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Another Maharashtra in making? Soren-Shah meet sets off buzz

Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren’s meeting with home minister comes at a time when JMM is in fix over supporting NDA's tribal presidential nominee & there are fissures in alliance with Congress.

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New Delhi: Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren’s Monday meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi has raised eyebrows in the state’s political circles — even as Maharashtra, another state ruled by a coalition government, is in the midst of political turmoil.

CM Soren, also the executive president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), was in Delhi for an appearance before the Election Commission of India (ECI) Tuesday in an office-for-profit case stemming from allegations levelled against him by the BJP.

Officially, the BJP maintains that the meeting between Shah and Soren was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, the meeting comes at a time when the JMM is in a conundrum over whether it should support the BJP’s presidential nominee and when fissures have emerged in its alliance with the Congress in the state.

A group of opposition parties have jointly fielded former Union minister of finance and external affairs Yashwant Sinha, who comes from Jharkhand, as their presidential candidate. But the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) decision to field a tribal candidate, former Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu, has put the JMM in a fix, given its tribal support base.

The BJP, which is seen as having lost the 2019 assembly elections due to a lack of support from Jharkhand’s tribal communities, is now focussing on its presidential candidate, Murmu, to show its commitment towards Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities while simultaneously highlighting the alleged corruption of the Soren government and “exposing” its pro-tribal stance as a sham.

The JMM-Congress combine in Jharkhand had won 25 of the 28 seats in the tribal belt in 2019, while the BJP managed to stake claim to two seats. The JMM has 30, the Congress 16 and the BJP 25 MLAs in Jharkhand’s 81-member legislature.

“The JMM stands exposed as far as their pro-tribal stance is concerned,” Pratul Shah Deo, BJP spokesperson for Jharkhand, told to ThePrint.

“Their entire politics is around tribal issues. When the country is on the verge of having its first tribal president, their support should have come spontaneously, but it hasn’t. JMM’s definition of tribal and their upliftment is limited to the Soren family, it seems. As far as meeting with the Home minister is concerned, it happens frequently and not much should be read into it…. Even if they support the BJP’s presidential candidate, the JMM stands exposed,” he added.

Speaking to ThePrint, JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said that too much is being read into the CM’s meeting with Shah unnecessarily. “Since the CM is in Delhi for his appearance before the ECI, he took the opportunity to meet Amit Shah ji. The ECI and the high court case are legal matters. What will the home ministry do in these cases?” he said.

Soren was accused of corruption in February by BJP MLAs, who said that the CM had issued a mining license to himself in Ranchi’s Angara block while in office. Governor Ramesh Bais, a former BJP minister, had referred the matter to the ECI and, depending on the election body’s recommendation, will take a call on Soren’s disqualification. There are also PILs in the Jharkhand High Court demanding a probe by central agencies against the CM in alleged irregularities in mining allotments.

Bhattacharya added: “[During the meeting] The Jharkhand CM also requested the Home minister to include the Sarna code in the religion column in the next census. That has been our demand for a long time.”

Tribal groups in Jharkhand have been agitating for over two decades for the inclusion of ‘Sarna’ as a separate religion code.

The JMM general secretary also said that, as of now, the party had not made up its mind about which presidential candidate it will support. “There is still time to decide,” he said.

Also read: BJP eyes lost ground in Jharkhand as trouble mounts for CM Soren over mining lease allegations

Fissures in JMM-Congress alliance

The meeting was also seen as significant since Jharkhand is one of the states where the Congress is a coalition partner along with the ruling JMM. Another state in which the Congress is part of the ruling alliance, Maharashtra, is facing its own turmoil, allegedly of the BJP’s making.

In Maharashtra, a rebellion by around 40 Shiv Sena MLAs against the party leadership has threatened to destabilise the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government made up of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.

A senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that once the party “clinches” Maharashtra, the focus will shift entirely to Jharkhand, and that the state leadership has been told to highlight the failures of the government more “aggressively”.

There are already fissures in the JMM-Congress alliance, with Soren last month rejecting his ally’s demand for a Rajya Sabha seat. The JMM fielded its own candidate, Mahua Maji, instead.

“We only have two years left for the Lok Sabha and assembly polls, so rather than making any moves ourselves, we would rather concentrate on things unfolding on their own. In this case, it is Soren who will have to decide what is to be done. The corruption allegations have only hurt his image among the tribals. The alliance looks shaky too, and will only weaken if the JMM supports the BJP’s presidential candidate,” the senior BJP leader added.

Deepak Prakash, the BJP’s Jharkhand president, said, “We will continue our issue-based opposition and agitation. As far as this government is concerned, they have been a complete failure on several counts — whether it is indulging in corruption, their anti-poor policy or anti-development agenda. We are going to continue our agitation politically, on the ground as well as in the judiciary.”

On the likelihood of a political realignment in Jharkhand, Prakash said they are in the opposition currently and it is difficult to do “bhavishyavani (predict the future) in politics”.

“The Congress will cling on to the JMM till the end as this is one of the few states where it has a presence. This despite the fact that JMM has not taken them into confidence in any policy decisions,” said BJP spokesperson Deo.

A possible break?

A senior Congress leader from Jharkhand told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that many Congress members in the state want to break away from the JMM. “There are many Congress legislators who are unhappy with the alliance and the bargain they have got with the JMM. Things became ugly after the Rajya Sabha fiasco, and many Congress leaders are in the favour of breaking the alliance and giving outside support to the JMM.”

According to another Congress leader, this friction is not new and has intensified over a period of time.

“You saw what happened during the Rajya Sabha elections. The Monday meeting and Soren’s body language shows that he is in no mood to fight. We might see some realignments as far as alliances are concerned,” said the leader, who did not wish to be named.

On whether the JMM is apprehensive about the BJP toppling the alliance government in Jharkhand at a time the CM is embroiled in legal complications, Bhattacharya said, “The BJP is unpredictable. They don’t follow any ethics. So, the apprehension [of toppling the government] is always there. But our alliance is going strong and there is no immediate threat to the government.”

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Hemant Soren could teach Congress a thing or two about fighting Narendra Modi


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