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Jharkhand: Ground is shifting under Raghubar Das' feet. Will he survive?

Catch Team | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

On 25 August, while Jharkhand was celebrating Janmashtami, the heart of its capital Ranchi was a scene of mayhem. Harmu, the posh neighbourhood that houses the BJP's state headquarters, was teeming with the party's leaders and activists.

Word had spread that the BJP's new state president Lakshman Gilua was visiting; but it turned out that he was actually coming the next day. As the gathered activists started to leave, disappointed, violent clashes broke out between the police and local residents protesting against the eviction orders served to them.

Allegedly, over 80% houses in and around Harmu were built on tribal land, acquired through unscrupulous means. Notices for eviction were served to 70 houses following a ruling from the Scheduled Area Regulation court.

Also Read: Festering sore: new domicile policy turns Jharkhand into a tinderbox

Such protests take place elsewhere in the country as well, but in Jharkhand, they are a fallout of the state government's controversial domicile policy. At around the same time the protests were happening, Sudesh Mahto, the president of the All Jharkhand Students Union and former deputy chief minister, was meeting party workers and exhorting them to oppose the domicile policy.

"We feel the government has adopted a wrong policy which would deprive the adivasis and the indigenous population of their identity and land," Mahto explained his party's stand. The 25 August meeting at his house yielded a resolution to launch an agitation over the issue at the panchayat level.

AJSU is a key constituent of the ruling alliance and the party declaring war on its own government is bound to have repercussions, although Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the main opposition party, has dismissed Mahto's stand as a "gimmick".

Over 80% houses in Harmu, Ranchi, are on illegally taken tribal land; 70 houses have got eviction notices

"AJSU is just shedding crocodile tears. Why did they support the domicile policy in the cabinet if they was sincere about the interests of the native people," asked JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya. He has a point: taking on the government while remaining part of it may not be tenable in the long run. Political analysts say Mahto will either have to shelve the issue or sever ties with the government. In the meantime, the AJSU's stand is embarrassing the state government.

Chief Minister Raghubar Das, though, has other things to worry about. The BJP had lured half a dozen MLAs away from Babu Lal Marandi's Jharkhand Vikas Morcha soon after the assembly election by giving them roles in the government.

Facing a legal challenge

The decision is set to come back to haunt the BJP as Marandi has taken the matter to court. "We had not been able to hire a big lawyer to forcefully pursue the case for lack of funds. But now the financial crisis is over, and we will intensify the legal battle," said a senior JVM leader. Although the leader would not reveal how his party managed the required funds, political observers point to the new-found bonhomie between Marandi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Nitish has been working to expand his JDU in Jharkhand. It's as part of that push, sources said, that he has assured Marandi of all the "support needed to challenge the BJP on the legal front". Marandi has vowed to see the case through and "not let the government complete its term with the support of JVM's breakaway MLAs".

Adding to the BJP's woes is the internal dissension over Gilua's appointment as president. The ouster of his predecessor Tala Marandi was a certainty after his son was accused of marrying a minor girl with his blessings, and because he had arbitrarily announced the formation of the new BJP state executive on WhatsApp. To top it all, Tala Marandi had openly expressed his reservations on the domicile policy.

Also Read: Minor marriage controversy: will Jharkhand state BJP chief's head roll?

On 24 August, Tala Marandi was replaced by Gilua, a tribal leader from Kolhan with solid RSS credentials. He is currently the MP from Chaibasa. The BJP leadership claimed his appointment would strengthen the party's base in Kolhan, where it fared poorly in the last assembly election.

Few buy this logic, however. The detractors argue that state presidents are not chosen keeping in view just one region. They also point out that Tala Marandi is from Santhal, where the BJP faces the toughest challenge from the JMM. Going by the leadership's logic, his successor should have come from the same region.

The real reason Gilua was appointed is that he was the "first choice" of Das. BJP insiders said former CM Arjun Munda was against Gilua's appointment and did his best to scuttle the appointment, but Das prevailed on the central leadership to pick Gilua.

Nitish Kumar is reportedly funding Babulal Marandi's legal battle against the BJP in Jharkhand. Why?

Interestingly, Gilua was once a protege of Munda but later fell out with him. Some observers even hold leaders such as Gilua responsible for Munda's defeat in the last election.

As president, though, Gilua is trying to project an image of modesty. "I'm an ordinary worker and I will fulfil any responsibility assigned by the party," he said. When reminded that his predecessor had come out openly against the domicile policy, Gilua replied, "I will express my opinion only after getting a sense of the ground situation and discussing the issue with senior leaders."

Split over domicile policy

It would be interesting to see the stand the BJP's new state chief takes on this sensitive issue in the coming days. But Das can heave a sigh of relief for now with his loyalist at the helm of the party's affairs. This is not to say that his worries are over.

Tala Marandi was promoted as an adivasi leader to "balance" a non-adivasi chief minister. He was expected to neutralise Arjun Munda's influence on the tribal electorate. But he has started singing the same tune as Munda after taking over.

The rivalry between Munda and Das is an open secret. The former chief minister was the BJP's star leader in the state for decades, but is increasingly being marginalised. This is believed to be the outcome of his estrangement with Das and proximity with Lal Krishna Advani.

Still, even though Munda is down, he is certainly not out when it comes to Ranchi's powerplays. BJP leaders, including Das himself, are aware that he will make every effort to settle scores with Das. Munda's opposition to the domicile policy can be seen in the same light. He has minced no words in demanding a review of the policy.

Before Munda made his views on the issue public, 23 BJP legislators had submitted a written complaint to the assembly speaker alleging their own government was not clearing the air on the domicile policy. Most of them were adivasi leaders and are known to be Munda's supporters.

Munda apart, Das faces a political threat from his minister Saryu Rai as well. Rai represents Jamshedpur West, which adjoins the Jamshedpur East seat of the chief minister. The stories of the rivalry between the two leaders have fed the gossip mills in Jamshedpur for a while. Although Rai has refrained from openly commenting against Das, his actions speak louder than words.

Whereas Das loses no opportunity to criticise Nitish -- in the context of Jharkhand or Bihar - Rai regularly shares the stage with the Bihar chief minister. Rai has said it is on account of his "personal relationship" with Nitish, but Das clearly sees it as shrewd politics.

Will Das be able to overcome all these challenges, or will he succumb?

Also Read: How rumours and a VHP bandh sparked violence in Jharkhand

First published: 29 August 2016, 4:13 IST