Kalpana Soren has to tackle not just BJP, but also Soren family and senior JMM leaders

Hemant Soren's wife says she will continue in politics

48-JMM-candidate-Kalpana-Soren Centre of attraction: JMM candidate Kalpana Soren with supporters during her campaign for Gandey assembly constituency bypoll | Sanjay Ahlawat


The beats of mandar, a traditional drum played by the adivasis in Jharkhand, can be heard at a distance. The sound gets louder as an election campaign troupe approaches a hamlet in the Gandey assembly constituency in Giridih district. People of the hamlet, Chamarkho, have gathered next to a narrow road to welcome Kalpana Soren, the wife of former chief minister Hemant Soren who is in jail. She is fighting a byelection to the Gandey seat as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha candidate.

According to JMM leaders, since Kalpana has stepped out, there is great enthusiasm among party workers who were doubtful about the future prospects of the party after Hemant Soren’s arrest.

Kalpana alights from her vehicle and walks towards the villagers with folded hands and a broad smile. The women offer her water in a brass plate to wash her feet and garland her. A few of them sing songs of welcome. She touches the feet of the elderly women. Some girls in traditional adivasi attire pose with her for selfies. A woman with an infant comes forth to meet her. She takes the baby in her arms and asks the mother his name. “Ansh”, says the woman. “Oh, that’s great! My older son’s name is also Ansh,” she tells the woman.

Before moving on, she reminds the voters about the elections on May 20. “Remember, there will be two EVMs (electronic voting machines). On one, you will find teer-dhanush (bow and arrow, the JMM symbol). I am confident you will press the button next to this symbol and make me victorious. The other EVM is for the Lok Sabha election. There, you will find teen taregan (three stars, the symbol of JMM’s INDIA bloc ally CPI-ML). You must press that button.” The Lok Sabha constituency is Koderma.

A little ahead of Chamarkho, in Ghorband village, Kalpana is ushered into the courtyard of a house of a party supporter. She chooses a khatiya (woven cot) rather than a chair to sit on. She asks for water from a ghada (earthen pot). A woman steps forward and says she has a request to make. She says the nearest high school is 12km away, so no girl in the village is able to study beyond eighth standard. The woman’s plea is echoed by other villagers. Kalpana assures them she will take up the matter with the authorities.

The 38-year-old, who recently took the political plunge after her husband was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on charges of money laundering in a purported land deal, is connecting with the people with the ease of a seasoned leader. A political spouse who kept a low profile till a few months ago, Kalpana has stepped out of the shadows straight into the heat and dust of elections.

It was in Giridih that she made a formal entry into politics with an emotional speech at a function on March 4 to mark the 51st foundation day of the JMM. She broke down while making the speech. “I was determined not to cry. But here I am, teary-eyed,” Kalpana said. “When you raise your voice here, it should be loud enough to reach Hemant Soren in Hotwar jail.”

On March 3, which was her birthday, Kalpana had met Hemant in jail, and among the talking points for the meeting was her entry into politics. On that day, Kalpana had announced her decision to enter politics through a social media post, stressing that she wanted to be her husband’s voice and share his thoughts with the people. “On the demand of the people of Jharkhand and hard-working members of the JMM family, I am starting my public life from tomorrow,” she had written.

Post the tearful political debut, Kalpana has come across as confident and aggressive. She refuses to play the victim card and projects herself as a proud adivasi. She begins her speeches with a loud cry of Johar, the adivasi salutation, and asks the people to support her for avenging her husband’s arrest.

“She is especially popular among the women. They are coming out in large numbers to meet her. They can relate to her, identify with her, see her as their own. That is significant, especially considering that the participation of women in elections is not as high as men,” said Giridih MLA Sudivya Kumar.

Kalpana’s effectiveness as a political communicator and leader has been a revelation. A close aide recalled that before the rally of the INDIA opposition parties in Mumbai on March 18, a Congress leader coordinating with other parties asked him which language would Kalpana be speaking in. She made an aggressive speech at the rally, in Hindi. “She was a completely unknown entity. But after she spoke at the rally, the same leader came to me and said she was too good. He said a leader was born,” said the aide.

According to JMM leaders, since Kalpana has stepped out, there is great enthusiasm among party workers who were doubtful about the future prospects of the party after Hemant’s arrest. She reaches out to them with a smiling, optimistic countenance, asks them about their families, tells them she needs their support and exhorts them to work doubly hard since their leader is in jail.

Sharing her thoughts on how her life has transformed over the past few months, Kalpana recalled that only some months ago, she would accompany Hemant to the cities where the INDIA meetings were held, and on her agenda was catching up with her friends and shopping. “Now, I am interacting with INDIA bloc leaders,” she said.

Kalpana comes from an apolitical background. She is originally from Odisha, but has lived in different states because her father was an Army officer. She is an engineer and an MBA, and can speak English, Hindi, Odia, Bengali and Santhali fluently.

She got married to Hemant in 2006 and the couple has two sons, both in school. She said Hemant’s sister was instrumental in making the match. “He is very reserved. So I took the initiative and asked him for his phone number. I was so happy during the courtship period that my friends thought I lied to them that it was an arranged match. They were convinced we had known each other before,” she said.

In January, there was a strong buzz in the political corridors of Ranchi whether Hemant could, in the event of an arrest by the ED, nominate Kalpana as his successor. The speculation was further strengthened by the resignation of Gandey MLA Sarfaraz Ahmad, who has since been elected to the Rajya Sabha. It was felt that he had vacated the seat for Kalpana. However, it is believed that opposition from within the family forced a rethink. There was turmoil in the family as Kalpana’s sister-in-law Sita Soren, who is the widow of Hemant’s elder brother Durga Soren, is learnt to have opposed it. She later joined the BJP, which has fielded her from Soren family stronghold Dumka. Also, the old guard in the party may not have been amenable to Kalpana taking over as chief minister. Hemant eventually proposed the name of Champai Soren, a veteran JMM leader close to Shibu Soren, as the next chief minister.

As Kalpana steps up her political presence, she is again being described in various quarters as a future chief minister. But as she gets more closely involved in politics, she could possibly have to deal with discontent within the Soren family, and resistance from senior leaders in the party who were earlier not comfortable with Hemant’s rise. She will also have to contend with aggressive moves of the BJP, which has been attacking the Soren family on the issue of corruption.

The BJP is dismissive about Kalpana’s political foray. “Hemant Soren cannot think beyond the family,” said Jharkhand BJP president Babulal Marandi. “However, Champai Soren was made the chief minister. But I feel that just as Shibu Soren had to face defeat in the Tamar region, Kalpana Soren will also lose.”

Kalpana has described herself as a warrior. And some tough battles lie ahead.