There is ‘Unity in diversity; there is no strength in promoting monoculture’. This could well be the message emanating from the Jharkhand elections on Monday that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) routed at the hands of an alliance of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). While BJP, in its election campaign, was focused on so-called national issues like Article 370 (relating to Kashmir) and foreigners’ issues (illegal migrations from Bangladesh), it failed to address issues that concerned local voters like jobs, development, economic empowerment and faster rate of growth. BJP’s star campaigner, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, campaigned hard for a Ram temple in Ayodhya extolling voters to turn up to provide ‘Kar seva’ for the temple. Evidently the voters were mighty confused: they could not figure out how this was related to their getting jobs and their economic well-being! The BJP’s top duo Narendra Modi and Amit Shah came in multiple times to Jharkhand to canvass support from voters.
In a state where 25 percent of the population are adivasis, the BJP which was in power at the Centre and the state, promoted a regime which did not seem to be pro tribals. This would seem strange considering that the raison detre for carving Jharkhand out of Bihar was to provide political representation and space to tribals who were feeling alienated in the larger state. But in their wisdom Narendra Modi and Amit Shah promoted a non-tribal Raghubar Das as the BJP’s candidate for chief minister. Das, of course, was the sitting chief minister but is from a different state Chattisgarh -- a fact used against him to the hilt by his opponents.
The promotion of Das was in line with the philosophy of Modi and Shah not to promote a candidate of the dominant community as the chief ministerial candidate. In the same vein, a Brahmin Devendra Phadnavis was promoted as the chief minister of a Maratha-dominated Maharashtra and a Punjabi Manohar Lal Khattar was anointed BJP’s chief minister for the Jat-dominated Haryana. But this did not work in Jharkhand where the deep desire among tribals is to have a tribal chief minister to deeply represent their cause. This is even as most of the tribal communities in the state (like Santhals, Mundas and 30 others) might have differences between them but at an overall level are united. It is interesting that not only did BJP lose but even Das failed to win his Assembly seat of Jamshedpur (East). In fact, he was defeated by a candidate Saryu Rai who was formerly a minister in the Raghubar Das ministry. Rai, a veteran of the JP movement of 1974 is said to have been secretly supported by sections of the RSS whose men worked for him.
What actually did the BJP in was chief minister Das’ insistence in attempting to push through changes in the decades-old Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNTA) and Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act (SNTA) which protect lands held by tribals. Das wanted amendments that would ensure that land could be allotted to outside investors for setting up large projects. This was much to the chagrin of the locals. Though the amendment in the act could not be cleared with the Governor Draupadi Murmu refusing to give assent to the changes, the locals were apprehensive that the re-election of BJP would mean further moves to alienate their land. As a consequence, the Pathalgadi movement was initiated in 2017 in tribal areas to protect the tribal land, but the government instead of taking a sympathetic approach filed en masse FIRs against the protestors.
“Some 11,000 odd people including gram pradhans had FIRs filed against them. This made the tide turn against the BJP. Protection of their land, forests and other natural resources is a prime concern among tribals and made them vote against the BJP,” says S Mukherjee, a local journalist in Ranchi. Twenty-eight seats in Jharkhand are tribal dominated and in the latest elections the BJP could win only two of the seats demonstrating their loss of support in tribal Jharkhand. In the 2014 elections, BJP had won 11 of the tribal seats. The state has 80 seats in the assembly and this time around BJP has won 25 seats as against 30 by Jharkhand Mutki Morcha and 16 by the Congress. The last two parties along with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) are in alliance against the BJP. In the last assembly election in 2014, the BJP had won 37 seats.
The message is loud and clear
“Marginalising the tribals in their own state is unforgivable. This is a loud message given out by the voters,” says Sarah Salvadore, a non- resident Jharkhandi who lives in New York. She adds: “There is also angst against lynching.”
For a major part of the existence of Jharkhand – the state was carved out in 2000 -- the state has been ruled by the BJP. So the latest defeat has a special significance. Most analysts think that the BJP and indeed any other party have to think sensitively of how to run a government in a state that has a sizeable tribal population. “The challenge is to run a state that is geared to economic development and rapid growth but this has to be done so as to not alienate the local tribals and taking away their resources,” says JM Pandey (name changed) a former IAS officer from the state.
Kingshuk Nag is an author and a journalist. Read his columns