Alpha and Beta

Hemant Soren’s unlikely rise to power in Jharkhand

On 29 December, Hemant was sworn in as the eleventh chief minister of Jharkhand, after leading the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to its biggest electoral victory yet. Diwakar Prasad / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
30 December, 2019

One morning in December, Hemant Soren stepped out of his father’s house in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, dressed in a brown kurta and white pyjamas, to address a series of election rallies in the rural areas of Santhal Pargana. While speaking with women tribal volunteers, Hemant suddenly remembered that he had forgotten his gamcha—a red and white scarf—and went back inside to get it. He returned with the gamcha, and with his forehead now smeared with a vermilion teeka. The next day, when Hemant was holding a roadshow cum padyatra in Dumka’s market area, he wore a green jacket and jeans—once again, sporting a big teeka.

The contrasting appearances, tailored towards the sentiments of his respective audiences, are a small glimpse into Hemant’s growth as a political leader. He knew his voters. He understood that the urban voters were likely to swayed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva-centred election campaign, and the teeka and attire could appeal to them. Meanwhile, the gamcha was portrayed as a part of his identity when addressing rallies in rural landscapes. The Santhal Pargana comprises a large proportion of tribal voters and has traditionally been a stronghold of Hemant’s party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Hemant Soren’s journey has been far from plain sailing. In 2009, Hemant was compelled to join politics full time by the untimely death of his elder brother, Durga. He became the new face of the JMM and the successor to the legacy of the veteran politician and party patriarch, Shibu Soren. Through this journey, Hemant has occupied several positions—a Rajya Sabha member, a member of legislative assembly from Dumka, the deputy chief minister, and briefly served as the ninth chief minister of Jharkhand, in 2013.

In the recently concluded assembly elections in the state, the JMM was facing its biggest challenge yet. Fought over five phases—between November 30 and December 20—the election threatened a complete wipe-out for the tribal party. Barely six months earlier, in the Lok Sabha polls in May, the BJP had decimated the JMM, winning 11 of the 14 seats. The general elections also witnessed a result that was entirely unexpected: Shibu Soren, lost his citadel, the Dumka Lok Sabha seat. The 75-year-old party chief had so far maintained an unchallengeable stronghold over Dumka. Since then, Shibu Soren has largely avoided public appearances and media interactions.

Ahead of this year’s assembly elections, the patriarch’s failing health forced his son, Hemant Soren, to wage a lone battle against the BJP. The ruling party’s campaign was equipped with two powerful Hindutva-centred electoral pitches: the amendment of Article 370 and the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict. As it had succeeded to do in Haryana earlier in the year, the BJP sought to retain Jharkhand by relying on its hyper-nationalistic and Hindutva politics, and the appeal of Narendra Modi. The BJP also accused the opposition alliance of corruption and dubbed Hemant as an undeserving beneficiary of a dynastic political party. The party appeared to ignore the significant undercurrent against the incumbent chief minister, Raghubar Das.

Yet, political pundits were questioning whether the JMM could even win in the Santhal Pargana region, which includes Dumka, and whether Hemant could earn his title as the de facto head of the party. While the BJP had lined up a series of star campaigners for the elections, the 44-year-old Hemant had to run from pillar to post to ensure the victory of the mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, between the JMM, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. In fact, the Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi held a combined total of five election rallies in the state. Hemant held around five rallies every day—reportedly conducting a total of 165 rallies across 28 days.

Through the campaign, Hemant’s confidence did not waver as he assured the JMM workers that they were going to clinch the elections. On 23 December, Hemant was proved right: the party won a comprehensive victory. The JMM won 30 seats in the 81-member assembly, and the grand alliance won 47. The BJP, which had campaigned with the slogan “65 paar”—an aim to win more than 65 constituencies—was reduced to a humiliating 25 seats. Notably, the grand alliance almost wiped out the BJP from the tribal-dominated seats—the incumbent party was defeated in 26 out of 28 seats reserved for candidates from Scheduled Tribes.

Hemant’s challenge in this election also included ensuring a balance between the JMM’s traditional Adivasi voter base, and the non-tribal population—especially at a time when identity politics has intensified in Jharkhand. Most importantly, perhaps, Hemant had to prove his own mettle. His father had been an iconic politician in the state who transformed the lives of the local Adivasi populace, so the bar was set high. The election was a critical moment in Hemant’s political career.

