A day after there was an indication of a rapprochement between the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Congress, a “unilateral” move by Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren on Monday further strained the ties between the parties that are part of the ruling alliance in the eastern state.
Soren on Sunday told reporters in New Delhi that following a two-hour meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi the day differences before the allies had buried their over a Rajya Sabha seat, and added that the coalition would put up a common candidate. The following day, the CM said JMM women’s wing president and writer-politician Mahua Manjhi was the alliance’s nominee for the June 10 poll.
Congress insiders said the announcement had caused resentment in the party, including among the top leaders, as Soren did not even convey his decision to the party. At the root of the Congress’s displeasure is that after the JMM sent its founder, and Soren’s father, Shibu Soren to the Rajya Sabha in 2020, it was understood that the Congress would send a candidate of its choice to the Upper House this year. Sources said the Congress was led to believe that the JMM would positively consider its request to field a Congress candidate.
“There is resentment as the JMM does not seem to consider us as the alliance partner at a time when Guru ji (Shibu Soren) had been fielded as an RS candidate earlier. Ideologically, our rival is the BJP. But on the ground, we are losing the voter base that we had raised earlier,” said former Jharkhand Pradesh Congress Committee (JPCC) president Sukhdeo Bhagat.
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At a meeting a few months ago, state Congress leaders told Avinash Pandey, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) leader in charge of Jharkhand, that the party was losing ground to the JMM. A Congress MLA said on the condition of anonymity, “The JMM needs us because of our urban appeal. But, slowly, even that, as our space, will be transferred if we don’t put our foot down. The BJP is our ideological opposition, but JMM seems to be our new opposition as Hemant Soren is slowly taking our votes — a fact that our leadership is ignoring.”
While the BJP’s candidate choice was based on its minute study of social equations, the Congress seems not to be “acting”, the legislator added. In the recent past, the party has been hamstrung by infighting and in January former state in-charge RPN Singh joined the BJP.
Pande met Sonia Gandhi on Monday after the JMM’s announcement to apprise her of the situation. Sources in the Congress claimed that though there was no immediate threat to the coalition government, the JMM’s move had strained the ties between the parties. Pande will travel to Ranchi on Wednesday to talk to party MLAs and defuse the tension.
“We expected and we believed that there should be a common candidate. The coalition should have given a common candidate. We were expecting a positive response from the JMM. But, they went ahead and announced their candidate. It is disappointing,” Pande told The Indian Express.
He added, “They have the numbers. That is why we requested that as a good gesture they should support us.”
But Pande said there was no threat to the coalition government as “Rajya Sabha is not the only thing”. He added: “From our side, we are following coalition dharma. We expect them also to follow coalition dharma.”
JMM MLA Sudivya Kumar Sonu, who is considered to be close to Soren, told reporters that even he did not know about the party’s decision to field Manjhi. Another ruling party insider said, “If the Congress would have been allowed to field its candidate, then there would have been infighting among its several factions. This would have created an image of the coalition being unstable. So, it was decided that a candidate from the JMM would be fielded.”
Some JMM functionaries said the decision to field Manjhi was a “masterstroke” as it would be difficult for the Congress to oppose her candidature. Manjhi twice contested from the Ranchi Assembly constituency. She lost both times but was able to put in a strong performance. In 2014, she polled 36,897 votes, with a 24.81 per cent vote share, and in 2019 she got 73,742 votes, losing by fewer than 6,000 votes to the BJP’s C.P. Singh.
A JMM leader said, “Manjhi is from a Bengali-speaking established family in Ranchi. Her mother is from undivided Bengal (from present-day Bangladesh). Manjhi has got a pull of her own because of the substantial Bengali population in Ranchi city and in 2019 she got a substantial 43.31 per cent vote share. It is a smart move by the JMM as they are attracting urban plus women voters across the state.”
Manjhi has a Master’s degree in sociology. In 2013, she became the chairperson of the Jharkhand State Women’s Commission. She has written two books — one, on the making of Bangladesh and the turmoil that followed and the other on uranium mining in the state’s Jadugoda town.
A JMM leader who has read both of her books said, “She is a trained sociologist and painting was among her interests in the early years. Later, she wrote a novel on the story of Bangladesh in Hindi. She raised the issue of Jadugoda in her second book, this too in Hindi. Both the books have some appeal, but the first one remains a hit because the manuscript went through veterans of Jharkhand and the whole book was polished. Already established as a writer, she seemed not to follow the same rigour in her second work. As per my analysis, her foray into literature was just a ladder to climb in her career. Now, we know that she is most likely to go to the Rajya Sabha.”
Two Rajya Sabha seats from Jharkhand will be up for grabs in the June 10 election. While one seat is likely to go to the ruling alliance, the other will go to the BJP. The ruling alliance of the Congress, the JMM and the Rashtriya Janata Dal has 47 seats in the 81-member House.
— With inputs from Manoj CG in New Delhi