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How Congress shot itself in the foot

By Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi
Last updated on: March 01, 2005 12:12 IST
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Two days before campaigning ended in Jharkhand for the first phase of the assembly election, I stepped out of Ranchi airport along with a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader.

Many journalists were waiting for him and when they asked questions, he looked uncomfortable.

"Things are not right," he had told me on the aircraft.

Asked what he was going to tell the electorate, he said: "Let me first talk to the local leaders. I know there are problems but we will have to talk."

And problems there were.

  • Ranchi had been without power for three days.

  • Former external affairs minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha had been attacked
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    during an election campaign in Hazaribagh just a day earlier. BJP workers were alleged to have orchestrated the attack to defeat party candidate and three-time legislator Dev Dayal Kuswaha.

  • The fight between former chief minister Babu Lal Marandi and the incumbent, Arjun Munda, was the talk of the town.

    As I travelled through the state, it became clear there was an anti-incumbency wave. There was a general feeling that the BJP-led government had not done much.

    A large number of people did not like Munda, though Marandi had a better image.

    The Congress minister at the Centre, Subodh Kant Sahay, was confident. He went to a temple in Ranchi before going to vote.

    "I believe in spirituality," he said. "Lord Ram is the giver. This is real religion. Not the one advocated by BJP."

    He smiled when asked if he was going to be the next CM. "Let us see. Lord Ram is above all."

    The Congress, which was in alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, was upbeat.

    Party president Sonia Gandhi was the star after the 2004 general election; the coalition had won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

    The JMM had a strong hold over the Adivasis, who constitute 71 per cent of the population. For Muslims (16 per cent), the Congress was said to be the only option.

    But all this came to nought.

    The NDA won 36 seats, defeating the JMM even in its stronghold of Santhal Parganas. The JMM got just 17 seats while the Congress won a mere nine of the 41 seats it contested.

    Surprisingly, Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal -- considered a non-entity in the state by the Congress-JMM alliance -- won eight seats.

    One seat went to the Nationalist Congress Party, two to the Forward Bloc, two to the Communist Party of India and one to the CPI (Marxist-Leninist).

    The Congress handed victory to the NDA on a platter.

    The party was arrogant. Its leaders did not bother to consult the RJD before finalising a seat sharing arrangement. The presence of RJD candidates in the electoral fray ensured the Congress defeat in many constituencies by eating into the anti-BJP vote.

    Take Chatra, where there are a lot of Muslims. The so-called secular vote was divided between the Congress and the RJD, which stood second. The BJP won.

    In Ramgarh, the CPI's Nadra Begum lost to the All Jharkhand Students Union in Ramgarh, thanks to the Congress candidate who nibbled away votes that may have otherwise gone to the Communist nominee.

    Within the Congress-JMM alliance, all was not well too. The two had 'friendly fights' in four seats and the beneficiary was the BJP.

    The major blow came when JMM chief Shibu Soren refused to give a ticket to party leader and Rajya Sabha member Stephen Marandi.

    Soren gave the Dumka ticket to his son Hemant. Marandi rebelled, stood as an Independent, and defeated Hemant.Marandi also put up candidates against the JMM in many places.

    Marandi, who has a hold over Christian Adivasis, ensured a split in JMM votes. This was the main reason why Soren did badly in the Santhal Parganas.

    Insiders claim the Congress also encouraged JMM rebels.

    The United Progressive Alliance's economic policies were also responsible for the Congress' dismal showing.

    The rising price of cooking gas was a big concern. Traditional Congress voters complained about this. Kerosene, which people use to light lanterns in the absence of power, was sold at Rs 25 per litre. People got only four litres a week.

    It was costlier in the blackmarket.

    The Telegraph newspaper reported that while the price of kerosene was so high during the election campaign, local liquor could be had for Rs 6 per pouch.

    Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh

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    Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi