Back as Chief Minister, Hemant Soren aims to ride sympathy wave in Jharkhand Assembly election

The JMM leader is now out on bail but a determined BJP and new aspirants will make it a keenly contested affair.

Published : Jul 09, 2024 10:03 IST - 8 MINS READ

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren offers prayers during the annual ‘Rath Yatra’ on July 7.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren offers prayers during the annual ‘Rath Yatra’ on July 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

Ulgulan, Ulgulan, Ulgulan” was the war cry on the X account of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren on June 29, the day after he got bail in a money laundering case linked to a land scam and walked out of Birsa Munda Central jail in Ranchi. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) had arrested him on January 31. Ulgulan, meaning “great revolt”, was a movement against the British led by the iconic tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda.

Addressing a gathering of party supporters in Ranchi on June 29, Soren likened his arrest to an attack on the State’s tribal identity, saying that Jharkhand had never bowed down, nor would it ever bow down. “The results of the Lok Sabha election have given strength to the natives and tribals of Jharkhand. I have received information that the Assembly election may be held earlier in the State, and we are ready for it,” he announced.

Emboldened by the Jharkhand High Court’s order stating that there was “reason to believe” he was not guilty of money laundering, Soren said he was the victim of a conspiracy and added that the people would give a befitting reply. The court order said: “The over-all conspectus of the case based on broad probabilities does not specifically or indirectly assign the petitioner [Hemant Soren] to be involved in the acquisition and possession as well as concealment of 8.8 acres of land at.... None of the registers/revenue records bear imprint of the direct involvement of the petitioner in the acquisition and possession of the said land.... the claim of the Enforcement Directorate that its timely action had prevented the illegal acquisition of the land by forging and manipulating the records seems to be an ambiguous statement…”

Also Read | Jharkhand: Defeat in all Lok Sabha seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes could hurt BJP in Assembly elections

The prosecution had earlier claimed that 11 trunks of property documents, along with 17 original registers, seized from a Revenue Sub-Inspector in Ranchi contained references to several properties, including an 8.86 acre plot, acquired in an illegal manner by Soren. The ED said that during a search on January 29 at his Delhi residence, it seized cash amounting to Rs.36,34,500, incriminating documents, and a BMW car.

Jharkhand Governor C.P. Radhakrishnan inviting JMM chief Hemant Soren to form the government, on July 4. Soren took oath as Chief Minister later that day.

Jharkhand Governor C.P. Radhakrishnan inviting JMM chief Hemant Soren to form the government, on July 4. Soren took oath as Chief Minister later that day. | Photo Credit: ANI

In court, Soren’s lawyer Kapil Sibal suggested that forgery and interpolation of some of the recovered documents had been activated by the prosecuting agency itself. The court’s observations and its decision to grant bail to Soren have come as a shot in the arm for Soren’s party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).

Developments after release

On July 3, within a week of Hemant Soren’s release, the incumbent Champai Soren, who had become Chief Minister on February 2, resigned, paving the way for the former to take over the mantle again for the third time. This followed fast-paced developments that saw a meeting of the INDIA bloc in Ranchi on July 3 pitching for fighting the next Assembly election in the State under his leadership to perform better.

Hemant Soren took the oath as Chief Minister on July 4. Jharkhand has seen 13 Chief Ministers in the past 24 years since the State came into being in 2000, and only one government has even managed to complete its full term of 5 years. That was the government of BJP Chief Minister Raghubar Das, a non-tribal, between 2014 and 2019.

The 48-year-old Hemant Soren, a second-generation politician, realises well the upcoming challenge before him to stay relevant in the now competitive tribal politics of the State, with another Santhal leader, Babulal Marandi, back in the BJP and the JMM’s need to retain power in the Assembly election that is less than six months away.

Kurmi vote

A realignment of the 16 per cent Kurmi vote is also on the cards as the traditional player that the community supports, the All Jharkhand Students Union (AJSU), a BJP ally led by Sudesh Mahto, is on the decline and a new party, the Jharkhandi Bhasha-Khatiyan Sangharsh Samiti (JBKSS) led by Jairam Mahto, is emerging on the horizon. Besides, the third Narendra Modi Cabinet has not inducted any Kurmi leader from Jharkhand, which has deepened the sense of alienation in the community.

