Raghubar Das’s ‘arrogance’, Adivasi anger, citizenship law: Why the BJP lost in Jharkhand

The JMM alliance’s historic win was pushed by an undercurrent against Das and the incumbent BJP.

WrittenBy:Amit Bhardwaj
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The Jharkhand Assembly results, declared on December 23, can be called a landslide defeat for the Bharatiya Janata Party. While the grand alliance — comprising the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal — clinched 47 out of 81 seats in the Assembly, the BJP managed only 25. 

The BJP’s election slogan might have been “65 paar” (Mission 65), but it met its match at the hands of the JMM.

In Jamshedpur (East), incumbent chief minister Raghubar Das lost humiliatingly to BJP rebel minister Saryu Rai, who filed his nomination as an independent candidate after being denied a BJP ticket. BJP state president Laxman Giluwa lost from Chakradharpur. Das’s cabinet ministers and heavyweights in Jharkhand politics, such as Dr Lois Marandi and Raj Paliwar, also lost their seats to the JMM. 

JMM president, Hemant Soren, is the chief ministerial face of the grand alliance. “We never fell into the trap of the BJP which was trying to communalise the election,” a member of Soren’s core team told Newslaundry, on condition of anonymity. “Hemant da never countered the BJP; instead, he chose to attack Raghubar Das aggressively.” 

The grand alliance’s tally of 47 seats is historic: it’s the highest number of seats won by any pre-poll alliance in the history of Jharkhand’s electoral politics. The JMM improved its number from 19 to 30 seats in this election. It’s a victory that would never have happened without the widespread anger against the incumbent BJP. 

Soren’s core team successfully defused the BJP’s pro-Hindutva campaign — which had a long list of star campaigners and mega-budget election expenditure — by ensuring that local issues trumped the national ones being pitched by the saffron party and its chief, Amit Shah. 

The BJP played all its cards in the run-up to the election: Article 370, Ram Mandir, and rallies by its top brass, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and Union Minister Smriti Irani.  

In contrast, Soren wove the grand alliance’s campaign around Jharkhand-centric issues such as reservation for natives, unemployment allowances to graduates and postgraduates, and land rights to the landless. On the ground, there was a huge undercurrent working in his favour and against incumbent Raghubar Das.

Based on my time covering the Jharkhand Assembly election, and decoding its results, here are the factors which I believe turned the tables in Jharkhand. 

Raghubar Das’s arrogance sunk the BJP’s ship

During my coverage of the state election, I travelled to three of five administrative blocks in Jharkhand. One constant throughout the journey was the electorate’s anger against the sitting chief minister, Raghubar Das. It’s pretty much an open secret in the state.

In Ranchi, I met a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh official through an acquaintance. Within the first five minutes of our conversation, he admitted that many like him want to see BJP win the election, but Das to lose the poll.

A principal of a government-aided college in Dumka told me that Das had “misbehaved” and shouted at a delegation of professors who had gone to him with grievances of government-aided colleges. This principal was part of the delegation. 

A government official, part of the lower bureaucracy in the state, made similar claims regarding Das’s behaviour in closed-door meetings. The officials I spoke to requested anonymity, but fearlessly shared their discontent with Das. The JMM capitalised on this, cleverly collating short video clips of Das shouting at citizens during public meetings and playing them on loop in outdoor LED campaign vans. 

Das’s biggest electoral blunder is, arguably, how he tried to end Saryu Rai’s political career. 

Rai is a BJP veteran, a former Jharkhand cabinet minister with an image of being a “dry-honest” leader among the BJP-RSS cadre and the public. During the election, Rai had told me, “On instructions of the chief minister ( Das), the BJP leadership humiliated me by delaying and eventually denying me a ticket.” 

This didn’t go down well with the BJP cadre, not only in Jamshedpur but across Jharkhand, and with sympathisers of the BJP. 

Contesting as an independent, Rai defeated Das in Jamshedpur (East) constituency by a margin of over 15,000 votes. 

The BJP has paid a heavy electoral price for Das’s arrogance. Sources told me the party realised its mistake by the end of the second phase of the election and asked the chief minister to take a step back. Das had been leading the BJP’s campaign in Jharkhand until the second phase of polling. 

It was too late.

The anger of Adivasis against the BJP

In 2016, despite opposition from the JMM, Congress, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, and its own ally, the All Jharkhand Students’ Union, the BJP government in the state pushed amendments to the Chottanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. 

The CNT Act and SPT Act are indigenous acts introduced during by the British. They restrict the sale of land in Chottanagpur and Santhal Pargana, and were introduced to protect the land rights of Adivasis. The BJP’s amendments aimed to make land acquisition easier for private businesses and developmental projects. 

