Retaining power in Jharkhand Assembly in this year's last high-profile elections is turning out to be a prestige issue for the BJP. Fresh from tough battles in Maharashtra and Hayana, the BJP would want Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah to team up once again for foiling attempts by the Opposition to defeat the saffron party.
After the BJP retained majority numbers in Maharashtra and Haryana, all eyes are on Jharkhand and the party's strategy to win the state Assembly polls for the second successive time. Chief Minister Raghubar Das, a first-timer himself, enjoys full confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party President Amit Shah, yet it remains to be seen if the BJP will be able to counter anti-incumbency to register a record back-to-back victory in Assembly polls in the mineral-rich, tribal state.
The Election Commission has announced that Assembly elections in Jharkhand will be held in five phases, beginning November 30, and the results will be announced on December 23. Two rounds of nomination filing have been completed so far. In the second round, CM Das filed his papers from Jamshedpur.
All eyes will be on the Jharkhand Assembly election – the last high-profile electoral contest of 2019 - as the BJP looks to continue its Lok Sabha victory procession that recently virtually brought back the party to power in Maharashtra and Haryana.
Jharkhand poses a tough challenge for the BJP and Chief Minister Raghubar Das who would script history, like Devendra Fadnavis of Maharashtra and M L Khattar of Haryana, if he manages to returning to power after a full term or lead the party into garnering numbers that would hand it the key to next government's formation.
More than Das' personal test, a win for the BJP is very important as it is desperate to wrest the trend of losing states in the past one year.
The poor performance of turncoats in Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections has alarmed the BJP in Jharkhand as leaders from other parties who joined the saffron fold in the two states just before being fielded in polls have bitten the dust in the two contests.
The Opposition parties have got a whiff of revival after the BJP's tally dipped in Maharashtra and Haryana, however, Das claims he is confident of returning to the Assembly with 65-Plus seats in the 81-member Assembly. In 2014, the BJP had won 37 seats. The first non-tribal Chief Minister in the state has a daunting task ahead to prove his detractors, many of them being within the party, wrong and register a win.
Jharkhand polls are also a test for Opposition unity. JMM working president chief Hemant Soren is confident of leading an Opposition alliance and contesting on 45-46 seats in the state. He also insists on the grand alliance having a Chief Ministerial face to take on the BJP. The Jharkhand State Congress president Rameshwar Oraon has expressed hope that a strong Mahagathbandhan of Opposition parties would throw out the BJP government. The Congress is in talks with the JMM, RJD. Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) and is making attempts to accommodate the Left also.
As mind games unfold in the poll-bound mineral-rich state, there is a buzz in the political circles that Das is likely to contest from two seats – a sign of lack of confidence and anti-incumbency that may lead to Chief Minister's defeat from his own Jamshedpur East constituency. The BJP, however, has denied that Das is looking to fight from a second “safe” seat like Ranchi or Dhanbad.
The ruling BJP is also facing problems in sharing seats with its 19-year-old ally All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), with both blaming each other for the failure to reach a seat-sharing arrangement.
Anti-incumbency is the biggest factor that tests a sitting Chief Minister's popularity in any election. In 2014, the then CM Hemant Soren of JMM had lost from Dumka, but managed to reach the House after getting elected from his second seat of Berhat.
Apart from development being a major issue in the coming elections, BJP strategists are a bit worried about the failure of their nationalist agenda to overshadow local issues in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections.
Jharkhand BJP is preparing a strategy to counter the Opposition plans to target Das' non-tribal credentials. Das, a non-tribal, heads the government in a state with over 30 per cent seats (28) reserved for STs. Also, almost 26 per cent of Jharkhand's population is tribal.
History has shown that a good performance in Lok Sabha polls does not guarantee and equally good show in the following Assembly elections. When the BJP-led NDA won 12/14 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Jharkhand, Das had enough reason to rejoice. While the BJP's CM face saw the LS victory as a good beginning for the Assembly poll campaign, the winds have started blowing in a different direction since May when the LS results were declared. The latest worry for Das is the failure of national issues like Article 370 to strike a chord with voters in Maharashtra and Haryana, a development that has forced the party to prepare for a situation with local issues dominating the political landscape.
The Chief Minister recently took out a statewide Johar Jan Ashirwad Yatra and got a good response. However, political observers say Das must realise that a good response to such a march is not a guarantee for victory in Assembly polls. While BJP's biggest poll pitch is the fact that it has brought stability to the state with a government that has succeeded in complete its full five-year term, development related issues will have to be answered by the saffron party amid heightened cohesion among Opposition parties, say analysts.
Das could also be perturbed by the fact that in both Maharashtra and Haryana almost half-a-dozen ministers failed to retain their seats. A repeat in Jharkhand could spell doom for the BJP.
There is big uncertainty in the minds of BJP leaders in Jharkhand on whether the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah alone would be able to garner votes for the party in the state. Issues related to tribal tenancy and domicile, affordable education and medical facilities, empowerment of panchayats and Naxalism remain unresolved while the BJP government has tried to push development and infrastructure in the past five years.
Sixteen years after Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000, the BJP government led by Das announced a policy for defining local residents of Jharkhand so that jobs could be reserved for residents of the state. Though the local residents' policy was challenged in court after protests by tribals, an effort was made to set 1985 as a deadline for residing in the state to become eligible for jobs in the state and any other purposes. This sub-judice policy shall remain to be a hot issue in the forthcoming Assembly elections.
The quality of school-level education remains poor in the state due to massive vacancy in teaching posts. Similarly, a shortage of doctors has impacted the health services. Only 1,800 doctors are serving in health centres that need 5,000 medicos. The now-challenged local residents' policy was an attempt to create a provision for reservation in government jobs during recruitment drives but its judicial challenge has put off any immediate step to meet staff shortage in schools and hospitals.
Women safety, public transport and PDS system continue to be other areas of concern for the incumbent CM as he looks to return to power in December.
Amid a host of challenges, Das can take solace from the fact that his chief challenger Arjun Munda is serving in the Union Cabinet and is unlikely to stake a claim for the Chief Minister's post.
Though on paper Das does not face a leadership challenge, claims of party infighting damaging his chances to return to power have been doing the rounds. The BJP's strategy of inducting dissidents from other parties just before Assembly polls is also going to be put to test in Jharkhand.
Earlier in October when two Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MLAs - Kunal Sarangi and Jaiprakash Bhai Patel - joined the BJP, the initial reaction of the Opposition party was of "good riddance". The JMM, perhaps, was enthused by the fact that turncoats in Maharashtra and Haryana had failed to impress after joining the BJP. Along with the two JMM legislators, Congress MLAs Manoj Yadav and Sukhdeo Bhagat and an independent MLA Bhanupratap Sahi also joined the BJP.
Since 2017, Jharkhand has had a reasonable success against Naxals yet the rebels have always had an influence on poll outcomes in their strongholds. With 17 out of 24 districts in the state still affected by the menace, the BJP government led by Das would need to pull out every trick out of its hat to beat anti-incumbency and a rejuvinated Opposition camp to retain power. The challenge before the ruling BJP in Jharkhand is specially daunting as a below-expectation performance by the party in Maharashtra and Haryana elections have confirmed fears that the saffron party struggles in states where PM Modi's personal appeal is not a big moving factor, and Jharkhand happens to be another such state.