Congress says all is well but wary of MLAs’ next move

The arrest of three Jharkhand Congress MLAs with a huge amount of cash in Howrah — just over a week after nine of its MLAs were suspected to have cross-voted in the presidential elections — signals that a threat to the stability of the Hemant Soren government is looming large.

In fact, ever since the split of the Shiv Sena and the fall of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, there has been talk of an impending political crisis in Jharkhand.

Though the Congress is putting up a brave face saying there is no threat to the stability of the JMM-Congress-RJD coalition government, the fact is that the party is not sure of the next move of many of its MLAs, including some state ministers.

What has surprised many in the party is that AICC in-charge Avinash Pande was in Ranchi for three days from Thursday. He met all the MLAs individually, including Irfan Ansari, Rajesh Kachhap and Naman Bixal — the three MLAs who are now under arrest and who stand suspended from the party after being caught allegedly with around Rs 50 lakh in cash — and also took a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party. He had heard the “concerns” of the MLAs and asked them to stay united. But just as he landed in Delhi from Ranchi on Saturday, he was greeted by news of the detention of the three MLAs in Howrah.

Sources in the Congress said the three were among the nine suspected to have voted in favour of President Droupadi Murmu. Pande had in Ranchi talked of identifying those who had cross-voted and vowed to take action against them. While the party today announced the suspension of the three MLAs, it is unsure how the situation will pan out. At least half a dozen more of its MLAs, sources said, are on the suspect list.

The Congress high command was aware of the simmering tension in Jharkhand, where JMM leader and Chief Minister Hemant Soren is facing an office of profit case. The Election Commission is hearing a petition seeking Soren’s disqualification for alleged misuse of his office for allocating a stone quarrying lease on government land to himself while he was the minister in charge of mines in 2021. Soren is also under pressure over the recent arrest by the Enforcement Directorate of his aide Pankaj Mishra in connection with the mining case.

Amid rising mistrust between the coalition partners, there was talk in the Congress that several of its MLAs were in touch with the BJP. Congress leaders, on the other hand, had been claiming that all was well in the party and speculating that it could be Soren who could switch sides and join hands with the BJP. The JMM’s unilateral announcement of their candidate for the Rajya Sabha elections and decision to support Murmu were seen by the Congress as ominous signals.

However, several Congress leaders had been warning the leadership that a section of its MLAs (at least eight, according to one leader) are in touch with the BJP and if the number goes up to 12, then the breakaway faction would reach the two-thirds mark to escape provisions of the anti-defection law.

Pande told The Indian Express that he was in Ranchi in May and June for the presidential elections and later, from Thursday to Saturday.

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“We had a CLP meeting. We had individual meetings. We had sorted out the grievances some of our leaders had with the Chief Minister. I was there in a joint meeting of the two parties. We had dinner also… The very purpose of going there and holding meetings with the leaders and MLAs is not just for a general chit chat. The purpose is to identify and sort out issues and problems,” he said.

Pande said he was preparing a report on the cross-voting episode and would submit it to the Congress president soon. “These three MLAs were there (among those who cross-voted). That much I can confirm. About the others…that will not go unnoticed,” he said. While he tried to delink cross-voting with the arrest of the MLAs, many leaders believe it was all part of a larger plan being hatched by the BJP to change the equations in Jharkhand.

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