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The Winter of the Lion

The Winter of the Lion

With a defeat in the Tamar by-poll in Jharkhand, Shibu Soren becomes the only sitting Chief Minister to have lost his seat. A report by NEHA DIXIT
I ACCEPT MY defeat. If people have decided not to support us, then there is no option but to quit,” a humbled Jharkhand Chief Minister Shibu Soren told TEHELKA hours after his defeat in the by-poll in Tamar constituency in Jharkhand. Soren lost by a margin of 9,000 votes to Gopal Krishna Patar of the Jharkhand Party, a constituent of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It was requisite for Soren, who became Chief Minister on August 2008, to be elected to the assembly within six months of assuming charge (a period that ends on 27 February).
The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had formed the government with the support of Independents in March 2005, but later the state UPA chairman Madhu Koda, with the support of other Independents and UPA allies such as the Congress, Janata Dal (U) and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) formed the government in September 2006. Koda had to resign after Soren, whose name was cleared in the murder case of his private secretary Shashi Nath Jha, wanted to be the chief minister.
Soren, a tribal leader, was comfortably representing Dumka, a Scheduled Tribe constituency. Himself a Santhali who flourished in the state’s Santhal Pargana region, the JMM president was initially reluctant to contest from Tamar, an area dominated by Mundas but did so on the suggestion of the UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi. The Tamar seat, a Naxal stronghold, fell vacant on 9 July 2008 after JD (U) legislature party leader Ramesh Singh Munda was allegedly gunned down by Maoists.
A fortnight before the 5 January bypoll, Soren had sacked Rural Development Minister Enos Ekka on corruption charges. It is believed that Soren was upset with Ekka for fielding Patar as his candidate in the elections against him. With Ekka out of the coalition, Soren also needed more allies. Pitted against strong candidates like Ramesh Singh Munda’s widow, Vasundhara Munda, and Jharkhand Party’s Gopal Krishna Patar, Soren was repeatedly indulging in making pro-Naxal statements in an attempt to save his chief ministerial post. He defended his stand, arguing that the Maoists deserve positive affection, as they too are sons of the soil and “not from China and Pakistan. Nor are they cats or dogs to deserve an iron rod.” The desperation soared to a level that Soren went on to say that the JMM MP Sunil Mahato was not killed by Naxals, thereby inviting the scorn of his own party members. Mahato and three others were allegedly killed by Naxals at Baguria near Jamshedpur during a football match on 4 March 2007. Soren also said that the state government is considering a new “liberal surrender rehabilitation policy” to encourage the Naxals to return to the mainstream.
Consequently, rumours accusing Soren of seeking Maoists, help to emerge victorious began floating. According to a member of the People’s Liberation Front of India arrested in Ranchi by the Jharkhand police on 3 January 2009, the Naxal outfit had been distributing posters and letters for two weeks before the by-election threatening the voters with dire consequences if they did not vote for the chief minister.
Opposition leaders also claim that calls were made from the chief minister’s residence just a day before the by-elections to set free some Naxals. Babu Lal Marandi, BJP opposition leader, told TEHELKA: “Soren has always promoted crime and corruption. Law and order has already gone for a toss and the main occupation of the government is to transfer defiant bureaucrats and give preferable postings to sycophants. Soren’s defeat is not just his, it’s the UPA’s defeat too.”
SOREN IS the only sitting chief minister to have lost his seat in a by-election in the history of independent India — ironical for a man who in his four-decade long career has been actively involved in the relentless struggle for the formation of Jharkhand. But the faith of his party workers is still intact in the 64- year-old Soren, who has often described himself as the father of Jharkhand. “Guruji is a man of ideals. He is a grassroots leader and has faced many challenges. He will see where the lapses were and bounce back to victory,” JMM spokesperson Hemlal Murmu told TEHELKA.
But there’s no denying that Soren’s career has been rocked by criminal cases more than once. He became the union coal minister in May 2004 but had to quit within two months after a warrant pending against him in a three-decade-old Chirudih massacre case surfaced. Eleven people including nine Muslims were killed in Chirudih village of Jamtara district on 23 January 1975, by a mob following a movement launched by Soren. He was accused of inciting the mob to drive away the Dikus (outsiders). After quitting the central ministry, Soren went into hiding before surrendering in the Jamatra district court. He remained in jail for two months. He returned to become Jharkhand Chief Minister in March 2005, but quit after nine days after he failed to prove his majority in the assembly.
When Koda became Chief Minister in September 2006, Soren returned to the central cabinet and became chairperson of the state United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But he had to resign once again as central minister in October the same year after he was convicted and jailed for life for his role in the murder of his personal secretary Shashinath Jha in 1994. On 26 November 2006 he was found guilty of Jha’s murder. He was the first union minister to be indicted in a murder case. It was claimed that Jha had the knowledge about the money received by JMM MPs including Soren, from former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao to vote in favour of his minority government in Parliament in 1993. However, in March 2007, the Delhi High Court acquitted Soren for lack of evidence. Later, he was also acquitted in the Chirudih massacre case. But he continues to face trial in the Giridih district court for another murder case.
Soren returned to New Delhi in 2008 after his party provided crucial support to the Manmohan Singh government during the 22 July 2008 trust vote. With the help of the Congress, Soren managed to replace Koda and became the chief minister yet again in August 2008, which is why his fall spells bad news for Delhi.
But the Tamar by-election loss has landed another blow to Soren’s tumultuous career. Leader of the Opposition and former chief minister Arjun Munda says, “The people have now understood that Shibu Soren is a thug. They do not want to experiment now. They have voted bravely and fairly and their verdict should be respected. We suggest that President’s rule should be imposed and fresh election should be called.”
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 2, Dated Jan 17, 2009
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