Opinion | Jharkhand Polls: Can BJP Survive A 'Sympathy Wave' For Soren?

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Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren won the trust vote on Monday as he secured the support of 45 legislators. The INDIA bloc government in the state, comprising the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), decided to give the reins back to Soren after he secured bail from the High Court in an alleged land scam case. His return at the helm is a big boost for the JMM-led government ahead of the state assembly polls due later this year.

Trends From Lok Sabha Election

In the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections in the state, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won nine seats, three less than the last time, while the INDIA bloc won five, three more than the previous election. In terms of vote share, the NDA received 47% votes, while INDIA got 39%, reducing the former's lead from 24 percentage points (pp) in 2019 to just 8 pp in 2024. In terms of assembly segments, the NDA was leading in 52 seats (11 less than the last time), and the INDIA bloc in 29 seats (11 more). The total house strength is 81.  

The INDIA bloc won all the ST-reserved seats (Khunti, Singhbhum, Lohardaga, Dumka, and Rajmahal) this time. In contrast, in 2019, the NDA had won three of these seats, while the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) got two. 

The NDA's performance was hampered by the Congress's narrative that the BJP will alter the Constitution if it comes to power, as also by allegations of tampering with Santhal Pargana and the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act. The public sympathy generated by Soren's arrest only helped the INDIA bloc further, denting the NDA's prospects. 

What To Expect In Assembly Polls

The assembly elections this year are expected to witness a keen contest between the NDA and INDIA. They will be much more localised than the general elections. Also, as per past trends, the BJP may see a dip in its vote share compared to the Lok Sabha polls. In 2014, for instance, the BJP's vote dipped by 5 pp in state elections, while in 2019, this drop was a whopping 19 pp.  

But the INDIA bloc government faces challenges too. Natural anti-incumbency is one. Then, the BJP hopes that the raids against a few MLAs and close associates of the Chief Minister may have harmed the image of the government, especially amongst urban voters.

On the other hand, the JMM is banking on a possible sympathy wave for Soren and anger against the BJP. This was visible to some extent in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections.

The voting pattern of the SCs, STs and Muslims will be a key thing to watch. The INDIA bloc is trying to create a consolidated base in their favour as these three groups account for 50% of the state's population. 

Congress And BJP Units Unhappy With Their Chiefs

Meanwhile, a section of the state's Congress leaders is unhappy with the functioning and performance of its state chief Rajesh Thakur, and has been demanding his replacement for some time now. If this happens before the election, the new President will not have enough time to prepare for the polls. Also, two sitting ministers have been replaced in the Congress's quota, and this could intensify factionalism in the state unit. Soren has dropped his brother Basant from the Cabinet this time, and this could lead to a family feud. Earlier, Soren's sister-in-law, Seeta Soren, had left the party and joined the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls - though she lost the election. 

On the BJP front, with the party losing all five ST seats, there were calls for the removal of state president Babulal Marandi. Opponents cite his thin appeal amongst STs, and this could cost the party dearly in the upcoming state polls.

Tribal Pride And BJP's Key Challenge

Tribal or adivasi pride will be a big factor too, given that a large share of tribals see the JMM as the only party representing them and their issues. The BJP so far has had little success in wooing STs - it won only two of the 28 ST-reserved seats in the 2019 assembly polls - despite its wide outreach programmes. These included putting up a tribal candidate for the presidential elections, the appointment of Marandi, celebrating Birsa Munda's birth anniversary as Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, and a package of Rs 24,000 crore for vulnerable tribal groups.  

The BJP is also facing ally troubles. There seems to be a perceptible decline in the influence of the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), and the simultaneous rise of parties like the Jharkhandi Bhasha Khatiyan Sangharsh Samiti (JBKSS), led by 29-year-old Jairam Kumar Mahato, threatens to sway the Kurmi vote. The JBKSS has already announced that it will contest the majority of the 81 seats. Many Kurmis are also reportedly unhappy over the denial of a cabinet berth to the AJSU leader who won from the state. 

The BJP's main challenge is wooing the STs, and unless it devises a strategy to win a majority of these seats, it will face an uphill task in the state elections. To sum up, while the INDIA bloc gets a boost with Soren's release, the BJP would need to relook its strategy to reclaim Jharkhand from the JMM-led coalition. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author