois Marandi. She is the fiery woman leader who defeated Soren in 2014 and was rewarded with a berth in the state Cabinet.

In this constituency too, Modi’s polarising speech did not yield victory for his party nominee, suggesting that BJP’s ‘nationalist’ narratives don’t always steamroll over livelihood concerns.

It also became clear that the politics of communal targeting does not work all the time and everywhere. The tack has to be different from state to state.

The decision to adopt this line, smacked of poor understanding of possible damage that multiple cases of lynching had done to the BJP's cause. The verdict is in a way a price voters extracted for the largest number of such brutal killings – 22 in total – in India. The latest was in the first week of November. It demonstrated that election or no election, the state of law and order in Jharkhand had deteriorated to such an extent under the BJP that people taking the law in their own hands had become the new normal.

BJP Pays the Price for Overlooking Lawlessness

People have certainly made the BJP pay for the high levels of insecurity they lived in. Not only did the state government turn a blind eye to rising lawlessness, but lynching accused were garlanded by BJP’s Jayant Sinha when he was Union minister. Even recently, a BJP lawmaker, Nishikant Dubey, declared that he would pay for the legal expense of the four accused in the Godda lynching case. He claimed that although the entire village was involved, these men were singled out.

The other issue which worked in states like Uttar Pradesh has been a no-no in Jharkhand – that of labelling people as anti-nationals and slapping cases of treason against them.

As of now, there are an estimated 10,000 people who are facing sedition charges in a single district – Khunti. Although the BJP won this particular seat, the party has not done as well as in 2014 in the 28 tribal dominated Assembly seats.

This fact, leads us to the failure of a BJP experiment in 2014 when in all the three states – Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand – it decided to prop up to the leadership members of non politically-dominant communities. In Maharashtra, the party chose Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin over the tradition of a Maratha chief minister. In Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar was from the Khatri community and not a Jat. Likewise in Jharkhand, Raghubar Das was the first non-tribal chief minister.

Erosion of BJP’s Support Among Tribals

Although regional development was seen as the primary reason behind the formation of Jharkhand in 2000, the movement to carve out a new state from united Bihar was essentially powered by the vision of tribal empowerment. Although officially the tribal population in the state is down to a shade more than 26 percent (many however peg it at 32 percent as a large number of tribals did not get enumerated owing to seasonal migration), the cultural identity of the state remains tribal in character.

Birsa Munda, the tribal who organised a powerful rebellion against the British in the 1890s is still revered in Jharkhand as Bhagwan Birsa. Several state institutions and public buildings are named after him. Although he died in prison in 1900 at 25, in direct concession to the demands of the rebellion he led, the colonial regime enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908, conferring special protections on the land of small cultivators.

Adivasis say changes the Das government made to tenancy laws in 2016, diluted their hard-won land rights. This is certainly one of the reason for the erosion in BJP’s support among tribals, a community among who the RSS worked consistently.

With Das being voted out shortly after Fadnavis and Khattar also failing, the BJP has to rework social coalitions not just in these states but also assess if there are similar threats lurking in other states. The BJP came to power in 2014 on the promise of providing a 'dual-engine powered' government – meaning the state and Centre being governed by the same party.

Additionally, it pledged a stable government, which would last its entire term because there would not be squabbles with coalition partners. The BJP highlighted that since between 2000 and 2014, there had been nine chief ministers and three spells of President's Rule because of political instability.

BJP’s Tryst With Allies

The verdict also shows, as also in Maharashtra, that people are willing to once again experiment with coalition governments. This message would ring alarm bells in BJP as this erodes a very significant plank of the party.

The results also highlight the BJP’s failure to work with allies and gives them the sense of growing alongside Big Brother. In state after state, BJP’s ties with allies has faltered because it has threatened to eat into their vote bank.

The same happened with All Jharkhand Students Union, its partner in 2014, but who parted ways over a disagreement of seats being allocated to them. If the two stayed together the result would have been significantly different.

The combined vote share of the two, at 41.6 percent is higher than 35.5 percent of the JMM-Congress-RJD combine. Even on its own, the BJP has registered an increase vote share from levels of 2014 Assembly polls although this has reduced significantly from Lok Sabha 2019 levels.

While the defeat in Jharkhand is a setback to the BJP in the overall context of other developments, including the protests over CAA-NRC, it would be premature to read this as rejection of BJP's politics at the national level.

Yet, it is true that hereafter, the BJP is in for a long haul if it does wish to hand over one state after another to the opposition. The Jharkhand verdict shall certainly galvanise BJP's adversaries in Delhi and Bihar where polls are due in 2020 and force BJP to be more accommodating towards allies and less exuberant about its ideological push.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’. He can be reached at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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