Intrigue, suspense, uncertainty mixed with picnic and resort politics. Jharkhand has been grabbing headlines like no other since the past week, courtesy a sealed envelope sent by the Election Commission of India to governor Ramesh Bais on 25 August.
The ECI has reportedly given its opinion on whether Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren should be disqualified in an alleged office-of-profit case.The ECI’s communique to Bais and the delay on the governor’s part has plunged the nearly three-year-old Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-led alliance government into a crisis. It is also one of the biggest challenges that Soren has faced to date in his relatively young political career.
So far, Soren, 47, the political heir of veteran tribal leader and three-time CM Shibu Soren, has kept his wits about him and managed to keep the flock of JMM-Congress–Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) together, amid fear and intense speculation of poaching of ruling party MLAs by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
To political watchers in Jharkhand, Soren’s decision to allot himself a mining lease while holding the CM’s chair as well as the mining portfolio was a major blunder, which shows not only his immaturity but also the ineptitude of his advisors who failed to point out the impropriety to him.
But they also say that the way Soren is handling the game of nerves since the controversy broke out shows he is an equally wily politician who, despite the mounting uncertainty, has kept the BJP guessing about his next move.
When speculation emerged that three Congress MLAs were planning to defect, the Soren administration coordinated with the Mamata Banerjee-led government in West Bengal regarding their arrest. Later, he took the alliance leaders for an outing to Latratu dam near Ranchi to calm their nerves, then moved them out of the state to a resort in neighbouring Chhattisgarh. Soren’s stealth has taken even the BJP by surprise.
Amid all the political uncertainty, Soren’s focus on governance didn’t waver. He has been inaugurating development projects and approving welfare proposals.
That is why Hemant Soren is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Also read: Ministers stuck in Ranchi, files piling up, how Jharkhand political drama is hurting governance
Coming into his own in 2019
Hemant Soren joined politics in 2009 after the death of his elder brother Durga, who was considered as Shibu Soren’s political heir.
Before 2019, Hemant had enjoyed two short stints in power — first as deputy CM to Arjun Munda in 2010 and then as CM in 2013. But he always lived under the shadow of his father Shibu Soren.
It was in 2019 when Soren really came into his own. He steered the JMM-Congress-RJD alliance — riddled with internal differences and coalition complexities — to a victory against the BJP in the assembly election and successfully claimed his father’s legacy.
The win was all the more remarkable because just seven months ago, the JMM had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha election when the BJP won 11 of the 14 parliamentary seats in the state.
The 2019 elections, where the JMM-led alliance won 47 of the 81 assembly seats (the alliance’s tally reached 49 after two MLAs joined from Babulal Marandi’s party) also highlighted how the JMM, which mainly had its stronghold in the tribal belt of Santal Parganas, managed to expand its footprints even in non-tribal areas.
Since assuming charge as CM, Soren has taken a host of decisions for both tribals and non-tribals. He dropped the charges against the tribals booked by the BJP government for opposing the amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and Santal Parganas Tenancy (Supplementary Provisions) Act, 1949.
When the Covid pandemic broke out in March 2020, Jharkhand was the first state to airlift migrant workers stuck in Leh.
Although Soren is not considered to carry the heft other non-BJP CMs do, over the years, he has slowly but steadily built a good rapport with Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal.
The bonhomie with Banerjee could explain how following a tip-off, the West Bengal police jumped in and arrested the three Congress MLAs who were travelling in a car with Rs 50 lakh in cash last month. Or the arrest of Rajiv Kumar, the Jharkhand lawyer representing the petitioner who had filed PILs against Soren in the mining lease case.
Also read: Jharkhand governor keeps JMM guessing as EC’s opinion casts shadow on Soren’s future
Soren knows how to adapt
Congress leaders say that Hemant Soren is an extremely smart politician who has learnt to adapt according to the prevailing situation. They cite a recent incident when Soren met Congress state incharge Avinash Pandey, who had come to strategise about the alliance’s future course of action following the ECI’s recommendation to disqualify the CM’s assembly membership.
A senior Congress leader said that Soren meeting Pandey was unthinkable because he had grown “arrogant” after taking over as CM in 2019 and did not reach out to his alliance partners as much as he should have.
“There was a communication gap, a deliberate distance…. The CM did not keep our leaders in the government in the loop on many issues. But he understood that it is a difficult situation now and he can’t afford to be seen as arrogant if he wants to keep the alliance together,” the Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity.
The message went loud and clear. The alliance will fight the challenge together.
One Congress leader said in a lighter vein that the alliance leaders did not have as many meetings in the last three years as they have had in the past week.
Political watchers say that in his second term as CM, Soren has also worked to improve his PR skills. He makes it a point to meet journalists in Delhi every few months over lunch.
He has also learnt the importance of social media from his contemporaries. He is active on Twitter, not only posting his day’s schedule, announcing all major decisions but also taking on his opponents.
The coming days will make it clear if Soren, a fourth-year dropout from the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, will be able to come out of the political impasse unscathed and become the first tribal leader to complete the full five-year term as CM. Or his initial follies during his second term in office will come to haunt his government.
(Edited by Prashant)