During a conversation with Hemant at his house, in mid December, he noted that his entry into politics was “accidental” and forced by unfortunate developments within the family. “My father’s medical problems and then the sudden demise of my elder brother, who was active in politics, created a leadership vacuum in Jharkhand Mukti Morcha,” he said. Hemant’s brother, Durga, died of suspected kidney failure in 2009. That year, Hemant took over Durga’s position as the JMM working president. Soon, he told me, people had started talking about the JMM’s future. “In this time of crisis, I got a passage to enter politics. And somehow, I never got an opportunity to look back.”

On 29 December, Hemant was sworn in as the eleventh chief minister of Jharkhand. Over the ten years, Hemant grew into a full-time politician, and with the recent election results, he showed that he could rise to meet a challenge. Hemant recorded the highest electoral victory for the JMM so far. Yet, the verdict cannot be seen as the Jharkhand electorate’s absolute confidence in him, given the popular disillusionment against Das, especially among the tribal voters. In fact, the bigger challenge for Hemant lies ahead: to establish himself as the sole leader of the tribal constituency in Jharkhand. When it comes to the tribal voter base, which constitutes 26 percent of the state electorate, Hemant Soren still lives in his father’s shadow.


In the 1960s, when Shibu Soren was still in school, his father, a teacher, was murdered by feudal landlords in Santhal Pargana of then undivided Bihar. The murder sparked the rise of the most aggressive, vocal and electorally successful tribal leader that Bihar, and later Jharkhand, had ever seen. No leader in Jharkhand has yet matched what Shibu Soren has achieved in the state over the last four decades. The JMM patriarch’s political career runs parallel to the history of the struggle for tribal rights and the formation of Jharkhand. At 75, he looks weak when he walks and he forgets a thing or two while speaking, but remains as sharp as ever when questioned on a topic pertinent to the tribal cause.

Shibu Soren’s primacy in the political history of the state, particularly on issues concerning its tribal population, is unchallenged. “Back in the day, in public transport, tribals had to vacate their seat in the bus if an upper caste or non-tribal would step in,” Vinod Pandey, a general secretary of the JMM, told me. “Shibu Soren’s initial activism and political battle brought a respectable life for tribals in Santhal Pargana.”

Nalini Kant is a former journalist and activist in Dumka who has watched the Soren family closely. “Shibu Soren has a direct connection with the tribals,” Kant said. “His biggest success story has been the fight for allotment of land to tribal families in Santhal Pargana region. Due to this fight, numerous families were allotted land in Dumka and adjoining areas.” According to Kant, this was the sole reason why the tribal community in the region revere Shibu Soren. He championed tribal rights during the movement for the creation of Jharkhand. On 15 November 2000, when the state was finally created, much of the credit—at least in the public eye—went to Soren. However, after the formation of Jharkhand, Shibu Soren failed to enjoy peaceful political power in the state. Though he was sworn in as the Jharkhand chief minister thrice, his term spent in power was constantly affected by political instability and he could not complete even six months in office.

During the movement, the impression among his aides and colleagues was that Shibu Soren dedicated more time to his fellow party workers than his own family. The JMM patriarch’s children—his three sons, Durga, Hemant and Basant, and his daughter, Anjali—spent most of their childhood watching Shibu Soren agitating on the streets or contesting polls. According to Vijay Kumar Singh, a JMM’s general secretary and spokesperson, who is a close aide of Shibu Soren, the children’s mother Rupi Soren “had alone taken care of bringing up the children in their native house.” Singh added, “They had faced a lot of difficulties during the days of the movement. However, the financial needs of the family used to get fulfilled from the yields of their agricultural lands.”

After the formation of Jharkhand, Shibu Soren was appointed the union coal minister in the United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh, and Durga was made the working president of the JMM, the in-charge of its activities in the state. Over the years, Durga established himself as the sole successor of Shibu Soren’s political legacy.

Meanwhile, Hemant Soren, a fourth-year dropout from the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, in Jharkhand’s capital city of Ranchi, contested electoral polls for the first time, in 2005. He fought from the Dumka assembly seat, considered a safe constituency given his father’s popularity in the area, but stood third. His political debut was eclipsed by Stephen Marandi, a JMM veteran who had left the party ahead of the state elections that year after he was denied a ticket. Marandi had contested as an independent candidate and emerged victorious. After the defeat, Hemant did not get another significant political opportunity till his brother died, in May 2009.

