As the suspense continued over whether Hemant Soren would be disqualified on the basis of the Election Commission of India’s recommendation to the Governor, the Jharkhand Chief Minister and legislators of the ruling coalition on Saturday boarded three buses and left for a day-trip to Khunti.
By evening, the MLAs returned to Ranchi, where a meeting of members of the JMM-Congress-RJD coalition went on till late Saturday night at the CM’s residence.
On Saturday, the MLAs shared photographs of themselves with CM Soren, enjoying boat rides in Khunti’s Latratu reservoir. The CM also shared selfies that he took in the bus with the MLAs.
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An MLA said, “Barring three MLAs who were arrested in Kolkata and are out on bail, most of the others were here. (Congress) MLA Pradeep Yadav could not come as he had a health issue. Two more MLAs did not come, one of whom, Mamta Devi, the legislator from Ramgarh, recently delivered a child. So out of 49, at least 43 MLAs came to Khunti.”
On August 25, holding Soren guilty of misusing his position by allotting a stone mining lease to himself last year, the EC, in its opinion shared with Governor Ramesh Bais, recommended his disqualification as MLA under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. However, the Governor is yet to officially communicate his order on the issue.
Since Thursday’s recommendation by the EC, there has been intense speculation that the ruling coalition’s 49 MLAs may be moved to Chhattisgarh or West Bengal, states ruled by non-BJP parties, in an attempt to check any ‘poaching’ attempt by the Opposition BJP.
Sources said the day-trip to Khunti was an exercise in “bonding” and a signal to the BJP that the coalition is intact.
An MLA, who was part of the trip, said, “We assembled in the bus and left for Khunti. We kept our luggage in a resort in the Latratu Dam area and spent the day outside. Unlike the tense situation that was building up in the city, we are here just to relax.”
In the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly, the JMM has 30 MLAs while ally Congress has 18 members and the RJD has one. The BJP, the main Opposition party, has 26 MLAs in the House.
Sources close to the government said that the late-evening meeting of coalition members discussed all eventualities, including the possibility of Soren being disqualified. In such a situation, they said, the leaders discussed if Soren should remain the Chief Minister and fight a by-poll from Barhait, the constituency from where he won the 2019 election. In any case, the leaders agreed, that any adverse decision will have to be immediately challenged in court.
A top-level source said, “The leaders are looking at all permutations and combinations, including if Soren’s wife Kalpana Soren should be made the chief minister. But she may fight from a general seat, not a tribal one. The thinking behind this is that the people from Barhait may not accept Kalpana Soren as their leader since she is not from Jharkhand [Kalpana is from Odisha]. There was some discussion on Shibu Soren leading the mantle too. We will cross the bridge when we come to it.”
Sources said that letters of support for prospective CM candidates have been taken from all MLAs.
After the meeting, Health Minister Banna Gupta said, “As of now, we are focussing on strengthening the secular forces in the country. The way the country is being run now, the way elected governments and the constitutional bodies are being diminished… our coalition government is strong enough to fight this.” When asked if the MLAs will be taken to another state, he said, “We are sons of soil. We will be in Jharkhand.”
Congress Jharkhand in-charge Avinash Pandey told the media, “All party MLAs and leaders are here to discuss the matter. We are continuously deliberating on the matter.”
Since Friday, Chief Minister Soren has convened three marathon meetings to decide the future course of action.
“The strategy is to wait for the Governor to release the EC’s order. We are prepared to deal with it. However, we still have to keep an eye on all the MLAs and we wanted the situation to calm down. We had a nice lunch and did a boat ride,” said a JMM MLA, speaking of the Khunti trip.
The EC had issued a notice to Soren in May this year, seeking his response to the complaint that the Chief Minister had, prima facie, violated Section 9A of the Representation of People’s Act, which prohibits elected representatives from entering into any contract with the government for “supply of goods” or “execution of any works undertaken” by it.
Earlier in the day, BJP Legislative Party leader Babulal Marandi took to social media to say, “Till yesterday the one who was talking about being fearless has packed all his belongings and moved out of Ranchi. They have started fearing the palace of lies that they have built for themselves.”