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Myriad possibilities keep BJP on edge in Jharkhand

Ranchi/Jamshedpur, April 9: Kuch bhi ho sakta hai

That’s the proclamation affixed near most liquor outlets that dot the Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway round the year. It didn’t mean much all this while, save the tantalising prospect of a chance encounter the desi brew promised anyone who took up the offer.

Yet, now during election time, the brand pitch visible in Bundu, Tamar and Chandil on NH-33 has acquired a new meaning. Encouraging fringe players and springing hope for wayward regional outfits, it is mirroring Jharkhand’s unsettled sentiments like never before. Most of all, the air of uncertainty, that anything could happen, is turning out to be a damper for the mighty BJP, the leading war horse in a pack of very determined spoilers.

In the run-up to the elections, Narendra Modi beseeched a crowd of over 2 lakh at Ranchi’s Dhurwa grounds to reward him with all 14 parliamentary seats from the state. In exchange, he promised to undo the many wrongs perpetrated on the young state of Birsa Munda. It didn’t look an impossible ask. After all, with a 27 per cent vote share, the BJP had bagged half the MPs from Jharkhand in 2009, leaving behind the Congress with one and the JMM two.

Now with Verdict 2014 staring at its face, the BJP is looking at a reality that is far more challenging, daunting even.

No wonder it’s full-on fight for the 14. Modi has already followed up his December 2013 appeal with several visits and back-to-back rallies in Gumla, Chatra, Koderma and Palamau. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have flown in, too, talking RTI and MGNREGS to counter the NaMo punch.

Yet, characteristic political uncertainty apart, the BJP’s early exuberance seems to have been tempered. The party’s inability to win over local allies, against the Congress-JMM-RJD’s pre-poll alliance, an unexplained rush of regional party heavyweights, coupled with a wily bunch of Independents picked up by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress looking for a foothold outside Bengal, has caught the BJP off-guard.

“Yes, there are concerns,” admitted a senior party leader camping in Chatra, one of four Maoist-hit constituencies that vote tomorrow. In Chatra, disenchantment over tickets is hurting the prospects of the BJP’s Sunil Kumar Singh, even though the party holds sway in two of the five Assembly segments. “But, there is a lot of talk about Narendra Modi in local villages. We are holding on to that.”

Chatra is not one of the seven seats the BJP holds, but it should have been among the easy pickings, given that Inder Singh Namdhari, an Independent who won the seat last time did so with the party’s blessings. Now, the BJP candidate doesn’t look a sure-shot winner in a multi-cornered contest.

If Chatra is a seat the BJP should have won cleanly to notch up its overall state tally, Singhbhum and Palamau should have dropped into its kitty too. In Singhbhum, Independent Geeta Koda is whipping up quite a sympathy storm over the “victimisation” of her husband in corruption cases to make things difficult in an ST reserved constituency that the former chief minister won by over 89,000 votes.

Former state DGP V.D Ram is battling an ex-Maoist in Palamau for the BJP and he, for one, looks good, given that Kameshwar Baitha’s Robin Hood persona is on the wane.

Among the seats the BJP holds, the going is good, so far, in Dhanbad, Giridih, Godda and Hazaribagh where Yashwant Sinha has bequeathed his seat to son Jayant, A Harvard alumnus who has already brought in a bit of new-age shine to his quiet campaign against Congress’s Saurabh Narain Singh, a young MLA and royal scion who lost to the former external affairs minister by over 40,000 votes in 2009.

But, Rajmahal and Lohardaga suddenly look unsure. In Rajmahal, the BJP has fielded JMM deserter and local MLA Hemlal Murmu, much to the chagrin of its own supporters, forcing a showdown with the JMM’s Vijay Hansda, a Congress outcast. This battle of the turncoats could go either way.

In Lohardaga, Chamra Linda, an Independent MLA from the Maoist-hit region who has been helping the JMM-led state government stay on the right side of the numbers game, has bagged a Trinamul Congress ticket. Here, he is playing spoiler to the BJP’s Sudarshan Bhagat.

The Congress has got wind of the BJP’s worries. It is banking on its alliance with the JMM, which is contesting four seats, and the RJD, that’s put up a nominee in one seat. Not that it has great expectations from a state that has only one Congress MP — Subodh Kant Sahay is on shaky ground this time — campaign manager Jairam Ramesh has done his bit, having undertaken whirlwind tours of the districts to help the party’s nine candidates. A gain here for the Congress is more of a loss for the BJP and the NaMo bandwagon.

“We will register a gain of 300 to 400 per cent this time,” Ramesh told the media. Translated, it meant, the Congress was hoping to win three to four more seats this time.

Alongside Congress’s measured approach and the BJP’s big ambition, regional satraps are setting their own agenda. For Shibu Soren, 2014 could be his time of reckoning. Simmering dissent over son Hemant’s leadership has left the JMM old guard looking for greener pastures. Guruji may have jumped in to the fray to retain Dumka in their pocket borough of Santhal Pargana, but he is being challenged by a man sharp enough to detect his unease.

Babulal Marandi, the state’s first chief minister, is moving out of Koderma to take on Soren Senior in a contest he believes could hasten the downfall of the JMM and establish the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha chief as the only rallying point of tribal angst in the region.

Ajsu boss Sudesh Mahto, arguably Jharkhand’s most enterprising opportunist who runs with the hare and hunts with the hound with impeccable timing, has surprised everyone by joining the Ranchi contest that is already crowded with the Congress’s Subodh Kant Sahay, his all-time BJP rival Ram Tahal Choudhary and the JVM’s Amitabh Choudhary, the chief of the state cricket association who has brought first class matches to Ranchi via a world-class stadium.

“In Parliament, we will support those who support Jharkhand’s interests,” Mahto said, listing out special status, proportional share in central taxes and a separate rail division as his priorities.

All lofty ideals and genuine talking points in a serious discourse on Jharkhand’s welfare. But, it is clear Mahto, like many of the MLAs in the Lok Sabha fray, are testing the waters for Assembly polls expected within months of the general election.

That’s because, despite the exuberance surrounding Modi and his chant of the development mantra, voting in this 13-year-old state boils down to local factors and candidates’ personal equations with the 30-odd tribes — primarily Santhal, Ho, Oraon and Munda — that dominate the pollscape.

Arjun Munda, the man at the helm of the BJP’s NaMo blitzkrieg in Jharkhand, has his task cut out. Having stayed away from contesting Jamshedpur much against the wishes of his party’s central leadership, the former chief minister has hit the road, braving 40-plus temperatures to iron out the rough edges and soothe frayed egos.

“That is a closed chapter,” he told The Telegraph, referring to the dissatisfaction within sections of the party over ticket distribution. “Those who have got party symbols are the official candidates.”

He would not talk numbers, but was emphatic the BJP would improve its tally this time. “Hundred per cent we will win more seats than 2009,” he said with confidence, not surprising from a three-time chief minister.

A high voter turnout, which was barely 51 per cent in 2009 in Jharkhand, will be advantageous for the BJP, pitted against multiple rivals in all constituencies. The Ranchi district administration is planning to present roses to early birds at the capital’s poll booths. The BJP would do well to line up bouquets.

nTrinamul tailender, P5

n3rd round nominees, P6