For Hemant Soren, the bigger challenge lies ahead of his election victory: to establish himself as the sole leader of the tribal constituency in Jharkhand. When it comes to the tribal voter base, which constitutes 26 percent of the state electorate, Hemant still lives in the shadow of his father, Shibu Soren. PTI


The family crisis marked the beginning of Hemant Soren’s rise in the party. A month after Durga’s death, Hemant took oath as the JMM’s member of Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand and was appointed as the working president of the party. In the 2009 Jharkhand assembly election, he contested from the Dumka seat again, and was elected the MLA for the first time. But the elections yielded a hung assembly, and Shibu Soren formed the government with support of the BJP and All Jharkhand Students’ Union. The government fell in less than six months and the centre imposed President’s Rule in the state. The political instability, however, proved a blessing in disguise for Hemant.

In September 2010, barely sixteen months into his new position in the JMM, Hemant took oath as deputy chief minister of Jharkhand in the cabinet of the newly-inducted BJP chief minister, Arjun Munda. But in January 2013, the JMM toppled the Munda government, forcing President’s Rule for the third time in the young state. It was a declaration that the new successor of Shibu Soren’s legacy had arrived.

Within six months, Hemant was sworn in as ninth chief minister of Jharkhand. His tenure, however, was marred by accusations of misgovernance. Amid the BJP’s electoral sweep in 2014, the JMM failed to return to power in that year’s assembly elections. The BJP formed government with support of the AJSU, and Raghubar Das was sworn in as chief minister. But even then, the party did manage to register its best tally since the formation of the state, with 19 seats.

Hemant’s rise puts him the bracket of a band of political leaders belonging to family-led parties such as Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) and Tejaswi Yadav of the RJD. But many who have observed the Soren family from close quarters believe that he has a long journey to cover.

“Hemant belongs to the second generation of politicians and hence he is elite unlike Shibu Soren,” Kant said. “All through his political journey, Guruji”—as the JMM founder is often known in the state—“would sit anywhere, on a khatiya or on the floor, while on moving from one village to another. Staying back in villages and eating whatever would be available at his supporters or voters’ house was a usual exercise for him.” Kant said that this sort of grassroots connection with the local population is so far missing in Hemant.

Hemant, himself, said that he had “worked at all stages of state-level politics that too in a very short period.” He added, “I can’t recall any leader who has seen all this and been in so many roles in such a short period of time. If at all there are any other leaders, they would be of my age group and time.”

“He is yet not reached the level of Akhilesh Yadav but the progress is on,” Sanjay Mishra, the resident editor of the regional Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar, said. Mishra points out that Hemant is quick in forging alliances and making friends beyond Jharkhand’s political spectrum. “Ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha, he was able to forge an alliance with Congress. And despite the setback in May, Hemant has stood to occasion to lead the grand alliance in the assembly campaign.”


In the 2019 assembly election, his party seemed different from Shibu Soren’s JMM. Their election campaign this year witnessed both tech-savvy strategies, such as LED outdoor vans and focused social-media outreach programmes, as well as traditional door-to-door campaigns. In a move that was so far unprecedented in Jharkhand’s politics, Hemant roped in a core team of 12 professionals with prior experience working on election campaigns in different states.

A member of the core team shared details of the JMM’s campaign strategy. Right after the general elections, the member said, JMM kept itself focused on 47 seats. Hemant knew the strength of the party and played accordingly. In September, the party circulated berozgaari patra—unemployment forms—which illustrated that it was one of the main issues affecting Jharkhand’s youth. This led to a campaign promises of unemployment allowance of Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 respectively, to graduates and postgraduates, and the creation of five lakh jobs within one year of assuming office.

The member added that Hemant’s team also experimented with survey formats, varying them in accordance to the demography of the specific constituency. Moreover, through a cycle campaign, the JMM reached out to nearly thirty-five thousand families in each constituency, the member added. As a result, Hemant and the JMM knew the exact nature of the electorate and their problems, specific to each constituency.

