Shibu Soren's Magic Endures in the Santhal Parganas. But Can it Win Polls?

Outcomes in the fourth and fifth phases will decide whether Modi's rallies have managed to dent Shibu's influence in the region.

Dumka (Jharkhand): He is popularly called “Guru ji,and revered as “dishom guru”.

His on-field political activities took a backseat after his son Hemant Soren took over the reins of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) a few years ago.

But in the 2019 Jharkhand assembly elections, amidst the BJP’s Santhal Pargana focus and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s frequent rallies in the region, one prominent question is being asked: ‘Does the Shibu Soren magic, at least in the Santhal Parganas, still hold?’ 

On Sunday, when Modi was holding forth and ripping apart the opposition in his characteristic style, Soren chose to relax, meeting women, children and party workers at his Dumka residence, barely two kilometres from the venue of the rally.

Frenzied tribal and sadan (non-tribal) supporters of Modi walked en masse towards the rally venue at Dumka airstrip, passing by the Sorens’ residence marked by a huge flag with the portrait of Shibu Soren.

Some spirited motorcycle-borne supporters of Modi, holding BJP flags timed their Bharat Mata ki Jai slogans as they approached the Sorens’ residence. They stopped for a second, shouted “Narendra Modi zindabad”. To all of this, there would be no reaction from inside the campus.

Feeble action came from the few security guards deployed by the district administration at the gate of the Sorens’, who would urge the rallying youths to move on, and not crowd around the house. A few JMM workers standing there would respond with “Jai Jharkhand”

“People are with us this time. We are winning comfortable seats in Jharkhand,” senior Soren, surrounded by his close aides and supporters, tells The Wire. Soren is impassive when the Modi rally is mentioned. A few women supporters carrying campaign materials in bags arrive. They bow to touch his feet one by one. They will campaign across Dumka assembly constituency.

“I have attended over 50 rallies of Guru ji until now. The first rally I attended was in 1986 when I was studying in Saraiyahat Middle School on the Bihar border,” recalls 50-year-old Pradhan Soren, who runs a small shop, at Kurwa near Dumka’s main thoroughfare Dudhani Chowk, about 15 kms away from Sorens’ residence.

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Pradhan Soren has seen many ups and down in the politics of the Santhal Pargana, but continues to be a strong fan of Shibu Soren. “I still remember what he said then. He talked of the economic upliftment of the Adivasis, asking them to keep away from social evils like drunkenness. He also pointed out that our poverty is mostly due to the exploitation of the mahajans and money-lenders,” says Pradhan Soren. 

Shibu Soren’s political journey began with a heart-rending incident that took place in his native Nemra in Hazaribagh. His father Sobren Majhi was gruesomely murdered by mahajans and moneylenders. This transformed young Shivcharan Majhi into Shibu Soren and then into ‘dishom guru’. The word ‘dishom means ‘country’ — understood here to exclusively mean the Santhal Parganas.

Initial agitations led by Shibu Soren against the moneyed classes were violent. He was said to have been living the life of a fugitive in forests, when on the behest of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the leader switched to the democratic path.

Along with thinkers and activists like Vinod Bihari Mahato and A.K. Roy, Shibu formed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and smoothly transformed his career from a rights activist into a Jharkhand statehood leader. During 1990s, it is said that lakhs of people thronged to his rallies to listen to him, and not just in Dumka.  

Motorcade of BJP leaders proceeding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Dumka on December 15. Photo: Santosh K. Kiro

Shibu was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980 from Dumka. He represented Dumka in 1989, 1991, 1996, 2004 and 2014. He also served as chief minister of Jharkhand three times, though his stints were short. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, he however lost his Dumka seat to his own former party worker who later joined the BJP camp, Sunil Soren. 

“He has aged. But if you offer him the microphone, he speaks and speaks sense,” says Afroz Alam, Sorens’ neighbour, who is a tailor by profession and runs Heaven Jeans shop at the Nagar Thana Chowk of Dumka.

Alam doubles as a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) worker, but loves his ageing neighbour for his contributions to Jharkhand achieving statehood. “Guru ji may not be roaring like a tiger any more due to his age, but he is still a crowd puller, at least in Santhal Parganas. And no party including the BJP can take him for granted even today,” Alam says.

Obviously, the state BJP does not take Shibu for granted; Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah’s rallies in Santhal Parganas are proof of this. Senior BJP leaders are more afraid of Shibu than his son Hemant Soren. On Sunday too, Modi chose to attack JMM-Congress combine, saying that the two parties want to ‘keep the state backward’. 

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Modi has so far held rallies in Palamau, Khunti, Gumla, Barhi, Bokaro and Dumka — the last three being either in Santhal Pargana or its neighbourhoods that are under strong impact of the erstwhile political magic of Shibu Soren. Modi will again address another rally in Barheit on December 17. Barheit is the seat presently held by JMM executive president and coalition’s chief ministerial candidate Hemant Soren. Soren junior is contesting from his own seat Barheit and his erstwhile assembly seat Dumka. 

Asked why Shibu Soren lost to BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, JMM general secretary Fagu Besra explains: “The BJP managed to defeat him by spreading false propaganda among the Adivasi areas about him, and coaxing them with sops. This time we are very watchful”. He further adds Modi’s frequent flying in and out of Santhal Parganas suggests that Raghubar Das and other state leaders of the BJP are “no match for Shibu Soren”. 

Shibu Soren with well-wishers at his Dumka residence. Photo: Santosh K Kiro

Shibu has carried out election campaigns in Madhupur, Jamtara, Rajmahal, Borio, Barheit, Maheshpur, and Pakur among other places. He does not address rallies for long, unlike Modi, and the average duration of his speeches are 5-7 minutes. He continues to speak of poverty, lack of education, drunkenness among tribal and Jharkhandi communities, asking people to make efforts to come out of these, JMM leaders point out. 

Polling for the fourth phase of the Jharkhand Assembly elections were completed on Monday. Constituencies that went to poll included Sindri, Nirsa, Dhanbad, Jharia, Tundi, Baghmara, Bokaro, Chandankiyari, Madhupur, Deoghar, Bagodar, Jamua, Gandey, Diridih and Dumri.

Polling for the last phase of the elections would be held on December 20 for Santhal Pargana constituencies of Rajmahal, Boiro, Barhait, Litipara, Pakur, Maheshpur, Sikaripara, Dumka, Jama, Jarmundi, Nala, Jamtara, Sarath, Poreyahat, Godda and Mahagama.

Outcomes in the fourth and fifth phases will decide whether Modi’s rallies have managed to dent Shibu magic.

Santosh K. Kiro is an independent journalist based in Ranchi.