After The Setback In Maharashtra, Does A Similar Fate Await The Congress In Jharkhand?

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 2, 2022 04:45 PM +05:30 IST
After The Setback In Maharashtra, Does A Similar Fate Await The Congress In Jharkhand?Sonia Gandhi and Hemant Soren
Snapshot
  • JMM’s refusal to declare support for Yashwant Sinha can be the first step towards the party distancing itself from the Congress

The Congress, which saw its political footprint shrinking considerably with the fall of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra earlier this week, has reason to worry in Jharkhand as well.

Fissures have been developing between the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the dominant partner in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the eastern state, over many issues.

The brewing tension between the alliance partners came out in the open a few weeks ago when the JMM ignored Sonia Gandhi’s request (read this) to field a common candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat.

The JMM, in what was construed as a direct snub to Sonia Gandhi, unilaterally named its senior functionary Mahua Majhi as its candidate. Jharkhand Congress leaders were left fuming, but had to swallow the insult since they are in no position to assert themselves and inflict any damage on the ruling alliance.

The differences between the JMM and Congress, which were laid bare a few weeks ago, have intensified now. JMM leaders say the latest rift between the two parties is over support to Yashwant Sinha, the joint opposition candidate for the President’s post.

The Congress is one of the primary sponsors of Sinha’s candidature, but the JMM has, till date, not announced its support for the opposition candidate. This despite the fact that the JMM was a party to the opposition’s decision to field a candidate against the NDA’s nominee. The JMM had participated in conclaves to select a candidate and finalise a strategy for the Presidential polls slated for July 18.

Last Monday (June 27), Congress leaders led by Rahul Gandhi accompanied Sinha when he went to file his nomination papers. Many other senior opposition leaders, including NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, Trinamool leader Abhishek Banerjee, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary D.Raja and National Conference patriarch Farooq Abdullah also accompanied Sinha.

But even though chief minister Hemant Soren, who is the JMM working president, was present in New Delhi that day (Monday), he gave the event (Sinha filing his papers) a miss.

Jharkhand Congress leaders told Swarajya that their party’s central leaders, including Mallikarjun Kharge, and leaders of at least two other opposition parties, had reached out to Soren and requested him to be present at the nomination filing.

But Soren not only ignored their requests, thereby snubbing them, he went and met Union Home Minister Amit Shah that day. There is a lot of speculation on what the two discussed since none of them have divulged any details of what transpired behind closed doors when the two met without any aides.

But Jharkhand Congress leaders suspect that Soren met Shah to request a reprieve from impending probes by central agencies. Soren is under the scanner of the Election Commission of India (ECI) which is probing an allegation that he held an office of profit at the time of his election to the state Assembly.

Soren has also been accused of wrongdoings in grant of mining leases and is alleged to have favoured his wife while allocating land in an industrial park. The JMM fears that central agencies may start probing Soren, and the latter may then find himself on shaky ground (read this).

Congress leaders suspect that Soren met Amit Shah to reach an ‘understanding’. “The (Jharkhand) chief minister most probably wanted the Union Home Minister to ask the central probe agencies to go slow on their probes into his (Soren’s) wrongdoings. And the two perhaps cut a deal,” said a senior Congress leader from Jharkhand who did not want to be named.

This suspected ‘deal’, fear Congress leaders, may involve the JMM eventually breaking away from the UPA and continuing to be in power in alliance with the BJP or with outside support from the BJP.

The JMM has 30 seats in the Assembly while the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)--the two other constituents of the ruling UPA in the state--have 16 members and one member respectively. The BJP’s strength in the House is 25.

“Some understanding, we suspect, has been reached between Soren and Shah. That’s why Soren was not seen along with other opposition leaders when Yashwant Sinha filed his nomination. The JMM has not yet declared its support for Soren and may ultimately support the NDA’s candidate Draupadi Murmu,” a top office-bearer of the Jharkhand unit of the Congress told Swarajya over phone from state capital Ranchi.

But some JMM leaders say that the NDA’s choice of Murmu as its candidate has put their party in a fix. “Murmu is a tribal and we are a tribal party. We cannot be seen not supporting a tribal candidate for the country’s top Constitutional post. In case we support Sinha, the BJP can accuse us of hypocrisy and being anti-tribal,” explained a senior JMM leader who is also a minister.

The JMM has left it to its patriarch, Hemant Soren’s father Shibu Soren, to take a final decision on the matter. The senior Soren, it is learnt, may remain ambiguous and may ultimately leave it to individual MLA and MPs belonging to his party to “vote according to their conscience”.

But, counter Congress leaders, Sinha had represented Hazaribagh Lok Sabha constituency (which is in Jharkhand) thrice (1998, 1999 and 2009) and the state can be said to be his karmabhoomi. “Yashwant Sinha is for all practical purposes, from Hazaribagh in Jharkhand. He started living in Hazaribagh from the time he was first elected from there in 1998 and still lives in his house there often. So he is Jharkhand’s son, while Draupadi Murmu is from Odisha. The JMM, thus, ought to support Sinha,” said the Congress office-bearer.

But the JMM is most likely to snub the Congress once again by not declaring its support for Sinha. Mallikarjun Kharge and other senior Congress leaders are learnt to have spoken to Shibu Soren and Hemant Soren requesting them to announce their support for Sinha. But their efforts are most likely to go in vain.

JMM leaders concede their party is in a bind. The JMM owes its victory in the 2019 Assembly polls to the tribals--the JMM-Congress alliance won 25 of the 28 seats in the tribal belt that time. The BJP’s poor show was attributed to its alienation of tribals.

“The BJP’s selection of Murmu is a masterstroke and has put us in a dilemma. If we don’t support her (Murmu), the BJP will launch a campaign against us saying we are not committed to tribals,” said the JMM minister.

What he left unsaid was that the JMM is also very worried over the BJP intensifying its campaign against Hemant Soren’s misdeeds. Soren’s involvement in the mining mess is already alienating tribals.

If the BJP intensifies its campaign against Soren and if the central agencies uncover any wrongdoing on his part and start prosecuting him, the JMM will find itself in a very sticky wicket.

“The JMM will stand exposed if it does not declare its support for Draupadi Murmu. JMM’s commitment to tribals is only limited to the welfare of the Soren family and no one else,” said state BJP spokesperson Pratul Shah Deo.

Congress leaders complain that the JMM has not shown due respect to Congress ministers and legislators. “Our MLAs have been complaining that their request for funds and projects for their constituencies are turned down. They are being ignored.” said the Congress office-bearer.

A section of Congress leaders, including a few MLAs, are in favour of withdrawing from the government and extending only outside support to the JMM government. But the four Congress ministers in the cabinet are unwilling to give up their offices and the accompanying perks. This has caused fissures within the Congress as well.

Many in the JMM feel that their party has not gained anything by remaining in alliance with the Congress, especially since the grand old party is on a steep decline.

“We have been in alliance with the BJP in the past and it makes much more sense now to renew that alliance (with the BJP). The Congress’ prospects are grim and there’s no chance of the party gaining lost ground in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There’s no point in being in alliance with the Congress,” said the JMM minister.

The BJP, which wants to further marginalise the Congress, will be happy if the JMM ditches the UPA and snaps ties with the Congress.

The JMM leaders who favour a re-alignment with the BJP say that it makes eminent sense for their party to work with the BJP-led NDA for the development of the state.

And the JMM’s refusal to declare support for Yashwant Sinha can be the first step towards the party distancing itself from the Congress and ultimately jettisoning the Congress from the government.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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