In 2010, when Jharkhand held panchayat elections for the first time, Jiten Gudiya managed to get his wife elected as a mukhiya.
This time, the third-highest-ranking leader of one of the state’s largest left-wing extremist groups has got his second wife elected to the Khunti district council, unopposed, ahead of polling on November 28.
Unlike Rita Gudiya becoming Tapkara panchayat president, however, Jonika Gudiya’s election to the zila parishad from Torpa East this time is more an exception than the rule. While the 2010 election had a number of candidates endorsed by Jiten’s People’s Liberation Front of India, Jonika is the only candidate in Khunti with an explicit PLFI connection this time.
The change in PLFI tactics is a reflection of the fall in its clout over the past year. “From eight targets last year, we are now left with three PLFI targets,” said Anish Gupta, Khunti’s SP.
Jiten, the adivasi face of the PLFI, is the third of those three targets. The other two are PLFI chief Dinesh Gope and Rajesh Gope, both Yadavs. All three operate outside Khunti these days: Dinesh and Rajesh are presumed to be near the Odisha border and Jiten is in West Singhbhum. “He’s in Porahat, like a butterfly in the forest (665 sq km). Difficult to catch,” a police officer said.
The PLFI’s influence seems to have come down in its former “core” area in Khunti, but it has taken advantage of the arrest of Maoist Zonal Commander Prasad Ahir to grab Porahat, an unthinkable feat two years back.
Jonika, 22, hails from Kolomda, in Murhu block close to Porahat, and moved to Jiten’s house in Tapkara panchayat’s Karenjtoli only over a year back. Rita was reportedly not happy being replaced.
“One night, the mukhiya called the block pramukh and asked him to rush to her house urgently. He asked me to go along. When we got there, we saw Jiten’s wives arguing,” said an individual contesting panchayat polls from a PLFI stronghold. “Jiten arrived soon. He was angry and asked us to go away.”
Mangal Topno, an ex-serviceman and Jiten’s cousin, said Rita opted not to contest this time. “She found it difficult to follow meetings. She was not able to do the things that we wanted,” he said, not elaborating on “we”. Topno said Rita now lives in Khunti town with two children; Jonika has a year-old son. “I wanted Jiten’s younger brother’s wife to be mukhiya, but she’s just 20 years old now,” he said.
Jonika, who has passed class X, said no to an interview; all she would say about her unopposed victory was, “I wanted to serve people and this is a good opportunity.” Behind her stood a mud-house. A section of it had collapsed last year while police executed a court order to seize Jiten’s property. Topno says people will support Roshini Gudiya for the panchayat samiti position as she is the “only Munda among the eight candidates”.
SP Gupta said the absence of PLFI support to more candidates indicated a definitive decline in clout. “Unlike the (LWE organisation) TPC, they never had support from any particular caste groups,” he said. People remain more reserved. “I think their strategy is to avoid campaign expenses and influence whoever wins with threats of violence,” said a former PLFI member who is now sympathetic to Maoists. The PLFI has also been set back by a murder case against legislator Anosh Ekka, whom the police say is behind Dinesh Gope.
By most accounts, police operations have turned PLFI into a gang-like structure. “Their levy collection has not been hit. They still threaten people. They can do all this without firing a bullet; they are part of society now,” said a panchayat candidate.
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