Hemant Soren

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India Today

Hemant Soren

Amitabh Srivastava

January 15, 2015

Emerging out of father Shibu Soren's shadow to take JMM's tally to its highest ever, the new leader of opposition has rewritten the script: in Jharkhand, you are either with Hemant or with the BJP

Arriving in a glistening grey bandhgala, Hemant Soren looks unusually at peace with himself for a man who has lost his job as chief minister of Jharkhand, and one of the two assembly seats he had contested. And lost them only last month. The 39-yearold Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader oozes contentment, as he walks briskly towards his chamber in the state Assembly.

Nominated the leader of opposition on January 8, Soren is flanked by leaders of all Opposition parties, including the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), which is said to be hobnobbing with the ruling BJP. A handshake here, a quiet word there, and everyone seeking a private audience with him-it is evident Soren has emerged out of his father Shibu Soren's shadows.

If the Jharkhand assembly election results announced on December 23 carried another first, besides ensuring the young state got its first non-tribal chief minister in Raghubar Das, it is that only Soren's JMM is fighting in the ring with the BJP. The rest-from a much-reduced Congress and JVM to the cleaned-out Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United)-are only spectators with a ringside view.

Having passed the moment of truth by stopping the BJP from getting a majority on its own, and taking JMM to an all-time high of 19 assembly seats against all predictions, this then, is the younger Soren's moment in the sun. The results have pitchforked him into being the tallest tribal leader in Jharkhand in an election that saw other community stalwarts, including three former CMs Arjun Munda, Babulal Marandi and Madhu Koda, bite the dust.

But it was not so sunny even a few weeks ago. Before the polls, even JMM leaders treated him with respect only because he was Shibu Soren's son and the de facto party chief. Everyone expected the BJP to sail through-at the expense of the JMM. Having won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in May 2014, and leading 56 of the state's 81 assembly segments, the BJP was riding on the coat-tails of PM Narendra Modi. Worse for JMM, the Opposition-unlike in the Lok Sabha polls-stood bitterly divided. In October, the Congress and RJD ended their 15-month alliance with JMM after seat-sharing talks broke down.

Worse still, at 71, party patriarch Shibu Soren looked no match for the Modi juggernaut ahead of the assembly polls. Though Soren senior was a CM for a total of only 306 days in three separate terms-against Hemant's 500-plus days in office-many vote for JMM only because they see in the father a venerable and indefatigable icon of tribal leadership. By the time Congress snapped ties, the Election Commission had already announced the election dates. The biggest worry for Soren, thus, was to prepare for seats he had never thought JMM would contest.

It would have been prudent to concentrate on only 45 seats where his party mattered, but Soren realised that as the CM he could not have left the remaining 36 constituencies uncontested. "The situation was akin to preparing food for 10 people and then having 30 guests for dinner," he chuckles, visibly happy at the analogy.

But Soren took the plunge and went after the BJP with everything in his arsenal. He selected new candidates, cut down on funds for the 45 already selected, and campaigned vigorously, addressing nearly 300 public meetings. It was a risk, one that would have obliterated him politically had he not delivered.

The results must have surprised him too: JMM raised its seats from 18 to 19 and vote share from 14.47 per cent to 20.4 per cent, and stopped the BJP at 37 seats-four short of the halfway mark.

Though Hemant owes his initial political fortunes to his birth certificate, his debut was a disaster. Shibu Soren's decision to field his younger son from the familiar turf of Dumka in 2005 left the party facing a rebellion. Shibu's long-term associate Stephen Marandi, then a Rajya Sabha MP, left JMM, contested Dumka as an Independent, and won. Hemant finished a poor third.

The tables turned four years later: Soren junior won and Marandi, a sixtime MLA from Dumka, finished third. But the strategist in Soren won back "Chacha (uncle) Stephen" in the autumn of 2014 after the Congress and RJD left him, along with old-timers such as Simon Marandi. With feelers hitting a wall, Soren worked the phone himself to reach out to the senior leader. Overwhelmed, Stephen rejected JVM's ticket from Dumka and accepted Soren's decision to field him from Maheshpur, a new constituency for him. Stephen won.

Soren also brought in Anil Murmu from JVM, who defeated JMM defector Simon Marandi. Another successful poach, Dasrath Gagrai from JVM, defeated former BJP CM Arjun Munda.

Another revelation of the longdrawn campaign phase was the emergence of a new mass leader in the Soren household. Never known as a leader of the people, he had little option but to win over new bases this time around, with Shibu Soren somewhat semi-retired and the BJP snapping at his heels even in JMM's strongholds. He seems to have succeeded in doing so.

Soren's suave profile also stands in sharp contrast to JMM's identity of agitation politics. Unlike his father, whose disinterest for files and policies is no secret, Soren has thrived as an administrator, which would certainly come handy even now, in Opposition. In fact, one of the reasons the BJP today seems desperate to ensure a merger of Babulal Marandi's eight-MLA party is because the saffron camp is worried about Soren's ability to wean away tribal MLAs of its alliance partner AJSU, which has five legislators in the assembly.

The BJP's apprehensions are not without reason. Known as a fiercely independent man who does not forget his enemies, Soren had pulled down the Munda government in which he himself was the deputy CM. It was seen largely as Soren's reply to the BJP, which had pulled down his father's fivemonth-old government in May 2010.

Will there be a repeat? Hemant Soren is now too seasoned a politician to out his aces. What goes up must come down, he says, reminding BJP of the challenges he will pose. For Raghubar Das, heading Jharkhand's 10th government in 15 years, those challenges can come sooner than later.

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