How JMM Won Jharkhand: Inside Story of Hemant Soren’s Campaign
The Lok Sabha defeat forced Hemant Soren’s team to change their strategy to a purely solution-based approach.
The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has won its best ever tally in its 46-year history. Chief Minister Raghubar Das of the BJP has been defeated in his own bastion Jamshedpur East.
This is a huge moment for 44-year-old Hemant Soren, who is going to be the chief minister of Jharkhand for the second time.
Barely a few months ago – when the JMM-Congress-JVM(P)-RJD grand alliance was handed a drubbing by the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections – few would have expected that the JMM could turn the tables in the Assembly polls.
But turn the tables it did, through a low-decibel but pointed campaign by Soren. And the JMM managed to do without the help of any high-profile Prashant Kishore-like figure or without hiring any big PR firms. So, how did they do it?
How the Campaign Began
The story begins in March 2018, one full year before the Lok Sabha elections and 21 months before the Jharkhand polls. A team of 12 professionals – educated at universities like Oxford, Sussex, Essex and Tata Institute of Social Sciences – attached themselves to Soren.
The team members, who don’t want their names to come into the public, refuse to compare themselves to Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC).
“It was not a mercenary decision for us. We attached ourselves to Soren because we saw him as an underdog public figure who could bring about the issues of marginal and backward sections and social justice and welfare issues to the mainstream narrative. It was in line with our own values,” one of Soren’s team members said.
What also worked for the team was Soren’s unassuming style of functioning, his “openness to new ideas” and the fact that the JMM couldn’t afford a very extravagant campaign.
One key aspect in which Soren accepted the team’s advice was social media.
The JMM leader became extremely active on social media 2018 onwards, even to the extent of sharing family pictures on Twitter and Facebook.
After a few months of preparation, the JMM launched Soren’s Sangharsh Yatra across Jharkhand. It was conducted in five stages over six months – from September 2018 to March 2019.
“The idea was to establish his presence at every nook and corner of the state,” a team member disclosed.
All the rallies and public meetings were streamed live on Soren’s Facebook and Twitter pages. This was new in Jharkhand as even the state BJP is less active on social media than many other states.
Besides the Sangharsh Yatra, they organised Ratri Chaupals or late evening meetings with the public across the state. A separate Yuva Samvad campaign was also launched to reach out to the youth.
However, despite these efforts, the JMM and its allies performed poorly and could win only two out of 14 seats – JMM’s Vijay Kumar Hansdak in Rajmahal and Congress’ Geeta Koda in Singhbhum. Even JMM supremo Shibu Soren, who was unwell, lost from his stronghold Dumka.
The Modi wave that swept across the Hindi Heartland in 2019 posed a major challenge to the JMM and there was a fear that the momentum may help BJP win the state the way it did in 2014.
Strategy Changed After Lok Sabha Debacle
The Lok Sabha defeat forced Soren and his team to change their strategy drastically. Soren’s speeches and interactions became more pointed – focussing purely on solutions to specific problems faced by people.
“For instance, one input we received was that the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana wasn’t being implemented properly. So, Soren promised the construction of a Rs 3 lakh house with an integrated toilet and kitchen”.
After receiving several such inputs, a 10-point agenda was prepared. Some of the other issues in this list included the Forest Rights Act and the deaths that took place due to faulty linkage of Aadhar and the public distribution system.
Soren stressed on these points throughout his state-wide Badlav Yatra that took place from the end of August to October and culminated in the rally in Ranchi on 19 October.
A key promise that Soren made was reservation for locals in jobs. This had a direct connect with the youth, especially as unemployment was the biggest issue in the polls, a trend brought out by every pre-election survey that took place in Jharkhand.
But this had another spin-off effect. It helped establish Soren as a regional leader of Jharkhand as opposed to the earlier perception that the Soren family primarily represented tribals, that too just Santhals.
Soren’s campaign tagline “Jharkhand Maange Yuva Sarkar, Jharkhandi Sarkar” was aimed at tapping into this broader sentiment among the youth of Jharkhand, cutting across community lines.
Besides the “solution-based” approach, there was another key element to the JMM campaign: A personality contest with Chief Minister Das.
Hemant Soren vs Raghubar Das
Das enjoyed a high degree of popularity in his first few years as chief minister. He successfully mobilised the non-tribal vote bank of the state, particularly OBCs, who felt that they had been denied a rightful share of power due to the perceived domination of tribals.
However, towards the end of his term, Das came to be seen as arrogant and both tribals and Upper Caste came to resent his style of functioning.
Soren’s strategists felt that while they may have lost in the Modi wave, they might be able to turn the tables if the election becomes a personality contest between Das and Soren.
To contrast with Das, Soren’s humble and friendly image was brought to the fore. Many of the publicity material showed his pictures smiling, or riding a motorbike or standing in traditional attire in a hut.
The mantra here was visibility.
“It’s not just what he (Soren) was promising. We wanted the people to see and hear him more and more throughout the election cycle,” one of the JMM strategists said.
Soren addressed 165 rallies in 28 days during the campaign.
The fact that BJP showcased Das as its face also helped JMM make it a ‘Das vs Soren’ battle.
The team also had to factor in what they say was the “biased” attitude of the media. They allege that the state media as well as national media were biased towards Das and seldom gave due space to Soren.
Some JMM supporters say this is partly due to the Upper Caste domination of the media.
To counter this, social media became even more important.
“Each and every rally went live, every small interaction was posted and there was direct interaction on Facebook. In 2018, the JMM social media team was made to undergo training and then deployed in different districts,” a member of Soren’s social media team disclosed.
“The entire communication approach was two-pronged. First aspect was emotion: show his personal and humane side, his humility, simplicity and ability to mix with everyone. And the second was the communication of locally grounded policy initiatives”.
With Soren now set to be Jharkhand’s eleventh chief minister, his team’s focus may now shift from campaigning to policy implementation. His main areas of focus are likely to be addressing unemployment and restoring the land rights of tribals.
A relatively backward state, Jharkhand has many challenges and Soren will have his task cut out as chief minister.
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