Hemant Soren brought to court by the Directorate of Enforcement following his arrest in Ranchi, February 1, 2024 (Photo: AFP)
THE SORENS, BOTH father and son, seem to have a penchant for vanishing when in trouble. The father, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Shibu Soren had gone missing 20 years ago for more than a week after he was issued an arrest warrant. He was then a cabinet minister in the Manmohan Singh government. At the time, on his return, the Santal leader said he had gone to spend time with his favourite people: the tribals. Hemant, the son and the Jharkhand chief minister who has now stepped down from the post, threw himself incommunicado for much less period: 30 hours or so.
But there was much more high drama in the case of the son. Soren Jr was first questioned on January 20 by the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) and then he chose to meet the ED officials again, of his own volition, on January 29. But on that morning, the chief minister went missing from Delhi and ED officials who went to visit him at his home in the Shanti Niketan neighbourhood of Delhi found no trace of him. What emerged later is that he managed to drive unnoticed close to 1,300 km away from Delhi—to Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital. Even if you drive nonstop or with a few breaks at 80 km per hour, it takes more than 17 hours to cover that distance. Reaching Ranchi in the early hours of January 30, he met his party men and cabinet colleagues to discuss the political situation.
And then he reappeared. Later, Soren himself would share images and videos of those meetings on X, formerly Twitter.
As soon as he resigned as chief minister on January 31 after meeting state governor CP Radhakrishnan, he was arrested by ED. He decided to call it quits following a marathon, seven-hour interrogation of him by ED in connection with a money-laundering case linked to an alleged land scam. According to reports quoting officials, Hemant Soren is a beneficiary in alleged land-related irregularities in Ranchi. It involves land dealers and businessmen who create fake deeds and other illegal practices.
The arrest by ED of the 48-year-old Hemant Soren has given opposition parties the jitters. For their part, the opposition has invariably accused the government of unleashing Central agencies on political rivals. Ahead of the General Election this year, opposition leaders getting embroiled in scams would damage their credibility, besides their sagging morale ever since the I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s architect Nitish Kumar cut ties with the opposition alliance to return to the NDA camp. With the dreams of opposition unity now turning into a nightmarish scenario, this arrest has huge political ramifications and puts anti-BJP forces in a spot.
But perceptions don’t favour JMM whose past often comes back to haunt the party. JMM, which rose to prominence spearheading the new state demand for decades (until statehood was granted in 2000 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, which bifurcated Bihar to form Jharkhand the same year Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh), and its leaders have often been on the wrong side of the law. Which, again, means they have lived under the shadow of corruption for long enough, and projecting a moral high ground of being victimised by the ruling party is unlikely to wash with people. Shibu Soren was in 2006 found guilty in a 12-year-old case involving the kidnapping and murder of his former personal secretary Shashinath Jha. More importantly, under Soren Sr’s watch, JMM was instrumental in saving the minority Narasimha Rao government during a July 1993 no-confidence motion allegedly in exchange for money. Incidentally, the Supreme Court last year agreed to re-examine its judgment in the JMM MPs’ bribery case, which involved JMM lawmakers who were reportedly bribed to vote in favour of the crucial no-trust motion. The Supreme Court had quashed the case against the JMM MPs citing immunity under Article 105(2) of the Constitution, which says that “no member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof, and no person shall be so liable in respect of the publication by or under the authority of either House of Parliament of any report, paper, votes or proceedings”.
The arrest by ED of the 48-year-old Hemant Soren has given opposition parties the jitters. For their part, the opposition has invariably accused the government of unleashing Central agencies on political rivals. Ahead of the General Election this year, opposition leaders getting embroiled in scams would damage their credibility, besides their sagging morale ever since the I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s architect Nitish Kumar cut ties with the opposition alliance to return to the NDA camp
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Based on inputs by Shailendra Mahato, a JMM MP who had turned approver, a special court in 2000 had convicted Rao and fellow Congress leader Buta Singh and sentenced them to a jail term, but two years later, the Delhi High Court overturned the lower court’s decision, primarily because of the doubts about Mahato’s statements.
Now, amid fast-paced developments in the state capital, state Transport Minister Champai Soren has been named the leader of the JMM Legislature Party. “We have chosen Champai Soren as the leader of the Legislative Party. We came to the Raj Bhawan to request the governor for the oath ceremony,” Jharkhand minister Banna Gupta told reporters outside the Raj Bhavan. There were expectations in some quarters that Hemant Soren’s wife Kalpana would become the next Jharkhand chief minister, along the lines of how former Bihar Chief Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad had placed his wife Rabri Devi in his place. Devi stayed on as Bihar’s chief minister for three terms, for eight years. Kalpana, who is from a non-political background, is originally from Odisha.
Meanwhile, Soren Jr took to X soon after his arrest to share a poem that translated as: “Life is a great battle, I have fought every moment, I will fight every moment but I will not beg for compromise.”
Hemant Soren, who became Jharkhand’s youngest chief minister at 38, has had a chequered career. He wasn’t his father’s choice for a political successor. That was his elder brother Durga who died of a kidney ailment in 2009. Interestingly, 67-year-old Champai Soren is a Shibu Soren loyalist and has been an MLA from the Serikela Assembly constituency for multiple terms.
In response to the arrest of Soren Jr, Congress leaders have responded sharply, with some stating the it is a blow to federalism. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge accused the ruling BJP at the Centre of using the probe agency to force Soren’s resignation. “The BJP’s work of destabilising the opposition governments one by one as part of a conspiracy is continuing,” he said in a post on X. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said that the Central investigation agencies like ED and CBI have become the “opposition elimination cell” of BJP.
Union minister Kiren Rijiju hit out at Soren Jr on X and called him a spoiled son. He posted, “I am a tribal from a more backward area. I find your comment funny [the poem about life being a battle]. If Shibu Sorenji says this dialogue then I can accept it but this dialogue does not suit a spoiled son. Anyway, tribals do not have the licence to loot public money.”
The Sorens’ reputation for being tainted by multiple accusations of corruption has just been further sealed.