Jharkhand: Champai Soren in driver's seat, but he will have a rough ride ahead
Besides the obvious pressure by BJP, sources say the longevity of Champai’s government will also depend on how Hemant’s relatives, Sita and Basant, decide to chart their respective course
After a daylong tug-of-war between constitutional propriety and political malfeasance, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha veteran Champai Soren was finally sworn in as chief minister of Jharkhand on Friday (February 2). A six-term MLA from Seraikella constituency, Champai, who replaced Hemant Soren after the latter resigned as CM ahead of his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate late Wednesday, plans to prove the majority of the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance on February 5 in the Jharkhand assembly.
Champai has maintained that he has the support of 47 legislators. A video circulated by the JMM showing a headcount of the ruling coalition’s MLAs at the Raj Bhawan in Ranchi on Thursday had 43 lawmakers in attendance. Notable absentees from the bloc were Hemant’s sister-in-law and Jama MLA Sita Soren, Hemant’s younger brother and Dumka MLA Basant Soren, Borio MLA Lobin Hembrom and Hemant, who had been taken into custody by the ED.
New govt remains on shaky ground
Basant later joined 37 other MLAs of the ruling coalition as they took a chartered flight to Hyderabad on Friday, shortly after Champai was sworn in as CM. Sita Soren told The Federal that she remains firmly with the JMM “despite some grievances” and that her absence, and possibly also that of Hembrom, from the Ranchi Raj Bhawan when her colleagues were imploring Governor CP Radhakrishnan to administer Champai the oath of office was “due to prior commitments”.
For the record, with 47 MLAs, the JMM-led government enjoys a simple majority in the state assembly that presently has 80 members against its bench strength of 81 and majority mark of 41 legislators; a substantial lead over the BJP and its partners, the AJSU and Ajit Pawar’s NCP, which collectively have 31 MLAs. Yet, sources in the ruling coalition conceded to The Federal that their government remains on “shaky ground” in wake of the BJP “making every possible attempt at horse-trading and destabilising the coalition”.
That the ruling coalition has had to lodge as many as 38 of its 47 MLAs at a resort in neighboring Telangana, a state recently won by the Congress until Champai proves his majority is a clear sign of the nervousness within the JMM-Congress alliance.
“The day we came to power, BJP began its efforts to topple our government but, so far, it has had no success. Hemant’s arrest, however, signals that with the Lok Sabha polls due in two months, the BJP will now intensify Operation Lotus,” alleged Congress leader Alamgir Alam, who was among the two ministers – the other being RJD’s lone MLA in the Jharkhand assembly, Satyanand Bhokta – to be inducted into Champai’s cabinet on Friday. Though asserting that their coalition “remains united” and “will not allow the BJP to murder democracy in Jharkhand the way it has done in other states by toppling elected governments”, Alam told The Federal that “the next two months are going to test the resolve of our MLAs to the extreme because the BJP will unleash every power under its control... money, ED, CBI, IT, threats and intimidation... to topple our government”.
Sita, Basant roles important
Sources in the alliance also claim that the longevity of Champai’s government will also, in no small measure, depend on how Hemant’s relatives, Sita and Basant, decide to chart their respective course in wake of the recent developments that have rocked Jharkhand’s political firmament. Several JMM leaders The Federal spoke to said Sita, widow of Hemant’s elder brother Durga Soren, would be “difficult to manage” for Champai and other leaders of the alliance while Basant, the youngest of the presently politically active members of JMM founder Shibu Soren’s family, “is expected to take on significant responsibilities”.
That Hemant and Sita don’t always see eye to eye on political matters is well known in Jharkhand’s political circles. The Jama legislator has frequently been critical of Hemant’s administration. Earlier this week when rumours swirled in Ranchi on the possibility of Hemant elbowing his wife, Kalpana Soren, to the CM’s chair in the event of his resignation, Sita had gone public claiming she would oppose any such move and also made it clear that if the post has to be given to a family member, then it should be “rightfully offered to me as I am the eldest member of the family in the Jharkhand assembly and also a senior MLA”. Sources said Sita’s open threat of rebellion finally forced Hemant to choose Champai, among the JMM’s senior leaders after Shibu Soren, as the new CM.
