On 30 November, Jharkhand went to the polls for the first of five phases of an assembly election. The Bharatiya Janata Party currently rules the state, with Raghubar Das as the chief minister. On the morning of 11 December, Shibu Soren, a three-time Jharkhand chief minister and the president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, sat in the balcony of his two-floor house in Dumka, a city in Jharkhand, reading the newspapers. The JMM is the principal opposition party in Jharkhand, with 19 seats in the 81-seat assembly. Every now and then, JMM workers and officials handed him small slips of paper—perhaps messages from party officials. Many of Shibu’s supporters, who hail largely from the tribal communities, reach out to him at his Dumka residence. Party members popularly refer to him to as Guruji. A close party-aide told me, “In winters, Guruji spends his noon like this in the balcony. Anyone can walk in and meet him.” The house serves as the party’s headquarters for Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana division.
Shibu is also an eight-time member of parliament from the state’s Dumka Lok Sabha constituency. However, he lost the 2019 general election from Dumka by a margin of over 47,000 votes. The BJP’s Sunil Soren won the seat. Shibu has not formally interacted with the national media since his defeat in the Lok Sabha elections and has limited his public appearances.
Once considered Shibu’s citadel, the BJP is now challenging the JMM in Dumka. Consequently, this assembly election is being viewed as critical for the JMM's future. In the on-going Jharkhand elections, the BJP has lined up a long queue of star campaigners including the prime minister Narendra Modi, the home minister Amit Shah and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. On the other hand, Shibu’s son and the party’s working president Hemant Soren is the lone high-profile campaigner for the JMM. Hemant is contesting from the Dumka assembly constituency. He is pitted against the BJP’s Louis Marandi, who currently holds the seat.
To help the JMM at this juncture, Shibu has started attending a limited number of election rallies despite health concerns. He has also been holding a series of closed-door meetings with Adivasi community leaders. At the moment, he is travelling between assembly constituencies only by air and uses a helicopter for this purpose. The JMM knows its chief has limited physical strength and they aim to use it wisely. “Even if he waves his hands during an election rally in a tribal belt, it creates excitement among the tribal voters,” a senior JMM leader told me. “But his speeches are limited to a few lines during these rallies.”
At his Dumka residence, I waited nearly for five hours to meet Shibu and hoped that he might break his media silence. After several attempts, he eventually agreed to an interview. We discussed the assembly elections, the BJP’s allegations against the JMM, and the Pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand.
Pathalgadi is an Adivasi movement for self-rule. Between 2017 and 2018, several Adivasi villages in Jharkhand put up stone plaques declaring their gram sabha as the sovereign governing authority. The plaques were engraved with provisions of the Indian Constitution and highlighted the special autonomy granted to Adivasi areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Subsequently, the police cracked down on the movement, charged thousands of Adivasis with sedition and described them as anti-national.