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india today insightAppointing Babulal Marandi as their new chief for Jharkhand less than a year before the Lok Sabha polls literally seems to be the BJP’s last throw of the dice in the state. Marandi’s brief is clear: arrest the slide in the BJP’s tribal vote. Marandi taking over from Deepak Prakash, a non-tribal, reaffirms the BJP’s strategy to reclaim lost tribal support in Jharkhand, where Scheduled Tribes (STs) account for 27 per cent of the population.

In Jharkhand, 28 of the 81 assembly seats and five of 14 Lok Sabha constituencies are reserved for STs. The BJP has largely been a close second to chief minister Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in terms of drawing tribal support. The party lost the assembly polls in November 2019 despite winning 12 (BJP 11, ally AJSU Party 1) of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in May. It all pointed to tribal disenchantment with the party.

When the BJP fought the 2014 assembly election under chief minister Arjun Munda, a tribal politician, it had won 11 of the 28 ST seats as against the JMM’s 12. Five years later, under non-tribal chief minister Raghubar Das, the BJP could win only two ST seats whereas the JMM-Congress swept 25 seats. Marandi’s challenge will be to reverse the trend.

Marandi was picked by the BJP as Jharkhand’s first chief minister when the state was formed in November 2000. He had to step down in March 2003 as coalition partners revolted against his ‘no-nonsense’ approach. Marandi quit the BJP in 2006 to launch his outfit, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha. The BJP re-inducted him in January 2020 after its shock defeat in the 2019 assembly election.

Jharkhand is significant for the BJP. While the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) bagged 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, not much seems to have gone the BJP way thereafter. In the 2019 assembly election, the Soren-led JMM-Congress-RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) alliance dislodged the BJP from power. Since then, the ruling alliance has won four of the five assembly bypolls (including in two ST seats). Soren’s popularity too has largely remained intact notwithstanding corruption allegations and legal challenges.

Despite the BJP’s downslide, Jharkhand has largely been a saffron citadel. Of the 11 governments so far, the party has headed five and cumulatively ruled for over 13 years.

The optics of the BJP decision to fall back on Marandi, though predictable, was carefully crafted. The party already has three former CMs in active politics—Munda, Das and Marandi. But Marandi was selected as state chief for multiple reasons. He is known for his clean image and oratory. Like Soren, Marandi also comes from the Santhal community and would be expected to wean away their support from the JMM.

For the BJP and AJSU Party, retaining the 12 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand in 2024 will be a challenge. By putting Marandi in the lead, the BJP is hoping to woo the tribal population back into the saffron fold. But that is easier said than done. With his nose to the grindstone, detractors to silence, and egos to handle, Marandi has a mountain to climb.

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