The fall of the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government in Maharashtra following a BJP-aided rebellion among Shiv Sena lawmakers has reignited speculation of a similar fate awaiting the JMM-Congress-RJD ruling alliance in Jharkhand.
The rumours of BJP’s renewed efforts at toppling the eastern state’s coalition government coincide with Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren finding it increasingly difficult to navigate a minefield of challenges, including the possibility of him being disqualified as an MLA for allegedly holding an office of profit.
The Election Commission (EC) of India is looking into the BJP’s allegations against the CM allotting himself a 0.88-acre granite mine on a lease back in 2021. Soren, who had surrendered the mining lease in February 2022 after the allegation kicked a political storm in Ranchi, made an appearance before the poll panel earlier this week. He is likely to be summoned again by the EC to explain further why he shouldn’t be disqualified as an MLA in accordance with provisions of Section 9A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 for the alleged offence.
Soren’s meet with Amit Shah fuels speculations
The Jharkhand High Court too has admitted a clutch of public interest litigations seeking investigations against him on charges ranging from irregularities in allotment of mining licenses to money laundering by him and his close aides through a web of shell companies. The court has listed the matters for hearing on July 5.
It was, thus, no surprise that Soren’s meeting with Union home minister Amit Shah on June 27 – a day before the CM appeared before the EC and while the Eknath Shinde-led rebellion against Thackeray was still unravelling in Maharashtra – set the political grapevine aflutter in Ranchi.
JMM spokesperson Supriyo Bhattacharya dismissed the Soren-Shah tête-à-tête as a “routine meeting between the CM and the Union home minister”. However, Bhanu Pratap Shahi, senior BJP MLA from Jharkhand’s Bhawanathpur constituency and the state’s former health minister, took a jibe at the CM, calling his meeting with Shah a “desperate appeal for help”, thereby fuelling frenzied speculations over whether Soren was willing to dump the Congress and ally with the BJP in bid to escape scrutiny by central probe agencies.
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That the Central has been misusing probe agencies such as the CBI, ED or the Income Tax department to intimidate leaders of rival parties or pressurizing them to either defect to or ally with the BJP is a recurring allegation by Opposition leaders. The genesis of the drama that unfolded in Maharashtra over the past fortnight was also attributed by NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut – both scrutiny by the IT department and the ED respectively – to the BJP using the threat of central agencies investigating Eknath Shinde (now the new Maharashtra CM) and other Sena rebels in various cases.The Congress had similarly dubbed the Enforcement Directorate’s questioning of Rahul Gandhi over a period of five days last month as a vindictive act by the BJP that was also meant to intimidate the Wayanad MP and his party colleagues.
Though the case before the EC or those listed in the Jharkhand High Court presents a grave challenge to Soren’s own stint as chief minister, they aren’t the only triggers for the threat to the stability of his government.
As reported by The Federal on April 5, the JMM-Congress coalition in Jharkhand has been teetering for some time now. Though a coordination committee constituting leaders from the three parties in the ruling alliance was formed in June to “decide political appointments of the government as well as review implementation of policies and projects”, many of the 16 Congress MLAs continue to have a litany of grievances against Soren and his administration. Jamtara MLA Irfan Ansari and Mahagama MLA Dipika Pandey Singh have repeatedly accused Soren of deliberately sidelining the Congress and neglecting constituencies represented by its MLAs. Matters had reached such a head in April that Congress’s general secretary in-charge of Jharkhand, Avinash Pande, had directed his party MLAs to “stop all communication with the CM for the next two months” as a mark of protest.
Tiff over Rajya Sabha seat
The relations between the JMM and Congress were further strained last month when, following a meeting with interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, Soren refused to back a Congress candidate for the Rajya Sabha polls from the lone seat that the ruling alliance hoped to win from the state. The JMM kept the seat within its fold, nominating Mahua Maji to the Rajya Sabha.
Sources say there is also palpable dissent and disaffection in the JMM’s ranks too and even within the Soren family, with many party leaders unhappy at the “stranglehold of the bureaucracy” on the CM.
Jama MLA Sita Soren, who is also Hemant Soren’s sister-in-law, and Borio MLA Lobin Hembrom have publicly attacked the CM on different occasions, accusing him of “compromising on the issues that Guruji (JMM founder and Soren’s father, Shibu Soren) fought for”, “surrendering the government to private contractors” and “abandoning the welfare of tribals”.
Sources in the ruling alliance insist that with troubles mounting against him, it’s only a matter of time before Soren falls prey to the BJP’s familiar practice of toppling the governments of its rivals. Some in the Congress believe that Soren may thus be looking for a face-saver and, instead of losing his government to defections, “may choose the path that Bihar CM Nitish Kumar had adopted” in 2017 when he dumped alliance the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance of JD-U, RJD and Congress) but returned as CM within 48 hours by allying with the BJP.
Droupadi Murmu’s candidacy an ice-breaker?
The NDA coalition’s choice of Droupadi Murmu, a Santhal tribal leader from Odisha and former Jharkhand governor, as its candidate for the July 18 Presidential polls has already given Soren grounds to warm up to the BJP. Though Soren hasn’t officially endorsed Murmu’s candidature, sources in the JMM and the Congress told The Federal that he would eventually rally behind the NDA candidate as she is set to be the first tribal woman President of India and it would be politically unwise for Soren, a Santhal tribal himself and CM of a tribal-dominated state, to marshal his MPs and MLAs behind the Opposition backed Yashwant Sinha instead of her.
“With all the trouble that he is facing with the EC, courts and graft allegations, Soren knows he is a sitting duck for the BJP. He can either risk being disqualified as an MLA by the EC and facing investigation by the ED, CBI, IT or he can join ranks with the BJP and save both his position and politics at least till the next elections. Everyone in Jharkhand knows that our government is surviving on borrowed time. If he has a choice between becoming another Uddhav Thackeray or a Himanta Biswa Sarma or Eknath Shinde; you can guess what he will choose,” a senior Congress leader and former MP from Jharkhand told The Federal.
The former MP also conceded that if Soren decides to fight it out, the BJP will engineer defections and some Congress MLAs too will “readily defect”. A JMM leader also said that a “political realignment was looking unavoidable” in Jharkhand.
All about the numbers
In the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly, the JMM-Congress-RJD ruling alliance had won 47 seats in the 2019 Assembly polls (JMM 30, Congress 16 and RJD 1) against the BJP’s 25 seats. Candidates from parties such as former CM Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik), former BJP ally All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), CPI-ML, NCP had bagged three, two and one seat each, respectively. Two constituencies had elected independents, including former BJP stalwart Saryu Roy who had defeated then-incumbent CM Raghubar Das in Jamshedpur East.
Later, in February 2020, Marandi’s JVM-P merged with the BJP though the union helped the saffron party increase its tally only by one MLA (Marandi himself) as the other two JVM-P lawmakers, Poreyahaat MLA Pradeep Yadav and Mandar MLA Bandhu Tirkey, defected to the Congress. Thus, the BJP, with 26 lawmakers, still remains far off from the majority mark in the Jharkhand Assembly.
However, if Soren decides to dump his alliance and join ranks with the BJP to retain power, the new alliance will have a comfortable majority of 56 seats without the saffron party needing to engineer defections and forcing bypolls. Unless, of course, the BJP sets its eyes westwards to Rajasthan first.