Jharkhand Congress in turmoil amid Operation Lotus scare

There appears to be a belated realization within the party’s central leadership that the ready willingness of its MLAs to switch to the BJP shows the member's disaffection with the manner in which the Congress has been functioning in Jharkhand

Jharkhand Congress MLAs
Three Congress Jharkhand MLAs with a huge haul of cash were arrested in Howrah. The Congress has suspended the membership of the three MLAs | Pic: PTI

The recent arrest of three Jharkhand MLAs with a huge haul of cash in Howrah has finally forced the Congress party to address the many conflicts that had been building up both within its legislative party in Jharkhand and in the state unit.

The Congress has alleged that the cash found in possession of the three MLAs, Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachhap and Naman Bixal Kongari, while they were reportedly transiting through Bengal, was paid to them on behalf of Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as an allurement for them to defect to the BJP.

The Congress has suspended the membership of the three MLAs, currently in the custody of the Bengal police. The party is also considering moving petitions for their disqualification from the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly.

Also Read: 3 suspended Jharkhand Congress MLAs arrested after cash haul in Howrah

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However, Congress sources told The Federal that the problem facing the party and its 18-member legislative bloc in Jharkhand isn’t just the threat of the BJP poaching its lawmakers and, in the process, toppling the Hemant Soren-led JMM-Congress coalition government in the state.

There appears to be a belated realization within the party’s central leadership that the ready willingness of its MLAs to switch to the BJP isn’t driven purely by the fear of investigations against them by central agencies or the lure of being rewarded for their defection with ministerial berths in a BJP-led government but also, in a significant way, by a sense of disaffection with the manner in which the Congress has been functioning in Jharkhand.

Sources in the Jharkhand Congress told The Federal that the party’s central leadership has tasked Avinash Pande, AICC in-charge of the eastern state to expeditiously work on two fronts, first, to ensure that no other MLA “falls in the BJP’s trap of engineering defections” and second, to suggest a complete overhaul of the Jharkhand Congress and the party’s representation in the Soren cabinet in a manner that satisfies disgruntled leaders without creating new ones.

The ominous task that Pande has is, however, not an easy one to execute. A senior party leader said the arrest of the three MLAs and the leadership’s prompt decision to suspend them from the party and initiate steps for their disqualification as legislators is only a “temporary deterrent for those who planned to defect” but “doesn’t guarantee that this will not repeat once things have cooled down a bit”.

Also Read: ‘Operation Kamal’ in air, as BJP smells dissent in Hemant Soren govt

The leader conceded that more than the party’s action against Ansari, Kachhap and Kongari, what seems to have stalled the BJP’s alleged efforts at horse-trading is that “the MLAs got arrested in a state where the administration is not in the hands of the BJP”.

Congress sources also said that “nearly a dozen party MLAs including some of our ministers, have been repeatedly approached by the BJP with various offers to defect”, something The Federal had first reported in April, and that the unrest within the party’s legislative bloc is also due to impressions that “political and electoral concerns of the MLAs are neither being addressed by the Soren government nor by the Congress leadership”.

Also Read: Assam CM, central ministers luring Jharkhand MLAs with money, alleges Congress

Pande has already issued a terse warning to party MLAs that anyone following in the tracks of Ansari, Kacchap and Kongari will face similar “disciplinary action” and is now reportedly seeking their feedback on the grievances they have against the government and the party’s state unit. A former Jharkhand Congress MLA told The Federal that a “detailed discussion on ways to redress these grievances is expected later this month” while Soren has also begun reaching out to the upset legislators in consultation with Pande and other central Congress leaders.

It is learnt that a majority of the Congress legislators and party functionaries in the state have also urged Pande and the central leadership to discuss with Soren the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle at the earliest. There is, reportedly, growing unease within sections of the Congress over the four ministers from the party’s quota, Rameshwar Oraon, Badal Patralekh, Banna Gupta and Alamgir Alam in the Soren cabinet.

Calls for dropping at least three of these ministers, Oraon, Patralekh and Gupta have been made repeatedly over the past several months at various party forums, said a Congress MLA, but the central leadership chose not to act. The MLA said some Congress leaders from the state had even informed Pande of the possibility of at least two of these ministers actively weighing the option of defecting to the BJP, and that one of them was already negotiating with the saffron party for an assurance that his daughter would be given a BJP ticket in the next assembly polls.

Pande’s complication in getting the existing ministers to step down and make way for other colleagues is simple, it might hasten the defection process instead of stemming it. As such, the Congress needs to first find a suitable rehabilitation for the ministers it wants replaced before actually broaching the subject with them.

Further, given that there are a fixed number of cabinet berths that Soren can offer to his ally after accommodating troublesome elements within his own party, the Congress will need to simultaneously bargain with the chief minister for other posts, heads of boards, corporations, etc, that can be offered to lawmakers who fail to make the cut as ministers.

While these are largely issues that the Congress has to settle at the level of the government and will need the concurrence of the Soren-led JMM too, there is also a balancing act that the party will need to make while putting at ease its restive leaders within the organization. A sizeable chunk of Jharkhand Congress leaders have been demanding a replacement for the party’s state unit chief, Rajesh Thakur, for some time now.

Thakur, who was appointed Jharkhand Congress president, is a political lightweight who has the added disadvantages of not belonging to any of the dominant vote banks, tribals and backward castes, of the state and the baggage of being elevated to the post when RPN Singh who defected to the BJP earlier this year was the party’s Jharkhand in-charge.

Also Read: Congress suspends 3 Jharkhand MLAs caught with unaccounted cash

Several Congress leaders see Thakur as an ineffective chief, one who continues to owe his allegiance to RPN despite his public criticism of the BJP leader or someone who lacks the political heft to carry the different factional heads of his party along.

If this already isn’t a labyrinthine maze of problems for Pande to resolve, here’s another, many in Jharkhand Congress also want the party high command to replace him with a new in-charge general secretary.

As such, while the party’s central leadership can draw some comfort from the fact that the immediate threat of losing its legislators to the BJP was averted because of the surprise police action against its three MLAs in Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal, it is also aware that the dreaded ‘Operation Lotus’ is merely on hold, and has not been called off.

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