Jharkhand not easy to rule
Sources also said any attempt by Hemant to force Kalpana as the JMM’s legislative party leader “now or in the near future” would create problems for multiple reasons. “First, though she may have been born in Ranchi, she is an outsider (Kalpana’s family hails from Mayurbhanj in Orissa) and second, she is a complete greenhorn in politics. Jharkhand is not an easy state to rule, more so in the current scenario when you are in the BJP’s rival camp. In the 24 years since the state was made, no CM except Raghubar Das (of the BJP) has been able to complete a full term in office and we have seen multiple spells of President’s Rule because of political instability. In such a scenario, especially when Hemant is under arrest, we need a very experienced leader at the steering wheel; it can’t be Kalpana. Then there is also the issue of Kalpana being involved in various business which would make her the perfect target for BJP through ED and Income Tax department,” a senior JMM MLA and former minister told The Federal.
Sources said these issues regarding Kalpana’s political debut were canvassed before Hemant by the alliance leaders when discussions began over the possibility of his imminent arrest and obviously its political fallout – the need for a new CM. “The choice of Champai Soren is perfect. He is a highly regarded tribal leader because he was part of the Jharkhand statehood agitation and is a disciple of Guru ji (Shibu Soren), besides being known for his humility and honesty. The BJP can’t harass him as it will only anger the tribals who are already angry over the persecution of Hemant Soren. As a multiple-term MLA and minister, Champai also has vast administrative experience and he will carry forward the good work that our government had been doing in the state under Hemant. No leader of our alliance can have any legitimate objection to his appointment as CM, not even those who may have harboured chief ministerial aspirations themselves,” former Jharkhand Congress chief Ajoy Kumar said.
Cabinet challenges for new CM
While Champai’s first challenge would be to ensure that his government passes the floor test scheduled for February 5, he will also have to strike a tough balancing act when he expands his council of ministers next week. Even under Hemant Soren, there had been repeated assertions by Congress MLAs of their party not being given its due in the ruling coalition. In April 2022, the Congress’s then-Jharkhand in-charge, Avinash Pande, had even told his party MLAs to “stop all interaction” with Hemant and JMM leaders, arguing that the senior alliance partner was “not giving us the respect we deserve and our MLAs are not able to get any work done in their constituencies”.
JMM and Congress leaders said Champai will have to “strike a delicate balance” in forming his council of ministers and “ensure that both alliance partners get proper representation and leaders who are difficult to please, whether in JMM or in Congress, are kept under check”. This aside, a senior Congress leader told The Federal that “in the event of Hemant not receiving any relief from the courts and being sent into judicial custody for a prolonged period like other Opposition leaders such as Manish Sisodia, Champai will have to be the face of the alliance during the Lok Sabha poll campaign too because Guruji has not been keeping well and may not be able to campaign extensively. Hemant will have sympathy of tribal voters and we will benefit from his family members, including Kalpana, campaigning but Champai will have to do most of the heavy lifting... we will also have to see how our seat-sharing talks progress in Hemant’s absence.”
No relief from SC either
The Supreme Court, on Friday, refused to grant any relief to Hemant, who had challenged his arrest by the ED on charges of money laundering linked to a land scam. The special three-judge bench hearing Hemant’s petition has asked his lawyers, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Rajiv Ranjan to move the Ranchi High Court for relief. A senior JMM leader told The Federal that “the possibility of Hemant getting any relief from the High Court or the Supreme Court before the Lok Sabha polls is unlikely because this is a politically motivated case and we have seen in cases of Manish Sisodia and even Lalu Yadav how Opposition leaders do not get relief from courts till the time they surrender to the BJP... Hemant has chosen the brave path of not surrendering to the BJP, so obviously he will have to pay the price.”