With his fate as chief minister of Jharkhand hanging by a thread, Hemant Soren accompanied over three dozen MLAs of the ruling JMM-Congress alliance to Latratu village, 50 km west of Ranchi, for a daylong jamboree on Saturday (August 27).
The chief minister and MLAs of the ruling coalition were photographed enjoying a boat ride at the Latratu Dam reservoir even as Jharkhand Governor Ramesh Bais kept up the suspense on the exact details of the imminent order that would disqualify Soren as a legislator, thereby, forcing him to step down as chief minister.
At the time of filing this report there was no confirmation from the Raj Bhawan in Ranchi on whether Bais had returned to the Election Commission (EC) his signed order disqualifying Soren as an MLA. The EC had, earlier this week, recommended Soren’s disqualification as an MLA after indicting him in an office of profit case based of a BJP leader’s complaint that had accused Soren of acquiring a 0.88 acre plot of land on lease for granite mining in 2021 when he also held the state’s mining portfolio. Bais, as Governor of Jharkhand, has to sign the disqualification order and return it to the EC.
With no clarity coming from the Raj Bhawan, Soren and the ruling coalition legislators returned to Ranchi late Saturday evening. Sources in the ruling alliance told The Federal that the option of ferrying JMM and Congress MLAs to a resort in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh till the current crisis reaches some semblance of finality is under active consideration.
Also read: Jharkhand’s minefield: Of crime, punishment, and Sorens’ power games
A Raj Bhawan official told The Federal that it was “only a matter of time” before the Governor returned the signed order to the EC and that the delay was on account of “legal opinion being taken to ensure there is no wrongdoing”. The official, however, declined to comment on whether the EC’s recommendation to disqualify Soren also includes his disbarment from contesting elections in the near future, as per provisions of Section 9 of the RP Act.
One order to decide next course
For Soren and MLAs of the JMM-Congress coalition, it is the details of the disqualification order that will assume greater significance than the chief minister’s indictment in the office of profit case per se. One of the MLAs camping in Latratu told The Federal, “if the order disqualifies the chief minister as an MLA but does not bar him from seeking re-election, the consensus (in the JMM-Congress coalition) is that he could resign as chief minister and all UPA MLAs will immediately send the Governor a letter extending support to Soren as chief minister again… he can then be sworn-in again and seek re-election within six months as provided in law.”
The MLA added, “in case the disqualification is clubbed with disbarment from contesting polls, we will have to support a new chief minister but the replacement options have been discussed… either way, we are prepared for battle and, whatever the order is, we will challenge it in the Supreme Court.”
We are ready legally and politically: Team Soren
A minister in the Soren government who was also present in Latratu told The Federal, “the allegations against the chief minister are completely motivated with the sole purpose of destabilising our government… we are not denying that he had a lease for a 0.88 acre granite mine… this mine was allotted to him in 2008-2009 and, though this lease was renewed in 2021, there was no mining activity on the land at any point in time; so the question of the chief minister benefitting from any pecuniary gain as required to establish the offence of office of profit does not arise. Besides, the chief minister had voluntarily surrendered the mining lease in February 2022 without even a pebble ever being mined from the site.”
Asserting that Soren will abide by the law, irrespective of the findings and recommendations made against him, the minister said, “we can only decide the future course once we know what the disqualification order says… as far as I am aware the complaint against him was filed under Section 9A of the RP Act under which, if found guilty, an MLA can be disqualified but not disbarred from contesting future election. But given the way the BJP has compromised all institutions, I will not be surprised if the EC recommends disqualification and uses section 9 (1) to also disbar the chief minister from contesting polls for five years… whatever it is, we are prepared, both legally and politically; we will not allow the BJP to subvert democracy.”
Operation Lotus vs anti-tribal narrative
Sources close to Soren claim that the chief minister is yet to receive any official word from the EC or the Raj Bhawan on the exact findings or details of the recommendations made against him. Meanwhile, political grandstanding by the chief minister and his alliance partners has already begun. Partners in the ruling alliance have gone on the offensive, dubbing the move as part of the BJP’s ‘conspiracy’ to topple the state’s JMM-Congress-RJD coalition government.
Also read: What next for Hemant Soren?
Both JMM and Congress have been claiming that the BJP was variously trying to lure or intimidate their MLAs in a bid to force mass defections that would destabilise the Soren government. The arrest of three Congress MLAs and recovery of a huge haul of cash from them by the Kolkata police last month has been repeatedly averred to by the JMM and Congress as “evidence of the BJP’s Operation Lotus” being underway to grab power in Jharkhand.
JMM insiders say that in the event that Soren’s disqualification doesn’t include a ban on him from seeking re-election, the BJP will launch an offensive to prevent him from returning as chief minister immediately after he tenders his resignation from the post. Charges of moral turpitude, corruption, constitutional impropriety and looting the resources of mineral-rich, tribal-dominated Jharkhand are expected to come flying fast at Soren and his government from the BJP.
Pre-empting this torrent of criticism, the chief minister has already begun invoking Santhali pride in his interactions with the electorate. Soren has said the imminent action against him was being taken at the BJP’s behest because the saffron party, which paved the way last month for the first ever tribal woman to become India’s President, is actually anti-tribal. The ruling alliance also feels it has sufficient ammo to return fire at the BJP on issues of constitutional morality and democratic ethos by alluding to the several instances wherein the saffron party has lost an assembly election but returned to power in the state by engineering defections from the ranks of its rival.
Also read: Satanic forces at work, will fight till last drop of blood: Hemant Soren
The leadership of the JMM and the Congress believes that it can offset the electoral damage expected to be caused by the current crisis and the BJP’s onslaught by playing up tribal identity politics. However, the two parties also understand well that their MLAs remain vulnerable to the horse trading tactics of the BJP as several of them are either compromised due to charges of graft and other offences that are being or can be investigated by central agencies or simply by their ambition of acquiring plum ministerial berths – both of which the saffron party is in a position to exploit.
All eyes right now may be at the Ranchi Raj Bhawan and the Election Commission, even if Soren somehow survives the disqualification challenge, his government, which presently enjoys a comfortable majority in the Jharkhand Assembly, will remain vulnerable.