Operation Kamal in air, as BJP smells dissent in Hemant Soren govt

'Operation Kamal' in air, as BJP smells dissent in Hemant Soren govt

The alleged attempts by the BJP to woo Congress MLAs have increased ever since RPN Singh, the former Congress in-charge for Jharkhand, switched to the BJP earlier this year, say Congress insiders

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Will Jharkhand be the next laboratory for ‘Operation Kamal’, the BJP’s tried and tested formula of toppling governments run by its political rivals by engineering defections?

Dissent and disaffection within the state’s ruling coalition of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have been simmering for some time now. Sources in the ruling alliance claim that grievances against Chief Minister Hemant Soren and his administration, particularly from the 16-member bloc of Congress MLAs, have been piling up on a range of issues.

Also read: Jharkhand to revive old pension scheme and hike MLA fund: CM

With a seat tally of just 26 MLAs in the 81-member Jharkhand assembly, the BJP may be far off from the majority mark of 41 MLAs, but the saffron party, sources say, has been sending feelers to disgruntled lawmakers of the ruling alliance to switch sides.

However, unlike Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka where the BJP worked overtime to topple elected governments led by its rival parties actively, the current crisis in Jharkhand is largely the fallout of Soren’s perceived highhandedness, the bruised egos of his colleagues and an unravelling within the Congress that is typical of the Grand Old Party.

Though it is still early to predict whether efforts by the BJP to topple the Soren-led government will actually materialise, the Chief Minister clearly has his task cut out.

“It isn’t just about the Congress. Yes, a majority of Congress MLAs are unhappy with the government but they also have complaints against the leadership of their own party. Over a dozen of them are in touch with the BJP but we don’t know if they will defect. The problem is also within the JMM as many of our own MLAs, including members of Guruji’s family (JMM founder Shibu Soren is popularly called Guruji in the state’s politics), are also publicly hitting out at the CM and threatening to launch agitations against our government,” a senior JMM legislator told The Federal.

Sita Soren not quitting JMM

Sources say while anger against his government has been building up among MLAs of the ruling coalition for over three months, Soren has refused to engage with the dissenters.

Over the past week, Jama MLA Sita Soren, who is also the CM’s sister-in-law, and Borio MLA Lobin Hembrom have opened a front against the CM. Sita Soren, widow of Soren’s elder brother Durga Soren, had met Jharkhand governor Ramesh Bais last week and submitted a memorandum listing a litany of complaints against her party’s government.

Sita Soren has accused the CM of shielding mining mafia in the state and turning a Nelson’s Eye to the corruption within his government and against private contractors who have allegedly been grabbing forest land in the name of infrastructure development projects.

The Jama MLA told The Federal that though she has “no intention” to quit the JMM, it is her duty as a people’s representative and member of the party’s first family to “speak up when our government is compromising on the principles of Guruji and the ideals that guided the struggle for Jharkhand’s statehood”.

Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren. File photo: PTI

Hembrom, on the other hand, has threatened to launch a state-wide agitation against his own government alleging that Soren has done precious little on the party’s promise of drafting a new domicile policy based on records dating back to 1932.

While Soren has refrained from publicly responding to the accusations hurled by Sita Soren and Hembrom, Stephen Marandi, senior JMM MLA from Maheshpur in Pakur district, has urged the party leadership to expel the dissenting lawmakers from the party on grounds of indiscipline and anti-party activities.

JMM sources say Soren may attempt a rapprochement with Sita Soren and Hembrom in the coming weeks but his bigger problem may be assuaging lawmakers from the Congress.

‘Serious rumblings’ within Congress

JMM sources say Soren’s bigger problem may be assuaging lawmakers from the Congress. It is learnt that Avinash Pande, who took over as Congress in-charge for Jharkhand in January after his predecessor RPN Singh defected to the BJP, recently directed his party’s MLAs to “stop communicating with the CM for the next two months”. The unusual instruction came after Congress MLAs went ballistic against Soren’s working style during a chintan shivir (brainstorming session) that the party had organised in Giridih last month.

Sources say while several Congress leaders and MLAs also hit out at the party’s ministers in the Soren government during the shivir, the sharpest attacks were reserved for the CM. Jamtara MLA Irfan Ansari and Mahagama MLA Dipika Pandey Singh, a close aide of party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, alleged that the CM was deliberately sidelining the Congress in the hope that a weakened Congress will allow JMM to expand its influence across the state.

“The clash with the Congress isn’t one-dimensional; there are too many factors. We have four ministers from the Congress in our government and most Congress MLAs are unhappy with their own ministers. Ministers from the Congress quota have their own grievances and allege they haven’t been given adequate powers to run their ministries. Avinash Pande has his own ego problems with the CM. Some Congress MLAs believe the JMM is trying to deliberately sideline them in order to make in-roads in their constituencies. Then there are Congress MLAs who are still loyal to RPN Singh and are open to exploring a life with the BJP,” a JMM minister close to the CM said.

