Polling personnel were being airlifted to remote locations Friday as Jharkhand braced for the first of the five-phase Assembly elections starting Saturday. Coming as it does after the loss of the big state of Maharashtra, this is going to be a test for the ruling BJP whose Chief Minister Raghubar Das faces anti-incumbency, rural distress, resentment over lack of jobs, even a divide within over the choice of poll candidates.
The party, as in other states, is counting on the image of the Prime Minister, the state’s “double-engine growth” claim, its “stable government” electoral plank, rapid construction of roads in the interiors, and the crackdown on Naxals to help it retain power.
In the first phase, a total of 37,83,055 voters, including 18,01,356 women, will decide the fate of 189 candidates in 13 constituencies spread over six districts.
Nineteen of Jharkhand’s 24 districts are affected by Left Wing Extremism — one reason why the election process has been staggered across five phases. In their election speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have highlighted the need to stamp out Naxalism in the state.
The security crackdown and road construction pace are high on the BJP’s campaign list of achievements. According to the government, the length of National Highways was 2,402 km in 2014 and that increased to 7,791 km in 2018. In the last four-and-half years, 5,575 km of road-widening and strengthening works were undertaken. And this finds resonance in the BJP support base in the areas of Manika, Latehar, Daltonganj, Garhwa, Panki, Chatra, Bishrampur, Chattarpur and Bishunpur.
“Pehle raat ko dukaan khol ke nahi rakh sakte thhe. Shaam hote hi ghar ke andar. Ab shanti hai. BJP ke aane se control hua hai. Is sarkar mein road bana hai… suvidha badh gaya hai… Hum Raghubar Das ko nahi, acche kaam ko vote de rahe hain (Earlier, shops couldn’t remain open at night. By evening, people would be indoors. Now there is peace. The situation has remained under control ever since the BJP came to power. Roads have been built, facilities have increased. We are voting for good work, not Raghubar Das),” one of the BJP supporters said.
But shifting loyalties have not gone down well with the voters. In Lohardaga, Sukhdev Bhagat crossed over to the BJP from the Congress, leaving supporters dissatisfied. “Bhagat sought votes against the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Now, he is with the BJP. We are confused,” said Meena Devi who runs a shop.
In Daltonganj, the party is counting on the Prime Minister. The BJP candidate is Alok Chaurasia while his rival M N Tripathi of the Congress is the talk of town. “Koi kisi ka chehra aur party nahi dekh raha hai, sirf Modi ko dekh raha hai (Nobody is looking at the candidate or party, only Modi),” said a priest at a local temple. But Paras, a cleaner, is all praise for the Congress candidate because she has got a sewing machine. “He has worked for the people, his support base has increased,” she said.
In the rural areas of Manika, Latehar, Gumla, Garhwa, Daltonganj, there is anti-incumbency in the air. People are complaining about lack of water for irrigation, and jobs. In Garhwa, farmer Vikas Ganjhu said: “There is no water for irrigation, we have so much land, but the produce is minimal. Roads have been constructed, but that will not feed us. Where are the jobs?”.