Voters wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the first phase of Jharkhand assembly polls, in Latehar.
Voters wait to cast their votes at a polling station during the first phase of Jharkhand assembly polls, in Latehar.

Jharkhand is not quite a major electoral state but the snowballing agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the north-east, and the below par performance of BJP in Haryana and Maharashtra elections pose a threat to BJP’s chances while investing the Jharkhand assembly election with disproportionate importance.

In a state in which the BJP-AJSU (All Jharkhand Students Union) tie-up won 12 of 14 seats to the Lok Sabha in 2014 and 13 of the 14 earlier this year securing 55.3 per cent of the vote, the Assembly polls have generated much interest because the pattern in Lok Sabha and Assembly polls are traditionally quite different.

In the 2014 Assembly elections the BJP-AJSU alliance had clinched power beating the alliance between the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, with the RJD of Lalu Yadav also chipping in. This time around, however, in the State elections the BJP is fighting with its back to the wall while the Opposition is flush with the satisfaction that it has managed to clinch pre-poll deals.

The experience in Maharashtra where the BJP gave in overmuch to the Shiv Sena in the sharing of seats before the Assembly polls only to rue this later when the Sena walked out of the alliance to join forces with the Congress and the NCP has left the BJP wary of alliances. It is now looking at post-poll alliances with greater favour and has been dragging its feet over pre-poll tie-ups.

There could well be a design in ally AJSU deciding to go it alone. It may be looking for a better deal in a post-poll alliance scenario. By contrast, the Opposition alliance is continuing in full steam. BJP president Amit Shah is looking at a post-poll alliance with AJSU with much hope that there would be light at the end of the tunnel but there can be no guarantee that with or without it the BJP would come good.

In the run-up to the Jharkhand elections, the BJP has got a jolt as its chief whip Radhakrishna Kishore, has switched sides to the AJSU while its Bihar ally the LJP has, like AJSU, decided to go solo. Both AJSU and LJP would bargain with the BJP hard after the elections if there is a possibility of being able to form a government together. But if the Opposition manages to cobble up numbers, the BJP may well be left high and dry.

If there is a redeeming feature for the BJP it is that, seeing the tough road ahead, it has fallen back on Prime Minister Modi for serious campaigning though he normally keeps off State elections. That goes to show that the BJP perceives a threat of being displaced from power in the State and looks upon it as a prestige battle which it has to win at all costs.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is already depleted with Shiv Sena and Assam’s AGP having dropped out, and Janata Dal (U) a fickle ally sitting on the sidelines. Failure in retaining AJSU in its fold could give the BJP a major psychological hit.

Nevertheless, the BJP has to soldier along and to refurbish itself in the wake of the new challenges. It is still in a formidable position nationally and rules a dozen states while the Opposition totters along with no glue except anti-BJPism to commend it to the voters who are increasingly demanding a concrete blueprint of alternate action and a leader who commands respect and authority.

Indeed, the Opposition’s lack of concerted action and the absence of a credible leader may be its bane but disgruntlement against the dispensation in New Delhi is growing and more people are tending to look for an alternative to it. Whether the Opposition would be able to sustain its campaign against the Centre until the next Lok Sabha elections is, however, premature to predict.

As the fires rages on the citizenship issue and the police handling of the agitation, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told an interviewer that he would look at tweaking the citizenship law after Christmas in response to the Meghalaya demand for some changes to make it acceptable. That has heightened expectations that if the agitation tempo is maintained the government may be amenable to making changes.

In the 2014 state elections, support for the BJP came mostly from upper castes, other backward castes (OBCs), and certain tribal groups. According to post-poll survey data by Lokniti-CSDS, around 50 per cent of the state’s upper castes and 40 per cent of OBCs voted for BJP. Adivasi or scheduled tribe (ST) voters, the dominant social group in the state accounting for 27 per cent of the population, they were split between the BJP (30 per cent of all ST votes) and the JMM (29 per cent).

Seeing the heat building up against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the BJP is keen to steer the campaign away towards local bread and butter issues. While these have some resonance with Jharkhand voters, it remains to be seen how the electorate responds to the new thrust.

The Jharkhand battle would indeed be watched with interest by those who see an Opposition resurgence in the offing. The BJP’s performance would be of particular interest in this scenario of currents and cross-currents.

The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.

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