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EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD CUT

Like any healthy two-and-a-half-year-old, Chhattisgarh is growing and shoring up chief minister Ajit Jogi’s stock as a dependable and low-key leader.

Barely 650 kilometres away, “birth-mate” Jharkhand is still adrift in a sea of political uncertainty though it has a new captain to commandeer the ship. The coup by a handful of Samata Party and Janata Dal (United) rebels which ousted Babulal Marandi early this month revealed a disturbing fact. Jharkhand has yet to shed the legacy of political instability and corruption bequeathed it by big brother Bihar.

During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Bihar was in a similar state with the ruling party factions constantly gunning for the top man. No development scheme for the rural poor could be implemented as the ruling Congress, representing the elite class, was supposed to be hand-in-glove with the landowners. There were some cosmetic land reforms, but the Bhoodan movement ironically bypassed the landless. All efforts to implement the Land Ceiling Act met with stiff resistance from ruling party members, most of whom owned surplus benaami land.

The drama began in Jharkhand in mid-February when three ministers from the Samata Party, two from the JD(U) and one from the Jharkhand Vananchal Congress declared war on the then chief minister, Marandi. The rebels — Lalchand Mahto (energy minister), Madhu Singh (revenue minister), Jaleswar Mahato (public health and engineering department minister), Ramesh Singh Munda (excise minister) and Bachcha Singh (urban development minister) — accused Marandi of an autocratic style of functioning.

At the centre of the wrangling was the bureaucracy, over which Marandi wielded direct control. The ministers demanded the transfer of their department secretaries on account of their “insubordination and non-cooperation”. But Marandi apparently refused to obliged. While Mahto went hammer and tongs at the chief of the Jharkhand state electricity board, Rajeev Ranjan, citing irregularities in tenders and the awarding of contracts, Madhu Singh took on the Tatas over the Tisco land lease renewal issue. Bachcha Singh wanted his secretary out, a demand which Marandi conceded at a later stage to rein in the rebels. Bachcha Singh scurried back to the ruling fold.

Seizing on the rift in the ranks of the National Democratic Alliance, the opposition threw in its lot with the rebels. The dissident camp swelled, picking up two more NDA ministers — tourism minister Joba Manjhi of the United Gondwana Democratic Parishad and sports and culture minister Baidyanath Ram of the JD(U) along the way. The speaker of the Jharkhand assembly, Inder Singh Namdhari, of the JD(U), led the rebels to war on March 13 in the assembly. The dissidents deserted the treasury bench and joined the opposition to vote against a cut motion on the industry department money bill.

The rebels said they had resigned from the ministry and “joined” the opposition, albeit temporarily. As Marandi’s government was reduced to a minority, the opposition went into a huddle over the headcount. The numbers game ended at the door of the governor, M. Rama Jois, followed by a victory bash at Ramesh Singh Munda’s farmhouse in Bundu, near Ranchi. The opposition claimed it had the support of 43 legislators in the 81-member house. As Delhi rushed trouble-shooters and “strategists” of all hue (Lallan Singh of the Samata Party, Oscar Fernandes and Ajit Jogi of the Congress, and Kailashpati Mishra of the Bharatiya Janata Party) to prepare the balance-sheet, rebel unity took a blow. As the Congress tried to dictate terms for a broad alliance, the chances began to fade for the projected chief minister, Namdhari. The NDA “turncoats” refused to sever ties with the parent parties, and the loose coalition crumbled. For the BJP, with its back against the wall, it was a straw in the storm. Marandi stepped down, in the true tradition of a wounded but brave hero, paving the way for Arjun Munda.

The coup falls in the general pattern of Indian democracy. Insiders brand it a “fight between two evils, the lesser represented by Marandi, and the greater by the dissidents who were deprived of their share in the government loot”. Some feel that the “rebels upped the ante because Marandi’s greed did not match those of the enemy camp”.

He had placed roadblocks on the path to “riches”, in the form of upright bureaucrats, who sometimes even ignored the ministers’ directives. Marandi, who till last week had refrained from making any public statement, broke his silence in an interview recently. “My revenue and land reform minister assured me a steady cut of Rs 50 lakh every year if I made him the minister of registrations,’’ he said. He also accused Lalchand Mahto of striking a deal with some private companies for a commission of Rs 40 crore. Denying the allegations, the revenue minister said that Marandi was not happy with him for fining the Tatas Rs 59 crore in the lease controversy.

In all this turmoil, growth has predictably been the biggest casualty. In the Santhal Parganas, Marandi’s home turf, many of the rural development projects launched by him face an uncertain future. “Marandi cared for Santhal Parganas, but the new chief minister, Arjun Munda, is from Chhotanagpur. So most of the rural welfare funds will go that way now,’’ says Gagan Murmu of Poraiyahat constituency. Analysts feel that Marandi’s exit might widen the Chhotanagpur-Santhal Pargana divide, leading to the consolidation of the extremist and allied anti-national forces.

At a time when foreign investment was trickling into the state, this sudden change of guard will send all the wrong signals. BJP insiders feel it has already taken its toll by making prospective investors wary. Marandi’s successor, however, brims with the confidence that development will proceed “fast-forward”. The BJP is on a sticky wicket, already having lost the first round to the rebels, who will continue to gun for their share of the loot. Munda has for the time being placated the rebels, who were in a hurry to mint money before the assembly polls in early 2005, by accommodating all of them in his jumbo 25-member cabinet.

But then, in India, when people have the power to choose and ministers have the freedom to topple leaders, vested interest always governs choice.

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