Losing political ground
Jharkhand’s outcome ascertains BJP’s decline in popularity since marching onto a consecutive Lok Sabha victory and may have a bearing on neighbouring Bihar elections
The indications that were available from the Haryana and Maharashtra election results about the BJP's declining popularity have been substantiated by the Jharkhand outcome where the BJP has fallen behind the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)–Congress–Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) combine.
Notwithstanding the 20-odd rallies addressed by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in a small state which has 81 seats in the legislature, BJP's characteristic bombast of winning 65-plus seats in Jharkhand has not materialised.
What this failure means is that neither the playing of the communal card by referring to the clothes worn by the protesters against the citizenship law nor the promise of building a "sky-high" Ram temple, has played political dividends to BJP. Instead, it is the JMM-Congress-RJD combine which has fared well.
There is little doubt that it was the stitching up of the alliance which helped the three parties whereas the rupture between BJP and the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) hurt the incumbent Raghubar Das's government in the state.
Besides, the chief minister's reported arrogance (which is also a typical feature of the BJP itself) and the enactment of tenancy laws which were seen to be against tribal interests, also contributed to BJP's setback.
In contrast, the generally inept Congress played its cards well by shedding its hauteur and agreeing to play second fiddle to the JMM as it had done vis-à-vis the Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka.
The tribal factor helped JMM with the projection of Hemant Soren as the party's chief ministerial face in a state where Raghubar Das is a non-tribal. Since the very formation of the state in the year 2000 on the grounds of promoting the cause of the tribals has been the central feature of Jharkhand politics, BJP's decision to swim against the tide by selecting a Teli, a caste-related to the oil trade, as chief minister may have been in tune with its policy of choosing a non-Jat as the Haryana chief minister and a non-Maratha in Maharashtra, but it was obviously an unwise step.
BJP's failure to keep the AJSU as an ally is also similar to its rift with its three-decade-old partner, the Shiv Sena, in Maharashtra. Arguably, these tactical missteps underline the belief in BJP after its two successive Lok Sabha victories that it now has the political heft to go alone and doesn't need anyone to keep company.
It remains to be seen whether the Jharkhand setback, following those in Haryana and Maharashtra, will persuade the BJP to moderate its stance. The first sign of such a rethink (though in a different field) was the party's about-turn on the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by junking Union home minister Amit Shah's earlier gung-ho attitude when he promised to weed out all the "termites" or illegal Muslim immigrants by 2024 via NRC.
Jharkhand results have also delivered a blow to Amit Shah's reputation as a modern-day Chanakya, which has already been dented by NCP leader Sharad Pawar's successful machinations in Maharashtra. It is now clear that Shah does not have a magic wand for winning elections.
Since Jharkhand is next door to Bihar, the poll outcome cannot but have an impact on chief minister Nitish Kumar's prospects in the state. Considering that RJD and Congress have combined satisfactorily in Jharkhand, there is every likelihood of the two parties carrying the momentum which they have acquired in Jharkhand into next year's electoral battle in Bihar.
With Nitish Kumar and the Lok Janshakti Party's Chirag Paswan joining the other non-BJP parties in refusing to implement NRC, BJP will be concerned about more allies deserting it in Bihar like the AJSU in Jharkhand and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
In a way, BJP's setback in Jharkhand can be regarded as a continuation of the defeats it had experienced in a series of by-elections in 2017-18, culminating in the loss of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly elections. The scene for BJP was so dire at that stage that the RSS wanted it to start constructing the Ram temple without waiting for the judicial verdict in order to retrieve the situation.
It was the surgical strike on terror camps in Balakot in Pakistan which enabled BJP to whip up nationalist fervour and romp home to victory in the Lok Sabha elections. But, now that the euphoria has died down, BJP has started losing ground again. The reason ostensibly is the perilous state of the economy which BJP has been trying to hide with measures like abrogating Article 370 and the citizenship law.
But these have not been of any help in the state elections where local grievances have come to the fore and regional leaders — Bhupinder Hooda in Haryana, Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra and Hemant Soren in Jharkhand — have proved to be more effective than local BJP leaders.
Views expressed are strictly personal