This changed the game for the JMM. When the election campaign kicked off, Hemant raised the local issues of the particular constituency and stuck to issues affecting that electorate. In contrast, the BJP relied completely on national political issues. As the BJP spoke of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and the construction of a temple at the Babri Masjid site, Hemant discussed the economy, price rise, and passing legislation to give land rights to the landless working class. “To me, my tribal brother’s broken house is Ayodhya. Building his house is building Ram temple,” he said, at a rally in a tribal-dominated seat near Jamshedpur. “And feeding his hungry stomach is like my offering to Lord Ram.”

For the BJP, Raghubar Das was its biggest liability. Das was seen as an arrogant chief minister and there was huge undercurrent against him across the state, including in his own constituency—Jamshedpur East. Hemant’s team exploited this to its fullest. In the election campaign this year, the JMM projected Hemant as a humble man, while juxtaposing him against an arrogant Das. “We were happy the day the BJP declared Das as its CM candidate, it made our game easy,” the member of the core team told me. “Hemant didn’t fall in the BJP’s trap which was trying to communalise the election. He kept on countering Raghubar Das.”

At Hemant’s Ranchi residence, the public image the JMM sought to create reflected in all my conversations with his campaign staff, the Jharkhand Police officials as well as his personal staff. Sunil Shrivastwa, Hemant’s personal secretary, shared a “blunder” that occurred in early December. Hemant was on his way to file his nomination for the Barhait assembly constituency and Shrivastwa forgot to hand him over the party symbol—a necessary document required for the process. “He couldn’t file his nomination that day because of the blunder I had committed,” Shrivastwa recounted. “When he returned, I couldn’t face him. He came to meet me and asked to relax and forget about it. And all this while smiling.”

On two issues in particular, Das’s policies had received widespread condemnation in the state. One was a set of amendments proposed by Das to the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, which govern the land rights of tribals in these areas of Jharkhand. Among other changes, the amendments allowed the use of agricultural land for commercial purposes. The proposal was a shot in the foot for the BJP government. It led to wide opposition from the tribal communities, and the ruling party was eventually forced to withdraw the bill after the state’s governor sent it back without giving her assent. For Das, the first non-tribal chief minister of Jharkhand, the introduction of amendments that could dilute the land rights of Adivasis was certain to have a lasting impact on the voters, and Hemant did not fail to capitalise on this.

The amendments had triggered the second issue under Das’s regime that affected the tribal population: the Pathalgadi movement and the sedition cases against those involved in it. Pathalgadi is a traditional practice of the Munda Adivasi community of erecting stone slabs, or pathals, to mark important occasions or to honour one’s ancestors. In 2017, the community began erecting slabs engraved with text that highlighted the autonomy granted to Adivasis under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The Jharkhand Police had registered at least 19 first information reports in response to the movement, in which they had accused over two dozen named and ten thousand unnamed Adivasi Pathalgadi supporters for difference offences, including sedition.

While the JMM’s support for the Pathalgadi accused persons was not very prominent, Hemant claimed to me, in an interview published by The Caravan, that “the JMM and its leaders were actively defending the Pathalgadi movement.” In another interview published by The Caravan, Shibu Soren told me that if elected to power, the JMM government would withdraw the sedition cases. On 29 December, the Indian Express reported that in its first cabinet decision, the Hemant Soren government withdrew all the cases registered in response to the Pathalgadi movement.

Yet, critics have noted that the JMM’s working president was late to take up the issue politically. According to Saryu Roy, a former BJP member who was a cabinet minister in Das’s government before he quit the party, Hemant should have run a sustained campaign “against the misdeeds and misgovernance of the Raghubar government.” Roy said, “He had missed several opportunities to attack CM Raghubar Das in the last five years.”

He added that Das tried to appropriate Shibu Soren’s legacy and that Hemant Soren failed to counter these attempts. “Due to his inferiority complex, Raghubar Das, in the first two years of his office, tried to declare himself the real successor of Shibu Soren,” Roy noted. “He would meet Shibu Soren quite often and try to portray himself as the real successor and discard Hemant Soren. Hemant should have busted this narrative as and when it was happening.” In this year’s assembly elections, Roy challenged Das in the Jamshedpur (East) constituency. He defeated the former chief minister by 15,833 votes.

Roy was liberal when it came to Hemant’s leadership skills. “He is growing and evolving with time,” he said. But Gladson Dungdung, an author and tribal-rights’ activist, was less forgiving. He said he believed that the chief minister was not even “20–25 percent like Shibu Soren.” He added, “To me, Hemant is a part-time politician, like Rahul Gandhi.”

