Updated: May 31, 2022 12:42:46 pm
AROUND 1971, the founders of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, among them Shibu Soren, launched a revolt against illegal mining in the coal belt of what was then a part of Bihar. More than 50 years later, a mining lease has come to haunt Soren’s son and two-time Chief Minister Hemant Soren.
As the Election Commission looks at charges of office of profit in the lease being granted to the CM, who heads both the mining and environment departments, Hemant is staring at the possibility of disqualification.
When he first became CM in 2013, the state’s youngest at the age of 38, the engineering student from BIT Mesra and “reluctant politician” was seen as a break from the resource-rich state’s brief but tainted history of political scams and ill-gotten wealth. One of the biggest page-turners in this history was Shibu Soren’s own conviction on the charge of taking money to save the P V Narasimha Rao Congress government at the Centre.
Hemant appeared to have put this past behind him, especially after he led the JMM back to power in 2019 with a majority following a 2014 defeat.
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This was just 10 years after Hemant – who had fought and lost an election in 2005 – emerged as the heir to his father’s legacy following the death of his brother Durga.
JMM insiders talk of how Hemant had not let the 2014 defeat set him back, and went about establishing his hold on the party.
In the first flush of his second term as CM, he came to be known for quick decision-making, accessible to complaints or suggestions via Twitter; handling the Covid crisis well, keeping deaths to less than 5,500; the Sarkar Aapke Dwaar programme, bringing the government to the doorsteps of the people; and a migrant control room to handle the problems of unorganised labourers, including most recently from Sri Lanka.
However, a source admits, “slowly the perception has tilted from governance to misgovernance”. “Be it rising corruption at the ground level or in the MNREGS, which Hemant himself called the backbone of the rural economy… Even governance on social media has slowed down,” the source says. According to the source, “sycophants” who surround Soren are to blame for this. “They have limited his worldview and the mining lease is a good example.”
During a hearing on April 8 of a petition filed against Soren on this issue, Advocate General Rajiv Ranjan said that the state had committed “a mistake” in granting the lease. The Advocate General said in court that it was “violation of Code of Conduct” but that there was no statutory or constitutional violation “even” if Hemant was engaged in a certain business at the time of holding the office of the Minister of Mines. The AG added that the CM “has disassociated himself from it subsequently, surrendering the lease”.
Sources close to the government admit that the whole incident has portrayed the government in a “very bad light”. Says a source close to him: “The CM holds the mining portfolio and the state is saying sorry for the mining department which gave the mining lease to the CM. This is preposterous even if he surrendered. Why was it issued in the first place?”
One of Hemant’s closest aides who appears to be on the firing line now is his press advisor Abhishek Prasad who is with him 24 hours.
The mining cloud hangs over not just Hemant. Brother Basant Soren, the MLA from Dumka, has also got an EC notice as he is the director of a company that also owns a few mining leases.
Last week, IAS officer and Mining Secretary Pooja Singhal, being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate for her alleged role in a money laundering case, saw raids during more than Rs 19 crore was recovered.
Meanwhile, a third Soren, Durga’s wife Sita, has also muddied waters for Hemant. The MLA from Jama, Hemant’s sister-in-law has alleged “corruption” and “misgovernance” in his government. On April 1, Sita sent a letter to the Governor saying a company was using forest land illegally for coal transport, and accused the ruling JMM of betraying its founding principles of protecting ‘Jal, Jungle, Zameen’.
Another source wishes some good will come out of the mounting problems. “Dissent is a good thing and we hope it ends in change in how the party functions. Because as of now there is no one to advise the government properly.”
Should both the Soren brothers be disqualified, in a worst-case scenario, the political centre stage will shift to Santhal Pargana, a leader says. Santhal Pargana is the family fortress, with Shibu Soren starting his political trajectory from there. Winning back their seats, Dumka and Barhait, would be crucial for Hemant and Basant to claw back and prove a political point.
The party is counting on the opinion of legal experts that, even if disqualified, Hemant can remain CM for at least six months and that they will have the right to appeal.
Expert S K Mendiratta, who served with the Election Commission for 50 years, said that Section 9A of the Representation of People’ Act, which deals with the disqualification (of MP, MLAs) for government contracts, states that there are two scenarios where a person can be disqualified. “First that a person in the course of his business mass supplies his goods to the government. Second, contracts are taken for the execution of works. But the Supreme Court in the past has said that not all contracts attract disqualification. In the present case, as per my knowledge, there is no supply of goods. Second, with respect to the mining lease, the Supreme Court’s past judgment interpretation states that the word ‘works’ has a significance… works mean the government does it through the PWD such as buildings, roads, bridges among others. This comes under the definition of works…As far as I understand, as per SC interpretation, the mining lease issue does not attract section 9A.”
With his family facing another political crisis, Shibu Soren, 78, the ‘Guruji’ of Jharkhand politics now largely stays in the background. As per a family member, “He is ailing, and we don’t trouble him with these things.”
It was in 1960, when he was just 16, that Shibu Soren had been first thrust into the limelight, after the murder of his father, allegedly by moneylenders. Soren had rallied a campaign against the moneylenders of the Santhal Paragana area and got thousands of acres of tribal land freed, his standing as a leader firmly established.
In an interview in 1980 for a book by Shailendra Mahato, a two-time MP from Jamshedpur, Soren had talked about how though his father was an “active Congress leader”, none of them had come to see his body.
The JMM bribery case had been the first taint on Soren’s image. In 2006, he was also found guilty in the kidnapping and murder of his former personal secretary Shashinath Jha, though he was acquitted a year later. In 2009, he became the CM for the third and last time.
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