Contemporary Indian politics can witness a watershed moment on 23 December.
Not that the date has been inconsequential in Indian political history’s timeline. India’s fifth Prime Minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh, was born on this date. With his son Ajit Singh rendered politically irrelevant, the date is no longer remembered by political parties that are busy sparring over the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Ambedkar.
The BJP would rather remember this date for the death anniversary of India’s ninth Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao. The party won four Lok Sabha seats from his birthplace, Telangana, this May. It’s only a matter of time before the BJP demands a Bharat Ratna for Rao and leaves the Nehru-Gandhi family tongue-tied and red-faced.
There is also an apocryphal story that on this day 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh had cut off his ear after a fight with a fellow artist and sent it to a sex worker to show his affection. It may amuse some BJP leaders. Cutting off one’s nose to spite the face was how they would have described the anti-intolerance ‘award wapsi’ movement in 2015. One hasn’t heard from those artistes again.
Anyway, what makes the coming 23 December a watershed in Indian politics? It’s the day Jharkhand assembly election results will be announced.
Let me guess your reaction: so whhaat?
Jharkhand’s similarity with Haryana, Maharashtra
A state with 14 Lok Sabha seats rarely manages to hit the national headlines. The first few things that may come to your mind when Jharkhand is mentioned are the incidents of mob lynching, ‘witch-killings’, and Naxal violence.
As for politics, the first time Jharkhand, then a part of Bihar, had its share of national limelight was in 1993 when four MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) allegedly took money to save the Narasimha Rao government in a no-confidence motion. But think of the ‘innocence’ of these politicians. They took the money and deposited it in their bank accounts. A few years later, newspapers in Ranchi were publishing copies of the deposit receipts a chief minister allegedly gave to the banks for the money he took as bribe. Where else would you find such politicians?
The current political scenario in Jharkhand has many similarities with the situation witnessed in Maharashtra and Haryana before they went to polls. As seen in these two states, the opposition is in disarray in Jharkhand too. The Congress has no mass leader and Hemant Soren of the JMM is desperately trying to retain the party’s core base that consists of tribals and Kurmis – the latter already split among Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the BJP. These two groups together constitute around half of the state’s population. The Congress and the JMM will fight the Jharkhand election in alliance, but unlike in Maharashtra, there is no Sharad Pawar in Jharkhand to spearhead the opposition’s campaign.
If Devendra Fadnavis became only the second Maharashtra chief minister after Vasantrao Naik to complete a full term in office, Raghubar Das is the first Jharkhand chief minister to do so. Ten chief ministers have taken oath in Jharkhand in the 19 years of its existence as a state, which has also had three spells of President’s Rule.
Like Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana, Raghubar Das, son of a Tata Steel labourer, was also handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from nowhere to lead the government in Jharkhand. These three were part of Modi’s political experiment to install people from non-dominant communities as the chief ministers — a non-Maratha in Maharashtra, a non-Jat in Haryana and a non-tribal in Jharkhand. The experiment has failed in Maharashtra and Haryana. Will it work in Jharkhand, where tribals constitute 26.2 per cent of the population?
What drawing-room strategists say
If one were to listen to the drawing-room strategists in the opposition camp, the BJP should be out of the game even before the poll campaign begins. They claim to have tribals and Kurmis (together they constitute nearly half of Jharkhand’s population) and Muslims (14.5 per cent) in their kitty.
They have a plausible explanation for this. Tribals should vote en masse for the JMM-Congress combine because the BJP government tampered with their land rights. The BJP’s tallest Kurmi leader, five-time Ranchi MP Ram Tahal Choudhary, turned a rebel ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Further, the JD(U) of Bihar chief minister and Kurmi leader Nitish Kumar will go it alone in Jharkhand. What the opposition strategists don’t say is that Choudhury, as an Independent candidate from Ranchi, secured less than 30,000 votes, a little over 4 per cent of what the BJP candidate secured in the Lok Sabha elections.
If one were to factor in the anti-incumbency against the rather-staid Raghubar Das government, the BJP may seem to be up against a wall in the forthcoming assembly elections.
Why Jharkhand results are important
But, that’s where the game-changer comes in – in the form of the Supreme Court of India’s much-awaited verdict on the decades-old Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. The verdict is expected about a fortnight before the first phase of the Jharkhand election on 30 November. Raghubar Das seems to be eagerly waiting for the ruling.
Whichever way the verdict goes, it’s sure to have an impact in Jharkhand where the minorities have been on edge, with incidents of mob lynching, “attacks against the Christian community”, and the controversy over the arrest of a nun at the Missionaries of Charity’s Nirmal Hriday, a shelter home for unwed minor mothers, in a child trafficking case last year. Raghubar Das has also been talking about the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Jharkhand as well; the state has Bangladeshi settlers spread over many districts, including in capital Ranchi.
It will be the first election after the likely Ayodhya verdict this month. Jharkhand will, therefore, be a barometer of the electoral potential of the issue. With the nullification of Article 370 fizzling out as an issue in Maharashtra and Haryana and the party weighing the pros and cons of the uniform civil code that will have implications for Hindus too, in terms of succession and inheritance, Ayodhya verdict is crucial for the BJP.
If it is in favour of the Hindus, count on the BJP to try to milk it, one election after another, until a Ram Mandir is constructed in Ayodhya, possibly just before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. If the verdict is not in favour of the majority community, you can still count on the BJP to build on the (real and imagined) hurt pride and asmita of Hindus, starting from the assembly election in Jharkhand to all the way to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and beyond.
This 23 December, we will know the extent to which the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, can capitalise on Ayodhya temple as an electoral issue. But more importantly, we will know whether, how and to what extent the voters respond to the Sangh’s celebrations or fulminations about the Ayodhya verdict. The results will determine the course of Indian politics in the foreseeable future.