While the Sorens have fought the BJP’s accusations that the JMM is a family enterprise, instances of nepotism abound. The chief minister’s electoral debut marked one such occasion itself. In 2005, in order to launch Hemant from Dumka, Shibu Soren denied the ticket to Marandi, who was one of the most senior leaders of the JMM, leading the latter to fight as an independent candidate and defeated Hemant, stalling his political career for several years. Similarly, Shibu Soren’s wife, Rupi Soren, has unsuccessfully contested parliamentary election from Dumka in 1999. Their daughter, Anjali, contested from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj constituency in this year’s Lok Sabha elections and was defeated.

When I asked Hemant whether his wife would join politics as well, he said there were no such plans. However, Hemant’s younger brother, Basant, is standing in the queue to enter electoral politics, and is presently the head of the JMM’s youth wing. In 2016, the JMM had put Basant forward as the party’s candidate for the Rajya Sabha, but he had been defeated by the BJP candidate, Mahesh Poddar. After the death of Durga Soren, who was an MLA from the Jama constituency, his wife, Sita Soren, fought from the seat and has represented it since.

Back in 2010, when Shibu Soren was the sitting MP from Dumka, he announced that he would contest the assembly elections that year from Jama and Dumka. But Sita, who was representing Jama at the time, was unwilling to part with the seat. Though Sita eventually gave way for Shibu Soren to contest from the seat, the episode brought the family feud out in the open.

Neither Soren nor Sita declined questions concerning their family disputes. Sita told me, “Our family is like any other family. We have our differences and heated talks but there is a bond of love between family members too.” Similarly, Hemant told me, “Any family and every family have internal disputes and we are no different.” He added, “Once we keep things in systematic order and try to resolve internal problems, things fall in their place.


The JMM’s future now lies in Hemant’s hands. “JMM will remain the first choice of voters till Shibu Soren is around,” Dungdung said. “But its future looks dark without Shibu Soren, as Hemant doesn’t have similar authority over the tribal electorate.” But others, such as the editor at Prabhat Khabar, Mishra, were more optimistic about what Hemant would do with the party. He said that Hemant was quick to forge alliances ahead of the elections and competent at rallying the opposition forces behind him when it came to state affairs.

Hemant also makes attempts to stay relevant in national politics. For instance, whenever an opposition party leader was in a confrontation with the BJP or the central government, Hemant often responded quickly and stood in solidarity. For instance, when the Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had locked horns with the lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, Hemant had sided with the Aam Aadmi Party leader.

Perhaps Hemant’s most distinguishing aspect from his father’s political legacy is that he has made an active effort to appeal to voters beyond the tribal electorate. According to Census of India, the tribal population forms around 26 percent of the state electorate, and 28 of the 81 seats are reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Tribes. Despite being the only tribal leader in the state with a pan-Jharkhand acceptability, Shibu Soren could not convert it into an electoral sweep for the JMM. The party won only 17 seats in the 2005 assembly election, 18 in 2009 and 19 in 2019. Even more alarming for the JMM was that in 2009 and 2014, the JMM candidates lost deposits on 46 and 35 assembly seats respectively.

This year, under Hemant Soren and with a campaign that appealed to both tribal and non-tribal voters, the JMM won 30 seats—its highest tally yet. Hemant’s manifesto promised several measures to create an appeal among non-tribal voters. These included increasing the reservation limit for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, introducing unemployment allowance, creating five lakh jobs within his first year in office and imposing 75 percent reservations for the local youth in the private sector. To make pan-Jharkhand appeal among the peasants, Hemant also promised land to landless farmers.

Indeed, Hemant Soren has tried create a new electorate for himself and the JMM. Jharkhand lacks a pan-state identity, and Hemant’s campaign sought to create and tap that unexploited sentiment by pitching for a spirit of “Jharkhandiyat.” When the BJP can mobilise voters on the lines of Hindutva, Hemant asked me, “Why won’t Jharkhandis stand together for Jharkhand?”

Perhaps his campaign message struck a chord, or perhaps his victory was fuelled by disillusionment with the incumbent BJP government, but the Jharkhandis have voted him to power. His only way forward appears to be outside the shadow of his father’s legacy.