For Adivasis in Chottanagpur and Santhal Pargana, it’s simple enough: either you support the CNT-SPT Acts, or you’re against the Adivasi community. This is the larger sentiment in rural areas. As a result, the BJP government’s attempt to amend the Acts  triggered aggressive protests by the Adivasi community, which forms 26 per cent of the electorate. In Khunti, one protester died, allegedly in police firing.

In June 2018, the state government used brute force to crush the Pathalgadi movement in Khunti. Pathalgadi is an Adivasi tradition to mark the boundaries of their villages. In the present version of the movement, supporters erected stone slabs outside the village boundaries, declaring the gramsabhas as supreme. 

The government retaliated by filing FIRs against about two dozen Adivasi activists and over 10,000 unknown Pathalgadi supporters from villages across Khunti, under sections including sedition. The BJP leadership also openly dubbed the Pathalgadi supporters as “anti-nationals”. 

The anger simmering in Adivasis communities worked against the BJP and in favour of the JMM. Opposition leaders called these crackdowns “anti-tribal”. JMM leader, and three-time chief minister of Jharkhand, Shibu Soren, promised to withdraw these sedition cases if the JMM comes to power. Now that the results are out, if you look at the numbers, the BJP burnt its fingers in the Adivasi-dominated seats of Jharkhand.    

The blunder of relying Amit Shah’s ‘national issues’

According to JMM insiders, Hemant Soren was shaken by his party’s defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The JMM was decimated by the BJP and its patriarch, Shibu Soren, lost from the party’s citadel, the Lok Sabha constituency of Dumka.

This is where the BJP’s “65 paar” stems from: that the saffron party maintained a lead in roughly 67 of 81 Assembly seats in Jharkhand. 

The fourth Jharkhand Assembly poll took place in the backdrop of the Ayodhya verdict and the amendment of Article 370. The BJP’s campaign was charged with hyper-nationalism. Ideally, in these conditions, the BJP should have registered its biggest victory in the tribal state. 

Both Modi and Shah constantly pitched national issues, sideling or ignoring Jharkhandi anger and the needs of its electorate. In rallies, Shah boasted about how a gaganchumbi (mammoth) Ram Mandir will be constructed within four months in Ayodhya. Modi emphasised the need for a “double-engine” government. When it came to regional issues, the BJP only addressed how a return of the Opposition camp to power would mean the return of corruption and dynastic politics.

Meanwhile, the sole star campaigner of the grand alliance, Hemant Soren, took Raghubar Das head-on. Soren’s manifesto addressed the issue of unemployment in Jharkhand, promising that 5 lakh jobs would be generated in the state in the first year of assuming office. The manifesto promised a 67 per cent reservation policy to the ST, OBC and SC communities in the state. 

Soren talked about “Jharkhandi sentiment” in his rallies, and tried to woo young voters from all communities. His speeches discussed land rights to the landless and 75 per cent reservation for natives in private sector jobs. Slowly and smartly, he busted Shah’s gameplan of retaining Jharkhand by only raising national political issues.

Importantly, Soren countered Shah’s Ram Mandir pitch, saying: “To me, my tribal brother’s broken house is Ayodhya. Building his house is building Ram Temple. And feeding his hungry stomach is like my offering to Lord Ram.”

Adivasis are the JMM’s core voter base, and Soren’s tactics worked.

The CAB polarised Muslim voters against the BJP

Many political pundits might claim that the passage of the Citizen Amendment Bill might not have affected the ongoing Jharkhand Assembly poll. They would be wrong. 

On December 11, the Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha. The next morning, I travelled to extremely interior villages in Santhal Pargana region, hoping to gauge the reaction of the Muslim community to the Bill. 

Even the uneducated farming class Muslims in villages, with barely any mobile network, had informed opinions about the Bill. Its passage had triggered anxiety and anger in the minority community, polarising the Muslim electorate against the BJP.  For them, the Bill was a precursor for the National Register of Citizens — a ghost that was already haunting them in Jharkhand.   

The Muslim community forms 14 per cent of the state electorate. The timeline of the Bill, and subsequent Act, coincided with and impacted the poll: Phase 3 on December 12 to a small extent, and Phases 4 and 5 on December 16 and 20, respectively. Its impact can be decoded through the results in Jamtara, Poreyahat, Shikaripada, Pakur and Madhupur constituencies, all of which have a sizeable Muslim population. 

After the Bill was passed, Soren said in an interview that his government, if elected, would review the Citizenship Amendment Act. He clearly said that the citizenship law can be challenged in Jharkhand.

By passing the Act in the middle of the Jharkhand Assembly poll, the BJP created a storm. It pushed the Muslim votebank to elect any candidate capable of defeating the BJP — which it did. 


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