Sources in the Congress told The Federal that there were indeed “serious rumblings” within the party and several MLAs and senior leaders were “open to exploring other political options”.

Among the Congress lawmakers, there is also palpable anger against Rameshwar Oraon, Banna Gupta, Badal Patralekh and Alamgir Alam, the four Congress ministers in the 11-member Soren cabinet. There are also several senior party leaders who want the Congress high command to sack Jharkhand Congress chief Rajesh Thakur. These leaders have reportedly complained to Pande that Thakur’s true loyalties lie with RPN Singh, who had played a key role in getting him appointed as the Jharkhand Congress chief.

However, at a recently convened Chintan Shivir of the Jharkhand Congress, sources said several Congress leaders accused finance minister Oraon, health minister Gupta, rural development minister Alam and agriculture minister Patralekh of ignoring party workers.

One of these ministers that The Federal spoke to admitted that he had been unable to help out party workers in “some matters” but said this was largely because “the CM has given us ministries but kept all decision-making to himself… even if we want to do something, we are at the mercy of the chief minister and the coterie of bureaucrats who run his office”. Sources said Oraon had raised a similar complaint with Pande, claiming that though he held the powerful finance portfolio, he rarely had a say in any matter related to his ministry.

BJP wooing Congress MLAs

Congress sources say over half a dozen party MLAs are reportedly being wooed by the BJP to switch camp with assurances that if the saffron party succeeds in replacing the Soren-led government, they will be rewarded with plum ministerial berths or other lucrative administrative posts. These alleged attempts by the BJP have, say Congress insiders, increased ever since Singh, switched to the BJP. Congress leaders say while Singh has been luring Congress MLAs to the BJP, Pande has only increased disaffection within the party’s ranks in the past two months.

RPN Singh

“Pande is only interested in proving to the high command that he is in control of the affairs in Jharkhand. He keeps summoning party leaders and MLAs to Delhi when they should be spending time in their constituencies. Unlike Singh, Pande has no personal rapport with Soren and whenever our leaders list their grievance against the state government, Pande’s only suggestion is that we should withdraw from the government and extend outside support. Pande doesn’t realise that several of our MLAs are sticking together only because the Congress is part of the government,” a Jharkhand Congress MLA said.

A section of the Congress’s Jharkhand unit also has strong reservations against Pande, a leader best known for his abysmal track record as the party’s in-charge of various states in recent years. Before being assigned by the high command to Jharkhand, Pande was responsible for ticket distribution in Uttarakhand where the Congress suffered a rout in the assembly polls last month.

Problems between the Congress and Lalu Yadav’s RJD also cropped up after Pande was assigned responsibility of Bihar. In August 2020, Pande had practically been booted out of his role as in-charge of the Rajasthan unit after Sachin Pilot launched his rebellion against CM Ashok Gehlot. Pilot had accused Pande of deepening the mistrust between him and Gehlot.

In January this year, days after Pande took over as the party’s in-charge for Jharkhand, two former Jharkhand Congress chiefs – Pradeep Balmuchu and Sukhdeo Bhagat – who had quit the party in 2019 returned to its fold. Pande, say sources, had taken credit for bringing Balmuchu and Bhagat – the duo had quit the party citing differences with RPN Singh – back into the party.

However, Jharkhand Congress leaders say the return of the two former PCC chiefs into the party has only aggravated internal strife in the party.

“Both these men, when they were PCC chiefs, actively promoted their own confidants within the party. After returning to the party, they are again creating problems among party leaders and also triggering hostility against the CM. Pande is doing little to calm tempers. Party leaders and MLAs who have had frosty relations with Balmuchu and Bhagat in the past may not stick around in the Congress if the two are allowed to carry on this way… RPN Singh also knows this and will use it to lure disgruntled leaders to the BJP,” said a Jharkhand Congress leader.

Pande said rumours of his party MLAs being in touch with the BJP are “baseless” but admitted that there were “many complaints” against Soren’s style of functioning. The AICC general secretary also said that despite over two years having passed since the JMM-Congress alliance wrested power in Jharkhand, Soren had failed to agree on a common minimum program between the two partners.

“There are serious concerns we have on the CM’s working style but it would not be proper for me to speak about them through the media. I have informed the CM about these concerns and it is now up to him to act. We cannot be held responsible if tomorrow the situation gets out of hand,” Pande told The Federal.

Numbers game

In the 81-member Jharkhand assembly, the ruling alliance had won 47 seats in the 2019 assembly polls (JMM 30, Congress 16 and RJD 1). The BJP, which lost the 2019 assembly polls despite a sweep across the state in the Lok Sabha polls held earlier in the year, had won 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 had 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, sources in both Congress and the JMM agree that if the BJP can engineer defections of a dozen MLAs from these two parties, then Soren may find it difficult to save his government.

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