The credit for the resounding victory of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led alliance in the assembly election Monday goes to only one man: Hemant Soren. It is no mean achievement to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party juggernaut led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few months after the party swept the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
You could give credit to Raghubar Das, Jharkhand’s unpopular chief minister, and if you’re brave, you could also wonder about the election strategies of the BJP’s Chanakya, Home Minister Amit Shah. Yet, there are few governments that survive anti-incumbency, and there is no election strategist who does not make mistakes.
Elections are won by opponents who know how to exploit anti-incumbency and capitalise on their rivals’ mistakes.
That’s what Hemant Soren did very well in the Jharkhand assembly election.
Unlike leaders of the Congress party, Soren did not wring his hands and blame the Indian media, the voter, Hindutva politics or the BJP’s use of nationalism.
Instead of making excuses, he went out and performed his duty as an opposition leader.
Even though his party was washed out in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, winning only two of the 14 seats in alliance with the Congress, Soren did not lose his nerve. Since Narendra Modi had clearly separated national and state sentiments, Soren started his Vidhan Sabha campaign on a fresh note.
He immediately took to positive campaigning, telling the people how he would solve their problems if he became the chief minister. This is the single biggest thing that the Congress party could learn from Hemant Soren, who had held the chief minister’s post from July 2013 to December 2014.
For instance, he critiqued the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the free ‘housing for all’ scheme that promises to build a house, but without a kitchen and an integrated toilet. He promised voters he would raise the government subsidy on the scheme from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh so that they could add kitchen and toilet to it.
He took every problem and offered his solution for it. By contrast, the Congress campaign in the 2019 Lok Sabha election was centrally about proving PM Modi as corrupt: “Chowkidaar chor hai”.
The Congress’ ideas about what the party would do for the people didn’t reach the masses. The election manifesto and the NYAY campaign were launched too late. The manifesto promised an all-India farm loan waiver but it was not widely disseminated.
Distribution is god
Hemant Soren knew the importance of ensuring his message reaches the people. He prepared a 10-point agenda and travelled across Jharkhand for two months – between August and October – as part of his Badlav Yatra to explain those to the people. (No foreign holidays or meditation retreats.)
These 10 points were: water for every home and agricultural field; Rs 3 lakh under the housing scheme; raising reservation limits for SC/ST/OBCs; 50 per cent reservation for women in government jobs; a women’s bank and a farmers’ bank in every village; up to 75 per cent reservation in jobs for locals; unemployment allowance for five lakh local youth and getting them jobs within two years; land to the landless through a new law; and Rs 25 crore worth of government contracts reserved for locals.
The BJP, knowing it was facing anti-incumbency over the performance of Raghubar Das, fought an election on Article 370, Kashmir, Ram Mandir, CAA-NRC, Pakistan-bashing, Islamophobia and so on. Jharkhand has had several cases of mob lynching. Many opposition leaders, especially of the Congress party, simply give up seeing Modi regime’s onslaught of Hindutva and nationalism. They worry only about being caught on the wrong side of polarisation and losing Hindu votes.
What they don’t consider is running a positive campaign on bread and butter issues, like Soren did.
Humility versus arrogance
Apart from positive campaigning, the Badlav Yatra attempted to project Hemant Soren as a pan-Jharkhand face and not just a tribal leader. This was in contrast to former Chief Minister Raghubar Das, who was seen as anti-tribal and also faced anti-incumbency among non-tribal voters.
There were other ways in which Soren presented himself as a better alternative to Raghubar Das — heightening the contrast was key. As Das was accused of arrogance, Soren presented himself as humble, friendly and pro-people.
Soren consciously projected himself as the underdog who could bring the issues of the marginalised into the mainstream. Be it the implementation of the Forest Rights Act or Aadhaar, Hemant Soren was always on top of what really mattered in the people’s day-to-day lives.
Campaigning on a policy vision that was both relevant and based on local issues was half of Soren’s strategy. The other half was to give an emotional touch to project a personal, humane side. Mixing with common people, sharing their issues and concerns, looking accessible. If the Congress has lost connect with the masses, it is not because the voter has been over-run with the BJP’s Hindutva but because the Congress party comes across as arrogant and entitled, particularly the Gandhi family.
This humility helped Soren when Raghubar Das made it a presidential contest between the two. Modi does the same, choosing to project his politics as being in contest with a weak Congress party. If only the Congress had a Hemant Soren at the national level to turn the tables on Narendra Modi.
Views are personal.