The fight for the tribal vote saw major developments in the government and in Hemant Soren’s family between January and June, even after Soren resigned as Chief Minister hours before his arrest. The veteran Champai Soren took over as Chief Minister after a dispute erupted within the family on who would replace Hemant Soren. Hemant’s sister-in-law Sita Soren resigned from the JMM.

She later contested from the Dumka Lok Sabha seat on the BJP ticket but lost. Meanwhile, in May, Hemant’s wife, Kalpana Soren, won the Gandey Assembly byelection. The victory of JMM veteran Nalin Soren from Dumka against Sita Soren has virtually settled the issue of leadership in the family in favour of Hemant Soren, and he begins from a position of strength. Besides Sita Soren, another tribal leader, Gita Koda, who left the Congress to join the BJP, also lost, in Singhbhum. It is said in party circles that the cadre disapproved of defectors and did not work for both candidates.

In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP lost in all five tribal seats, and its overall tally came down from 11 in 2019 to 8 out of the total of 14, while the JMM’s tally rose from 1 in 2019 to 3, and the Congress doubled its tally to 2.

BJP strategy

The BJP has put Agriculture Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in charge of the Jharkhand election. After losing the 2019 Assembly election, the BJP made a course correction by replacing Raghubar Das with Babulal Marandi, but another senior leader, Arjun Munda, lost the Lok Sabha election from Khunti in 2024.

Reacting to the change of guard in Jharkhand, Sarma said on X: “The removal of a senior tribal leader from the post of Chief Minister in Jharkhand by the JMM and Congress party is deeply distressing. I am certain that the people of Jharkhand will strongly condemn this action and firmly reject it.” State BJP chief Babu Lal Marandi said that there was no scope for the rise for any tribal leader other than the Soren family in JMM. Clearly, the BJP will try to play on the issue of regional pride in the Kolhan region, where Champai hails from.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and party president Mallikarjun Kharge met leaders from Jharkhand on June 24. After the meeting, Kharge said that the Congress had to go to every worker and be with the people for the upcoming Assembly election and that the Congress was fully committed to “Jal, Jangal, Jameen” and the rights of all sections of people, including tribal people.

A senior Congress functionary told Frontline that a meeting of the JMM and the Congress in Delhi will happen very soon to kickstart the alliance’s election campaign.

  • Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren was granted bail and released from jail after being arrested on money laundering charges. He quickly reclaimed his position as Chief Minister, framing his arrest as an attack on tribal identity.
  • The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) gained ground in recent Lok Sabha elections, while the BJP lost all five tribal seats. With Assembly elections less than six months away, Soren aims to leverage potential sympathy from his arrest.
  • Meanwhile, the BJP is adjusting its strategy, particularly regarding tribal and Kurmi leadership, setting the stage for a closely contested election.

Keen contest likely in Assembly election

The JMM’s seat share in the Assembly has been rising since 2009. It won 18 seats in 2009, 19 in 2014, and 30 in 2019. However, the BJP’s tally has not declined much. It won 25 seats in 2019. What made government formation by the JMM possible was the Congress clocking a rise from 6 seats to 16 and the Rashtriya Janata Dal winning 6.

Also Read | Jharkhand: Sympathy factor 

The JBKSS, which got nearly 3.5 lakh votes in Giridih and more than 1 lakh votes in Hazaribagh and Ranchi in the Lok Sabha election, is likely to cut into the votes of the JMM and the BJP equally as it takes away the AJSU’s hold over the Kurmi vote and also puts paid to the JMM’s efforts to work out tribal-Kurmi unity. While the tribal people constitute 26 per cent of the population, Kurmis account for 16 per cent, and Kurmi votes are crucial in nearly 30 of the 81 Assembly constituencies.

The JMM’s tally is down to 27 with two of its MLAs Nalin Soren and Joba Manjhi having become MPs and Sita Soren having joined the BJP, but the alliance still has a majority of 45 with 17 MLAs from Congress and one from RJD in the 81-member Assembly, whose strength is now reduced to 76.

All indications are that the Assembly election is going to be a keenly contested affair, with the sympathy wave for Hemant Soren likely to subside somewhat in the coming months and the BJP seeking to put up a serious challenge with course correction on the tribal and Kurmi leadership fronts.

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