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THE FIRST EXPANSION of the Union Cabinet by a Prime Minister is usually attended by high expectation. Yet the only Minister Manmohan Singh inducted into the Cabinet late last month was the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader, Shibu Soren. The tribal leader, who quit the Cabinet after the law caught up with him in a 1975 massacre case, is also an accused in the murder of his personal secretary, Shashinath Jha. That Mr. Soren's return was prompted by considerations weightier than the conditional bail obtained by him in the first case (the explanation advanced by the Prime Minister) is evident enough. The clue to Mr. Soren's rehabilitation is to be found in the contrasting performances of the two Jharkhand alliances that fought the 14th general election. The first, comprising the Congress, the JMM, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the two Communist parties, swept the polls, bagging 13 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. Ironically, the remaining seat, Kodarma, was won by the Bharatiya Janata Party's Babulal Marandi, whom the party summarily removed from the post of Chief Minister in March 2003. If the BJP alliance suffered a 12.5 percentage point decline in vote share as compared with the previous general election, the Congress alliance maximised its gains, polling as much as 46.6 per cent of the popular vote. If the Prime Minister took the trouble of expanding his Ministry only to accommodate Mr. Soren, the culprit lies in these statistics.

The scale of the Jharkhand victory is undoubtedly a tribute to the shrewd alliance the Congress put together before the election. However, it takes chemistry rather than arithmetic for alliances to work on the ground. This alliance succeeded because it also proved to be a formidable social coalition. Between them, the Congress, the JMM, and the RJD boasted the support of substantial sections of the Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. A post-poll survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and published in The Hindu showed that in Jharkhand 56 per cent of Adivasis voted for the Congress alliance as against 33 per cent for the BJP alliance. The significance of this in a largely tribal State like Jharkhand can hardly be overstated.

Clearly, it is a tough battle ahead for the BJP. Aside from the powerful combination of social forces arrayed against it, the party has to contend with infighting, a lack of compatibility with its key ally and a poor incumbency record. While these factors would weigh against the ruling party in any election, they assume a special significance in the case of the BJP in Jharkhand — a State carved out of Bihar with much hope and hype in November 2000. Indeed, Chief Minister Marandi had promised to run Jharkhand as a model State that would stand in shining contrast to Bihar. It was hardly a difficult challenge considering that Jharkhand, besides being highly industrialised, is naturally endowed with rich reserves of minerals (the region accounts for 90 per cent of India's coking coal deposits). However the Chief Minister, dogged by dissidence and controversy, quit midway. He was replaced by Arjun Munda, a political novice who appears only to have made a bigger mess of governance and coalitional relations. Barely had Mr. Munda recovered from the shock of Verdict 2004 when the Janata Dal(United) pulled out of his Government in angry reaction to the Chief Minister's decision to drop some of its Ministers as part of a downsizing exercise. Not surprisingly, the BJP leadership has decided against projecting a Chief Ministerial candidate in the coming election. Mr. Marandi, the party's lone Member of Parliament from Jharkhand, is certain to have the last laugh.

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