| Mobilization drive
The year was 1995. Undivided Bihar was in the thick of yet another poll. As we — a bunch of small-town reporters — stood outside a counting centre in a remote West Singhbhum block headquarters waiting for the late night trends, an old Vishwa Hindu Parishad worker lounging nearby made a strange prophecy. “Mark my words, five years from hence, the entire state will chant Ram katha. This is just the beginning, religion will stamp its writ on realpolitik and change the lives of the vanvasis (read Jharkhandi) forever.” The Bharatiya Janata Party won the seat, but the VHP worker was dismissed as a zealot. Secular forces, led by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the ruling Rashtriya Janata Dal, then held the state in thrall, and regional autonomy was the buzzword.
Five years on, the prophecy stands fulfilled, if the mandate in the recent Godda byelections is anything to go by. Old-timers rue that the state, which had always prided itself on its imperviousness to contentious communal issues (tribal south Bihar was perhaps the only region in the East which did not see any violence after December 6, 1992), could not remain immune to the saffron surge.
The BJP won the Godda parliamentary seat by 93,262 votes. It had a lead margin of 15,000 in at least three assembly segments — Godda, Poriyahat and Deoghar. Notwithstanding a low voter turnout, in three blocks — Jarmundi, Madhupur and Mahagama — it defeated its nearest rival by an average of 3,000 votes. According to observers, development and welfare had little to do in the bypolls this time, unlike in Dumka, in March, where the government’s non-performance led to an anti-BJP wave, and helped the JMM cruise to victory. This time, there was a clear swing in favour of Hindutva.
Even a couple of years before Jharkhand was formed in 2000, lower caste and tribal voters were firmly secular. It was the upper-caste Hindu votes which were divided between the BJP and the Congress. Although Hindutva overrode all other considerations in Brahmin dominated Godda, the BJP has never had it so easy. Even the traditional Congress supporters temporarily switched sides this time, preferring to go along with the ruling party. The tribal and backward votes were divided equally between the JMM, RJD and the BJP, which incidentally fielded a Yadav candidate. So none of the opposition parties could command the block votes of any one segment.
An analysis of the “shift” in upper caste votes calls for a deeper look at the socio-political cross-currents. While some attribute the erosion of the Congress’s base to a feeling of insecurity among its upper-caste voters (made even more acute by the nomination of a minority candidate), others feel it is an extension of the BJP’s success story in Gujarat. Hindutva was the motivating factor, although the BJP raised several development issues in its campaign. The electorate turned a blind eye to the chief minister’s “dismal” progress report and opted for his party’s more “sublime” tenets instead.
Unlike Gujarat, where the Narendra Modi government has been credited with opening up the Narmada lifeline and several other populist measures, the Babulal Marandi government in Jharkhand had nothing to flaunt in terms of development. Godda is still a backward terrain with steep economic disparities between the upper castes and fringe groups. Owing to its proximity to Bihar, the constituency is burdened by the Bihar syndrome — a baggage it finds difficult to shed even after two years.
According to a local temple sevait (priest), the “divine powers” of Lord Baidyanath, whose abode, Deoghar, falls within this constituency, worked for the BJP and turned the spotlight away from the party’s “non-performance”. Hindutva proved to be Marandi’s life-saver for, had the polls hinged on ground realities, it would have been Dumka all over.
However, a senior BJP, leader, Uma Shankar Kedia, feels that the shuffling of assembly segments after the bifurcation of Bihar is the key to the BJP’s landslide victory. As a result of this, Bihar lost two predominantly upper-caste pockets which were added to Godda. The segments which Jharkhand gave in return for Mahagama and Deoghar were “mixed” in composition.
But the real surprise lies in the JMM’s inability to see the winds of change. In the run-up to the Dumka bypolls in March, the JMM had gone out of its way to forge some kind of unity among the opposition. It wooed the Congress and the RJD to counter the BJP. It highlighted corruption and poor governance and all but promised utopia. Marandi-weary voters fell for the JMM’s campaign and voted for Sibu Soren. But the JMM had become an astute political entity — it was no longer the crusading force it was in the Eighties. Instead of fulfilling its promises, the JMM bandied Dumka as a victory against the BJP.
Says tribal intellectual P. Mahato and convener of the Jharkhand Buddhijeevi Manch, “The JMM thought that it could get away with riding rough-shod over the sentiments of voters. But we are a sensitive lot. Over the years, the party has alienated itself from its people. Godda was just a manifestation of the alienation.’’ According to him, there was social polarization against the BJP in Dumka, whereas all parties were sharply divided in Godda. There was no opposition unity to speak of as the RJD and the Congress put up their own candidates. The minority votes were also split, with the JMM and the Congress fielding two Muslim candidates, giving the BJP a distinct edge.
The rapid saffronization of the tribals has become a major cause for concern. The bulk of the Sarna tribals, who are animists, is gradually tilting towards the sangh parivar. This polarization, according to intellectuals, is a fallout of the conflict of social and political interests. While the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliates, have hijacked primary education and healthcare in the Sarna-dominated areas in Chhotanagpur, the church still holds sway over the Santhal Parganas.
Largescale conversions to Christianity have taken place among the Oraon tribals, whereas the Mundas, Ho, Santhal, Bhumij and Kharia tribes have been targeted time and again by the VHP’s conversion drives. As a result, the JMM has not been able to consolidate its base since the Eighties, when it appeared on the political horizon with its demand for autonomy. “The party adhered to the principle of hor-mitan (pan-ethnic sentiment), that is the bulwark of the ethnic social mosiac. It had the support of the student’s wing, the All-Jharkhand Students’ Union, the Jharkhand People’s Party, the Jharkhand Party (N.E. Horo and Naren Hansda factions) and several other tribal splinter groups,’’ says B.B. Mahato, a senior leader. But the JMM could not throw up an alternative leadership or steer the region to statehood. Worse, its top leaders were tainted by a string of scandals.
In recent times, the formation of the Jharkhand Disom Party has caused a further strain. According to a section of the opposition, the JDP, floated by the BJP member of parliament from Mayurbhanj in Orissa, Salkhan Murmu, is a stooge of the ruling party. “It is a BJP ploy to keep the opposition divided and keep the pro-JMM groups in check. The JDP takes up only those issues which the opposition rakes up and goes to town with it. But the BJP has yet to initiate any disciplinary action against its MP for his anti-party stand,’’ says an opposition leader. If independent surveys are to be believed, the JDP has managed to make a dent in the JMM support base.
As more and more political outfits based on ethnicity break away from a broad cultural and ideological umbrella, a disparate group of tribal intellectuals from Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas are putting together a new united front — the Jharkhand Moolvasi Swadhikar Manch. The front, backed by the AJSU, may be too ineffective a weapon to counter the saffron might, but it definitely highlights one thing. Unity on all issues, be it political, social, cultural or economic, is the only way to save the tribals from being swamped by the mainstream forces.