A chopper ride between Barhet and Shikadipada in Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana region takes 20 minutes. That’s all the time former chief minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s (JMM) executive president Hemant Soren has to wrap up lunch. On the menu is sattu parantha, bitter gourd and coriander chutney. Soon, the 43-year-old leader will address members of the indigenous Santhal tribe in Rajmahal, Dumka and Godda parliamentary constituencies, scheduled to vote on May 19.
Five thousand feet above sea level, as Soren has his home-cooked meal, his secretary Abhishek Prasad reminds him that he has roughly eight minutes at every venue. “If we won’t do it on time, we will have to cover the distance by road,” he says.
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Soren’s Wednesday campaign schedule coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally at Deoghar, due to which, claims his team, their flight was delayed by three hours. “We have limited time on the chopper,” says Prasad, who is also a JMM spokesperson.
In the 2014 general election, the JMM won two of the three seats in the region — Hemant’s father Shibu Soren and Vijay Hansdak of the JMM won in Dumka and Rajmahal respectively; BJP’s Nishikant Dubey won from Godda. In its campaign this time, the BJP has been highlighting the development work done by the party and its Chief Minister Raghubar Das in the Santhal Pargana belt.
To counter that, Soren has been talking about the BJP’s attempt to tweak the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT) and the Santhal Paragna Tenancy Act (SPT), and the state government’s amendment of the Land Acquisition Act, terming it ‘anti-Adivasi’.
At the Taljhari Football Stadium in Sahebganj district, with the harsh May sun beating down, locals have been waiting for Soren, dancing to the tunes of traditional folk music. A few men are holding bows and arrows wrapped in JMM flags. On stage, a local JMM functionary appeals to the crowd to avoid drinking a day before the polling. Later, he goes on to sing a Santhali song to keep the audience enthused.
Soon, Soren’s chopper lands. Dressed in a blue kurta, a gamcha hanging from his shoulder, he takes to the stage without wasting much time. “BJP government is working to finish Adivasis… They have used a Santhal as a pawn (referring to BJP’s Rajmahal candidate Hemlal Murmu),” he says, amid applause.
As he prepares to leave, a few men dash outside to get a glimpse of Soren’s chopper. Many say they have seen one for the first time.
Back on the chopper, the conversation drifts towards Soren’s tweets earlier in the day. He posted screen shots of CM Raghubar Das’s tweets attacking him, questioning the amount of time the BJP leader spent on the social media platform instead of focusing on people’s issues. “There are a few people helping me out in the campaign,” he says, adding that he deliberates with his team to select issues.
In Barhet, he raises the loopholes in the Aadhaar-based Public Distribution System. “If someone is ill, how will he get his ration through Aadhaar-based authentication. Should he be carried on a cot? Should his thumb be cut off,” he says. Eight minutes over, he takes off again.
On the flight, Soren complains about MGNREGA wages in Jharkhand, Rs 171 for a day’s work, being much less than other states. While he doesn’t comment on the prospects of the mahagathbandhan in Jharkhand — the JMM has allied with the Congress, the RJD and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha in the state — he says he is confident of his party winning all three seats in the Santhal Pargana region.
Later, as he winds up after making a total of seven stops in the day, he adds, “I feel happy that I belong to the tribal community. They are poor, but they never rob or steal. They just want to live with nature.”