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.