The Congress party, on Sunday (July 31), alleged that Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, some central ministers and ministers and officials in the Union law ministry, were all working in tandem to destabilise the JMM-Congress coalition government in Jharkhand.
The allegations by the Grand Old Party come in the wake of three of its lawmakers from Jharkhand being intercepted by the Bengal police late Saturday evening in Howrah, with a huge amount of cash stashed in their vehicle. Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has suspended with immediate effect the three MLAs – Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachhap and Naman Bixal Kongari – from the primary membership of the Congress.
Soon after the Bengal police intercepted the vehicle ferrying the three MLAs at the Panchla-Ranihati intersection in Howrah and detained the lawmakers, Congress communication department chief Jairam Ramesh had tweeted: “The BJP’s ‘Operation Lotus’ in Jharkhand stands exposed tonight in Howrah. The game plan of ‘Hum Do’ in Delhi is to do in Jharkhand what they did in Maharashtra by installing E-D duo”.
The ‘Hum Do’ mentioned by Ramesh in the tweet was a barely-veiled reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah, who the Congress has repeatedly accused of conspiring to topple state governments led by BJP’s rival parties. Similarly, the ‘E-D’ mentioned by the Congress general secretary was a dig at Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde and his deputy, Devendra Fadnavis, who brought the rebel Shiv Sena faction and the BJP back to power last month, after toppling the ruling MVA coalition of the Uddhav Thackeray led Shiv Sena, Sharad Pawar’s NCP and the Congress party.
On Sunday, Avinash Pande, the Congress general secretary in-charge of Jharkhand, told reporters in New Delhi that attempts by the BJP to destabilise the Hemant Soren-led government in the eastern state by offering huge amounts of cash to MLAs of the ruling coalition or by threatening them with investigations by central agencies had been ongoing for several months.
In a conversation with The Federal, Pande said, “Some months back too, senior leaders of the BJP had approached our MLAs with offers… we had filed an FIR against which the probe is still on. But, the BJP has relentlessly pursued its agenda of murdering democracy by using money and muscle power in their attempt to topple any non-BJP led government across the country…”
“We saw this recently in Maharashtra and in the aborted attempt in Goa, where despite winning the election, the BJP still wanted to break our legislative party by engineering defections… they came to power using the same tactics in the past in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and several other states too and now, Jharkhand is their new target,” added Pande.
Pande alleged that the Assam CM, “who had played a key role in the BJP’s plan of toppling the MVA government in Maharashtra and had hosted the Shiv Sena’s rebel MLAs at a Guwahati hotel for weeks”, was now in “direct touch with our MLAs in Jharkhand”.
“Central ministers are contacting our MLAs with offers of money and the ministers and officials in-charge of the law department are threatening our MLAs with ED and CBI probes against them… the Congress president has suspended the three MLAs, who were caught with cash in Howrah from party membership and a stern warning of similar action has been given to all other party MLAs in Jharkhand who may be in touch with the BJP or these three MLAs,” Pande said.
The party’s Jharkhand in-charge claimed that Ansari, Kachhap and Kongari were also being “used by the BJP” to get in touch with other Congress MLAs of the state with offers of money to defect to the saffron side. Kumar Jaimangal, the Congress MLA from Bermo, filed a fresh police complaint in Ranchi on Sunday, alleging that the three MLAs had approached him with an offer of ₹10 crores to defect to the BJP.
Jaimangal has alleged that three MLAs wanted him to join them in Calcutta and also meet Sarma in Guwahati to discuss further the BJP’s plan to topple the Soren-led Jharkhand government. Interestingly, in July last year, Kongari, a first term MLA from Jharkhand’s Kolebira constituency, who comes from a poor tribal family, had claimed that he had been approached by the BJP with an offer of ₹1 crore to help topple the Soren-led government.
The Jharkhand police had also arrested three people – NP Mahato, Amit Singh and Abhishek Dubey – with alleged links to the BJP for offering money to Kongari and Jaimangal for luring them to overthrow the JMM-Congress government.
The BJP has, predictably, rubbished the Congress’s allegations and claimed that it has “nothing to do” with the cash found in the vehicle that Ansari, Kachhap and Kongari were travelling in.
That the BJP had its eyes set on toppling the Soren-led ruling coalition in the tribal-dominated state has been under speculation for some time now. The Federal had first reported in April and then again earlier this month that the saffron party was in touch with several Congress MLAs of the eastern state, while parallel negotiations were also on between the BJP and Hemant Soren to convince the latter to break its alliance with the Congress and form a new government in partnership with the saffron party.
Congress sources say that its MLAs in Jharkhand have been repeatedly approached by BJP leaders with offers to defect. What seems to have prevented the en masse defection from the Grand Old Party, sources say, are the factional differences among the 16-member block of Congress legislators in Jharkhand.
A senior Jharkhand Congress leader told The Federal that the BJP has just 25 MLAs in Jharkhand while the majority mark in the state assembly is 41.
“To come to power, it would either need over two-thirds of our MLAs to defect or get a sizeable chunk of MLAs from both the Congress and the JMM… it may seem ironic but what appears to have saved us so far is that the Congress in Jharkhand, like in any other state, is a hugely divided house…”
“Unlike MP, where (Jyotiraditya) Scindia could walk away with 20+ MLAs to the BJP, we have just 16 MLAs in Jharkhand and no senior party leader commands the blind loyalty of more than 5 or 6 MLAs; so a faction led by Furqan Ansari (father of Irfan Ansari) will not want to be on the same side as MLAs loyal to (senior party leader) Alamgir Alam or those loyal to Rameshwar Oraon will not stand alongside MLAs loyal to Subodh Kant Sahai. For the BJP to engineer mass defection, it will need to either lure all factional leaders to get their supporters on board or individually approach MLAs from the Congress and the JMM to defect,” he explained.
The current political crisis in Jharkhand also comes at a time when the JMM and the Congress have been finding it increasingly difficult to work together in the ruling alliance, even as the CM Hemant Soren has been besieged by challenges to his own political career due to allegations, currently being probed by the Election Commission or being the subject of PILs pending adjudication by the Ranchi High Court.
Congress legislators have repeatedly criticised Soren of high-handedness and claimed that the CM was deliberately trying to expand his JMM into traditional Congress bastions in the state. Some months back, things had come to such a head that Pande had advised Congress MLAs to stop all communication with Soren.
The relations between the two parties had only begun to normalise last month, when Soren’s decision to break ranks with the Congress and other Opposition parties in the Presidential elections and vote for the NDA’s candidate Droupadi Murmu widened the trust deficit between the allies again.
There have also been rumours, as reported by The Federal earlier this month, that the BJP is trying to convince Soren to sever the JMM’s alliance with the Congress. The Jharkhand CM faces an immediate threat to his chair and continuance as a lawmaker since the Election Commission is probing a complaint against him of allotting to himself a mining lease in the state in clear violation of provisions under the RP Act.
If the allegations against Soren are found to be true by the EC, Soren could be disbarred as an MLA and thus lose his chief ministerial chair too. Two PILs over allegations of graft committed by the CM are also pending adjudication in the Ranchi high court, while several of his close aides are facing investigation on charges of corruption by central agencies.