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|September 16, 1999||
Santhal Paraganas: tinged with a saffron hue
Sanjay Kumar Jha
The turf in the rain-washed Vindhya hills of Santhal Parganas may prove treacherous for Union Minister of State for Forests Babulal Marandi.
Marandi -- who defeated Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren, once reverentially called Guruji in this area, by a narrow margin during the last election -- is pitted this time against his wife Rupi Soren and Congress nominee Ramesh Hembrom. Dumka (Scheduled Tribe) has elected Shibu Soren thrice to the Lok Sabha.
Marandi earned a place in the Union ministry by virtue of defeating Soren, a messiah-like figure who carved a place in the hearts of the people of this region by his dedicated struggle against the age-old evils of money lending and bootlegging.
''Shibu Soren's popularity declined following attempts to entrench his family in the party and the JMM's compromise with the powers-that-be,'' says Marandi. Soren, now a Rajya Sabha member, faced opposition from within the party over the nomination of his wife.
Confident of victory following Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the constituency, Marandi says ''our position will be better than in 1998.''
But observers say it is not going to be that easy for Marandi when Dumka goes to the polls on Saturday.
Shibu Soren, embroiled in controversies like the JMM bribery scandal and the Shasinath Jha murder case, has taken charge of the campaigning himself along with son Durga Soren, a member of the Bihar assembly.
Rupi Soren would not have been a factor in the politics of the Santhal Parganas, but for her husband's popularity in the area.
During the 1998 election Babulal Marandi scraped through by a narrow margin of 13,000 votes. In the JMM-S's heyday in 1991 he had lost the election by 143,000 votes.
Marandi's main pitch remains, as in the last election, the creation of a separate Vananchal state. ''We had tabled a Bill for the creation of Vananchal but the government fell. We will carve a separate state on a priority basis,'' he tells his audience.
The Union minister also claims the credit for laying the foundation of the railway line connecting Dumka to Deoghar along the Howrah- Delhi route. Dumka, as yet, is inaccessible by rail.
The JMM-S is also depending on the plank of statehood along with certain local issues. ''We are committed to the creation of Jharkhand state,'' reiterates Shibu Soren.
At his meetings Soren recalls the contribution his wife made during the days of his fight against moneylenders and the brewing of illicit liquor and asks them to vote for her.
Congress nominee Ramesh Hembrom is also sailing strong in Dumka which the party dominated till the seventies.
However, the last minute cancellation of Sonia Gandhi's visit to Dumka has dampened the spirit of the Congress workers.
The Congress is backed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Hembrom has the potential to cut into a sizeable chunk of votes.
The BJP made a historical entry into this tribal region in the last election by winning all its three seats -- Babulal Marandi defeated Shibu Soren, Jagdambi Yadav defeated JMM vice-president Suraj Mandal in Godda and Seth Hembrom vanquished JMM spokesman Simon Marandi -- and it is unlikely to relinquish the advantage that soon.
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