As everywhere else, local factors play an important role in Jharkhand state politics. The geographical and sociological aspects of the 2019 state election outcome throw up some interesting data.
First, as it has been noted by many observers, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and Congress-led alliance has swept the tribal belts in the South Chhotanagpur and Kolhan divisions, and the reserved segments of the Santhal Pargana division. Santhal-dominated districts in the east are a JMM stronghold, but the alliance made significant inroads in districts previously dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), notably the Oraon belt around Lohardaga and Sisai and in the Munda-dominated area of South Chhotanagpur.
In total, the alliance has bagged 25 of the 28 reserved scheduled tribe (ST) seats, against two for the BJP and the lone ST seat won by a Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) , or JVM (P), candidate in Mandar. The JMM has won seven seats in the Santhal Pargana division, eight in the Kolhan division and four in the South Chhotanagpur division, where the Congress won four of its six ST seats.
In 2014, the BJP had won a majority of seats in the South Chhotanagpur division, dominated by the Oraons and Mundas. In 2019, it has been reduced to five seats. In the Kolhan division, it lost the five seats it had won five years earlier, drawing a blank in that sub-region. This indicates clearly that the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance), and the JMM in particular, has succeeded in federating tribal voters across various tribal identities.
Second, in general seat areas, the BJP has maintained its hold on the Palamu division, winning five seats out of nine, against four in 2014. It has done so mostly with other backward class (OBC) candidates from various small groups. It has, however, lost ground in the North Chhotanagpur division, losing two seats out of the 13 it held since 2014.
The Congress won 10 general category seats and six ST seats, mostly in central Jharkhand (North and South Chhotanagpur). It also performed well in the general category seats of the Santhal Pargana division, which voted in the last phase, at the same time as protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, were spreading across the country. After leading in four seats for a while, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the third partner in the Mahagathbandhan, won only one seat in Chatra, bordering Bihar.
What the geography of these results suggest is that the territorial division between the two main partners of the opposition alliance — urban and peri-urban seats and mostly general category seats for the Congress, and the reserved seats in the tribal belts for the JMM — has paid off. Each member of the coalition contested in areas in which they could maximize their chance of winning.
A stable social electoral map
Another piece of the puzzle comes from the sociological composition of the state assembly. I look here at the composition of the assembly since 2005 and the distribution of caste and tribal communities among the main parties’ candidates. Representational patterns in Jharkhand have been quite stable over time. Several groups exert some form of local or sub-regional dominance but no group in particular dominates the politics of the state overall. Table 1 provides the distribution of seats across castes and tribes over the last four elections, which shows that the representation of most major groups has been somewhat stable over the past four elections.
One particularity of Jharkhand politics is that barring the JMM and its pro-Santhal inclination, there are no particular alignments between castes, tribes and political parties. Instead, parties choose candidates from across a wide spectrum of groups, in accordance with local demographics and calculations. Thus, the 79 BJP candidates belong to 28 different groups, the most prominent being Brahmins (six), Hos (five), Mundas (six) and Santhals (eight). The JMM distributed only ten of its 43 tickets to Santhal candidates and six tickets to Kurmi candidates, aligning itself to the local political geography. Its candidates belong to 18 different groups. The same picture holds for the Congress, whose 31 candidates belong to 17 different groups. The only exception is the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU) Party, which among OBC candidates fielded mostly Kurmis (13 out of 15); only three of them won. The BJP distributed tickets to a vast array of groups, 24 among the OBCs (mostly non-dominant OBCs) and 16 among upper castes. This is an unusual pattern for the BJP, which usually skews representation of particular groups, notably Rajputs, in other Hindi belt states.
Among winners, the 25 BJP MLAs belong to 18 different groups, the 30 JMM MLAs belong to 12 groups and the 16 Congress MLAs belong to 13 different groups. It is unusual in Indian state politics to see so much distribution of representation of castes and communities and this is reflective of the strength of local caste or tribal networks.
Consequently, while the political map may vary from one election to another, the social map, measured by the caste identity or tribal affiliations of MLAs, is quite stable. Fifty seats out of 81 have changed hands of individual MLAs between 2014 and 2019 and 45 seats have seen a different party winning compared to the previous election. At the same time, only 27 seats got an MLA belonging to a different group.
Between 2005 and 2019, 29 seats have unfailingly returned an MLA from the same caste or community and 14 seats have returned an MLA from the same group in three elections out of four. This concerns mostly ST seats, but not only ST seats. Four seats — Barhi, Barkatha, Kodarma and Poreyahat – have elected Yadav MLAs in every election since 2005.
Why does this matter? Essentially for two reasons. One, this data reveals the importance of local factors in this state election, which begins to provide an explanation as to why local factors trump campaigns based on national themes. There are social and political trends that are simply beyond the control of the major political players and that act as constraints on their electoral strategies. And two, the geography of the results confirm that the BJP has indeed faced a backlash among tribal communities, most affected by the current hardship inflicted by an ailing economy. The pro-OBC stance of the BJP, which nominated a non-tribal as chief minister for the first time in 2014, has backfired. The policies it introduced to ease access to land for non-tribal citizens in tribal areas have probably intensified anti-incumbency sentiment in key reserved constituencies. This is significant since the rise of the BJP in central India has been based on the growth of its support among tribal communities.