By sailing through the trust vote in the Jharkhand Assembly on September 5 smoothly, the JMM-led alliance might have conveyed a sense of unity in the alliance which includes the Congress as a key ally. However, the relations between the JMM and the Congress continue to be strained and fractious.
While the impending disqualification of Chief Minister and JMM leader Hemant Soren as an MLA for allegedly misusing his position to allot himself a stone mining lease last year has kept the ruling coalition on the edge, the arrest of three Jharkhand Congress MLAs with Rs 49 lakh cash in Howrah on July 30 has since widened the rifts between the two major allies.
The three MLAs – Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachchap, and Naman Bixel Kongari – who were first detained by the Bengal police, were arrested after the Jharkhand Police registered a zero FIR against them on charges of sedition and Prevention of Corruption Act, among others, on the complaint of Bermo Congress MLA Kumar Jaimangal, who accused them of “offering…Rs 10 crore” to “topple the present JMM and Congress government” allegedly at the behest of Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma rejected the charges.
The Congress leadership immediately suspended the three MLAs and wrote to Speaker Rabindra Nath Mahato to seek their disqualification from the membership of the House. However, the simmering tension between the JMM and the Congress has flared up after this episode, even though the three MLAs have been out on bail now.
In the 82-member Jharkhand Assembly, the ruling alliance has 49 MLAs — 30 from the JMM, 18 from the Congress and one from the RJD. Hemant Soren’s show of strength in the House saw 48 legislators voting in favour of the government, including one each from the CPI(ML)L and the NCP in the absence of the three Congress MLAs.
Observers say that with the trust vote Soren sought to send out a message that the ruling coalition did not have any “hesitancy” in standing behind him. He was also laying the ground for a possible future scenario, they say, that if any MLAs jumped ship it would be a “crisis created by the BJP” or a “few Congress MLAs”. Just a day before, about 31-32 JMM and Congress MLAs had returned from Raipur, where they were taken to ward off the BJP’s alleged poaching bids.
A section of the Jharkhand Congress leaders has been however upset with the JMM camp, charging that the latter could have handled the three legislators episode in a better way rather than “humiliating” the grand old party by making a “public spectacle” of its MLAs. Some Congress MLAs have even charged that the Soren dispensation might have even “put them under surveillance” in a bid to “tame” their party.
A Congress MLA, who wished to remain anonymous, alleged: “Hemant Soren is surveilling us as there is a lack of trust. It was evident that only Congress ministers were flown to Chattisgarh, while JMM ministers had stayed in Ranchi.” Referring to the detention and subsequent arrest of the three party colleagues in Howrah following a tip-off from the Jharkhand dispensation, the MLA said, “Even though the three MLAs were in Bengal, they could have been easily called back to Ranchi. The matter could have been decided internally rather than humiliating the other MLAs. This is policing, not politicking. The Congress is being weakened.”
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Jharkhand, Avinash Pandey, had earlier told The Indian Express that the three individual MLAs’ “greed” had led to their suspension by the party.
However, a senior state Congress leader pointed out that most of the party legislators were not in favour of the three MLAs’ disqualification and that they had even “pressured the Soren government not to act against them” while stating that they were also being “humiliated” following their arrest. “There is no immediate problem within the government per se, but there is resentment over how CM Soren handled it. The Congress party is at his whims now. We have said again and again that on the ground it is the JMM which is eating away our votes. This move has also dented the Congress’s image.”
Another Congress leader disputed the allegations of the three MLA’s links with the BJP, claiming that “the latter’s constituencies would not vote for the saffron party anyways”. “Ansari’s voters are from the Muslim community who would not vote for the BJP. Kongari’s home turf is Simdega, which has a substantial Christian tribal population. Their politics would come to an end if they switch to the BJP.”
Ansari, along with the other two MLAs, had written to the Speaker denying the defection allegations against them, claiming that they were victims of a “political conspiracy” and were being “framed by middlemen”.
Adopting a cautious stance amid the prevailing crisis gripping the alliance government, the Congress continues to be wary of Soren’s moves. “Since Jharkhand has a history of no single party having ever won a majority on its own steam, the JMM can look for other options, even the BJP. But Congress would never ally with the BJP. It seems that Soren is trying to weaken the Congress and tame its members. So, the party has to be careful,” a Congress insider said.
Significantly, the names of the three Congress MLAs had also surfaced earlier in a purported list of “unknown persons” who were allegedly plotting to topple the Soren government. Last year, Kongari had alleged that he was offered a crore for the same. The matter however died down.
A JMM MLA close to the party leadership said: “As far as I understand, the Congress MLAs were trying to fool the BJP or whoever had given them money. They had done the same last year. They were caught off their guard this time.”