The man seen as a reluctant politician, and the youngest chief minister of Jharkhand when he took oath in 2013, has helped turn the tide on the BJP and Raghubar Das, the first chief minister to complete a full five-year term in the state’s nearly two-decade existence. And Hemant Soren appears to have done it on his own terms, refusing to take the bait and take on national issues the BJP leadership brought up in the campaign phase.
So while BJP president Amit Shah referred, at a rally, to the work on a grand, “sky-high” Ram temple that is to begin in four months, and Prime Minister, towards the fag end of the five-phase polling brought up the citizenship law, calling it a “thousand per cent correct”, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief stuck to the tried and tested jal, jungle and zameen (water, forests, land) issues.
At one of many small public meetings (called sabha), Soren countered the BJP’s Ram temple narrative, saying, “Merey liye har bhookha Ram hai, uska pet mandir hai, aur us bhookhey ko khilana hi mere liye Ram Mandir banana jaisa hoga (for me, each hungry person is Ram, her/his empty stomach a temple, and to feed him will be akin to making a Ram temple for me).”
“The BJP,” Soren had told The Indian Express towards the end of the elections, “is talking about Ram temple, Citizenship Amendment Act and Article 370. What have these got to do with Jharkhand? There are a lot of issues, unemployment being the core problem.”
Soren, it seems, learnt his lessons after burning his fingers in this summer’s General Election, when he, even though appearing reluctant, countered BJP on the national narrative, and attempted to take on Modi. The party failed to cut across caste and gender lines, and lost even its tribal stronghold of Dumka.
A few months on, he aggressively campaigned on local issues to counter the national narrative set by the BJP in the state elections. The results appear to prove him right: the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance won 47 seats in the 81-member House.
Soren made his electoral debut in 2005, contesting unsuccessfully against party rebel Stephen Marandi. An engineering student who dropped out before finishing his degree, he took the centrestage after his brother Durga Soren’s death in 2009 — Durga was seen as the heir of JMM chief, and their father, Shibu Soren.
He became a member of Rajya Sabha the same year, and in 2013 the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, at the age of 38. In 2014, when the BJP formed the government, making Raghubar Das Jharkhand’s first non-tribal chief minister, Soren became the Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly.
JMM insiders say Soren maintained a firm hold over the party despite a debacle in this year’s Lok Sabha elections, and his efforts to connect with the people “gave us dividend”.
Led by Soren, JMM started work for the Assembly elections — dubbed “Sangharsh Yatra” — in September 2018, which sought to achieve two things. First, although many people knew Soren’s name, party workers said people could not identify him in many areas. Second, to connect with the people as a dominant tribal leader in the state.
“Soren toured across 81 constituencies, connected with the youths, met people riding motorbikes. He tried not to come across as a major leader, which helped him understand the problems,” another party leader said.
One of the biggest problems that emerged from these yatras was the issue of unemployment, and Yuva Sangharsh Yatra was conducted in each district to address this.
Another crucial decision for the JMM was to lend support to anganwadi workers and para teachers (appointed on annual contract), who had protested for an increase in honorarium and pension, and for regularisation of their jobs, respectively.
As anti-incumbency against the BJP government increased, party leaders said, Soren conducted a state-wide “Jan Samvad Yatra”, meant to give solutions to the problems that had emerged during the Sangharsh Yatra. “He conducted sabhas in various constituencies this year and gave solutions to problems such as free education to each girl child until she gets a job. Instead of one-room houses under the Prime Minister Awaas Yojna, Soren promised to give three-room houses. People returned home from these sabhas talking about the solutions,” a party leader said.
The JMM’s poll manifesto, released subsequently, also promised Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 as unemployment benefit to graduates and post-graduates, respectively, and 67 per cent reservation to STs, OBCs and SCs in government jobs. A key promise in the manifesto is the introduction of Bhoomi Adhikar Kanoon, or the right to land law, which aims to give land to the landless. If the JMM formed a government, the manifesto stated, it would not acquire agricultural land for private companies, among others.
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