Travelling from Ranchi, there is an area 6-7 km ahead of Silli town called Chordera — the place where thieves live, literally. However, on many buildings that have come up in the area since 2010 — a guest house and a multimedia theatre of the forest department, the area is called Ramdera — where Ram lives. In land records, the area continues to be Chordera, but if you are from Silli — and especially if you are a supporter of local MLA Sudesh Kumar Mahto — the area is now fit for the gods.
AJSU Party, of which Mahto (40) is president, is quite literally promising the biblical for Jharkhand. “I want our land to have an abundance of milk, honey, flowers and fruits,” begins the party’s manifesto, under the title ‘My Dream’. To prove that they walk the talk, AJSU Party points to Silli.
That the fight for Ranchi Lok Sabha constituency — which votes on April 17 — would be a messy affair was a foregone conclusion. While former Union Minister Subodh Kant Sahai is trying to complete a hat-trick of wins with the Congress, the BJP brought back old warhorse and four-time consecutive MP Ram Tahal Choudhary.
The influential president of the Jharkhand State Cricket Association and former ADG of Police Amitabh Choudhary, a bald man, is the candidate of Babulal Marandi’s JVM(P), whose electoral symbol, ironically, is the comb. Mandar MLA and former state minister Bandhu Tirkey, who merged his party with the TMC, is another candidate.
However, all of them had to rework their caste, tribal and religious vote bank calculations as soon as Sudesh Mahto entered the fray. “Everybody could forget getting votes from Silli — and maybe even Ichagarh — assembly constituencies for starters,” said a Congress leader.
The BJP seemed to be the worst-hit by Sudesh’s decision — Choudhary is a Kurmi, the same caste which forms Mahto’s base in Silli. The BJP was quick to point fingers at the Congress, alleging that Mahto was a dummy candidate. If he ever was one, Mahto gave sweaty palms even to the Congress as campaign ended on April 15, with little to choose between the BJP, Congress and AJSU Party.
Wearing shorts and sitting cross-legged on the floor of his camp office in Silli on the morning of the last day of campaigning, Mahto was preparing to address a rally elsewhere.
“We do work throughout the year. I am here all the time. I do not need to make last-minute runs through Silli,” he said. Silli is that rare place in Jharkhand where one would hear the words, “We do not lack anything,” even if it was spoken by a supporter. “Silli ko Dilli banaye,” says Pavitr Mitra, a supporter, and Mahto repeats it softly. “We want to offer Silli as a model to the people of Jharkhand and ask them to give us a chance to replicate it,” said Mahto, who constantly refers to Kerala as a reference point.
His political opponents say Mahto, who hails from Lagam village within the Silli police station limits, spares no effort to win elections; the splurge is probably one reason why youngsters are attracted to the party. However, such a simplistic version risks overlooking the trapeze acts that took a 25-year-old who went to the Bihar Assembly as a United Goans’ Democratic Party candidate in 2000 to being Deputy Chief Minister in December 2010.
Sudesh Mahto has been a minister in five of Jharkhand’s nine governments. He has been a part of every NDA government here and astutely sat in the Opposition during the Madhu Koda regime even as his party MLA Chandra Prakash Chaudhary was a minister. A deputy chief minister under Shibu Soren as well as Arjun Munda, he has handled almost every significant portfolio except Finance over the years. In between, he appropriated the All Jharkhand Students’ Union, a statehood movement in which he was a fringe player, by registering a political outfit that calls itself the AJSU (“aaj-su”) Party.
“We did not like Arjun Munda, but one of the most important reasons for bringing down this government is Sudesh. The AJSU is becoming too ambitious; keeping it away from power is akin to denying life support,” said a JMM leader in confidence as Hemant Soren worked behind the scenes to bring down the Arjun Munda government in late 2012.
There was cause for worry. When he was Road Construction minister, Mahto got Silli roads — 200 km of PWD and 600 km of village roads, he said. As minister for water resources, he brought check dams. As Forest minister, he got the luxurious guest house, an audio-video centre and a deer park approved. “When I asked for a portfolio like panchayati raj, fellow politicians were amused. I showed them what I could do with it,” said Mahto.
The story of how the Rural Development and Self Employment Training Institute (RUDSET) in Silli, which won the award for being the second-best RUDSET in the country in 2012-13, is illustrative of Mahto’s works. “He was the Deputy CM as well as the Rural Development minister when the institute was proposed. There was even land acquired for it in Ranchi. However, the minister lobbied hard for it to be moved to Silli by December 2011,” said Director Ramchandra.
Most of the legislator’s activities are monitored by an NGO named Gunj Pariwar that he started. “Under our Jeevan Mitra programme, 16 ambulances are stationed at a centre each within the constituency. Anybody can use a toll-free number to call for one. They only have to pay for fuel charges,” said Bharat Singh, Gunj’s coordinator. “Our next programme is an adult education mission to achieve complete literacy,” said Singh.
Apart from its Kurmi vote bank, the AJSU Party has cultivated the youth and women as a support base over the years. As sports minister, he got Silli an artificial turf stadium. Over the years, he has given the impression that he is one of M.S. Dhoni’s closest friends. Even as he was Home Minister, Mahto made a bid to be the state cricket association president, losing to Amitabh Choudhary — which makes their electoral fight even more interesting.
The Silli Sports Academy, of which Mahto is chief patron, trains children in archery, wushu and football. “Our residential facility currently houses 28 children. Minister saheb provides us with whatever we need, including kits. We have produced 250 medals, 12 national champions and two international players in the last four years,” said Prakash Ram, chief coach at the archery academy.
The massive presence of women in rallies organised by the AJSU Party rarely fails to make news. Mahto’s efforts mirror the Kudumbashree mission in Kerala, which empowered women politically, too. “We have formed over 900 self help groups, bringing together 11,000 women in Silli block alone. Personally, I am impressed by the way the AJSU is making an effort to promote women leaders. I have a chance to develop here,” said Shraddha Mahto, block coordinator of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Project.
Currently out of power and left to wither — AJSU supporters allege that the A-V centre is not being inaugurated because of hurdles placed before it by the current government — Mahto has found a new cause. His main poll plank is the special status for Jharkhand and blames the central government for the poor development in the state: Mahto deflects questions about how he has become a rebel despite being probably the individual who has remained in power the longest. Here begins another act on the trapeze.