Ever since the split of Shiv Sena and the fall of the Maha Vikas Agadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, there has been talk of an impending political crisis in Jharkhand. The arrest of three Congress MLAs with a huge amount of cash in Kolkata, just over a week after nine of its MLAs were suspected to have cross-voted in the presidential elections, signals that a threat to the stability of the Hemant Soren government is looming large.
Jharkhand is not new to political turmoil and instability. In fact, the state had seen nine governments in the first 14 years since the state’s birth. Although the Congress is putting up a brave face saying there is no threat to the Soren government’s stability, the fact is that it is not sure of the next move of many of its MLAs, including some state ministers. The party believes plans are afoot to upstage the Soren government.
What has surprised the party is that AICC-in-charge Avinash Pande was in Ranchi for three days from Thursday. He met all the MLAs individually, including Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachhap and Naman Bixal — the three MLAs who are now under arrest and who stand suspended from the party after being caught allegedly with a huge amount of cash — and also took a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party. He had heard the “concerns” of the MLAs and asked them to stay united. But just as he landed in Delhi from Ranchi on Saturday, he was greeted by news of the detention of the three MLAs in Howrah.
Sources in the Congress said the three were among the nine suspected to have voted in favour of President Droupadi Murmu. Pande had in Ranchi talked of identifying those who had cross-voted and vowed to take action against them. While the party today announced the suspension of the three MLAs, it is unsure of how the situation will pan out. At least half a dozen more of its MLAs, sources said, are on the suspect list.
The Congress high command was aware of the simmering tension in Jharkhand. On one hand, Chief Minister Hemant Soren was facing an office of profit case. The Election Commission is looking into a petition seeking his disqualification for alleged misuse of his office for allocating a stone quarrying lease on government land to himself while he was the minister in-charge of mines in 2021.
Soren is also under pressure over the recent arrest of his aide Pankaj Mishra by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the mining case. And in the Congress, there was talk that several MLAs of the Congress were in touch with the BJP. Congress leaders, on the other hand, had been claiming that all was well in the party and speculating that it could be Soren who could switch sides and join hands with the BJP.
The JMM’s unilateral announcement of their candidate for the Rajya Sabha elections and decision to support Murmu were seen by the Congress as ominous signals. Several Congress leaders, on the other hand, had been warning the leadership that a section of its MLAs (at least eight, according to one leader) are in touch with the BJP and if the number goes up to 12, then the breakaway faction would reach the two-third mark to escape provisions of the anti-defection law.
Pande told The Indian Express that he was in Ranchi in May and June and during the presidential elections and later, from Thursday to Saturday.
“We had a CLP meeting. We had individual meetings. We had sorted out the grievances some of our leaders had with the Chief Minister. I was there in a joint meeting of the two parties. We had dinner also… The very purpose of going there and holding meetings with the leaders and MLAs is not just for a general chit chat. The purpose is to identify and sort out issues and problems,” he said.
Pande said he is preparing a report on the cross-voting episode and will submit it to the Congress president soon. “These three MLAs were there. That much I can confirm. About the others…that will not go unnoticed,” he said. While he tried to delink cross-voting with the arrest of the MLAs, many leaders believe it was all part of a larger plan being hatched by the BJP to change the equations in Jharkhand.
Putting up a brave face, Pande said “there is no threat to the government. The government is safe and stable… Leave aside some black sheep like these… the government is safe.” He said efforts had been on for the last two years to destabilise and weaken the government to dislodge it from power.
“Attempts were continuously made to contact the MLAs, intimidate or lure them. Some months ago, an FIR was lodged against some BJP leaders for contacting some MLAs,” he said.
“Efforts are being made to contact the MLAs… and I want to tell you people who are occupying high posts… the chief minister of a state has been directly contacting the MLAs, central ministers are trying to intimidate and scare them… Those ministers and officials who are in charge of the law department… they are trying to scare the MLAs… taking the name of the Enforcement Directorate,” Pande alleged at an AICC press conference in New Delhi.
“Most of the MLAs are with the party, but those who are trying to weaken the legislature party… The party leadership has full information. The party will take action at the appropriate time,” he added.