Shibu Soren faces Marandi and Sunil Soren

On the tops of huts made of mud and on the carriers of cycles across this district in the State’s rural north-east, a green flag with a bow-and-arrow symbol frequently flutters, the long white beard and heavy-lidded eyes of the face on it fitting the name given to him — “Guruji”. But where conversations about him once were about his unquestioned hold over the State’s tribal vote, today the talk is of how much longer.

Shibu Soren, the State’s tallest leader, who led agitations for a separate State since the 1970s, formed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, became its Chief Minister three times and a Union Minister, is confident of becoming Dumka’s MP for the eighth time. Described off-the-record as too old to campaign or govern by his rivals, Mr. Soren (70) is still aggressive in person, and commands the room. In his constituency, most people, especially tribals, recall his decades of struggle for tribal self-determination.

“You don’t need to ask me what I think of our prospects. All of the Santhal Pargana knows that nobody can beat Shibu Soren,” he told The Hindu in an interview in his constituency, referring to the State’s northern region, home to the Santhal tribe, and considered to be his stronghold.

“I have fought against that man and beaten him before.” ‘That man’ is Babulal Marandi, Jharkhand’s first Chief Minister, who left the BJP in 2006 after being sidelined to form his own party, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik). Mr. Marandi, who has a near-permanent half-smile and favours brightly coloured Nehru jackets, has also beaten Mr. Soren and his wife twice, in 1998 and 1999. He contested and won the last two elections from Koderma, and is returning now to the battleground that he and Mr. Soren first squared off in 1991.

“The party decided that since a big leader was contesting from Dumka, I should stand against him,” Mr. Marandi told The Hindu. Privately, his aides say that Mr. Marandi’s plan is to finish off the JMM.

“This is a semi-final. The final will be the November Assembly election. Only one regional party is going to survive,” an aide said.

Then there is Sunil Soren, the BJP’s young candidate and a one-time protégé of Mr. Shibu Soren, who narrowly lost to the JMM chief in 2009. For the BJP in Jharkhand too, the real battle lies ahead; former Chief Minister Arjun Munda has said he is confident of forming the government later this year.

Residents of Dumka, a predominantly rural constituency of less than 14 lakh people reserved for Scheduled Tribes, sense that the stakes are high. But with only one lakh-plus city (Dumka), no engineering or medical college, no ICU in the district, and little economic activity, they are more focussed on the future than on history.

Kamu Dumariya, a village of 40 families, most of whom belong to the Pahariya tribal group, appreciates that “Guruji” gave adivasis a voice, but would much rather talk of the need for jobs in the district so that their sons don’t have to migrate.

“More than 20 of our boys are working in Chennai, because they get wages of more than Rs.300 a day there, and have contracts with factories,” says Kaushalya Devi, whose son is one of them. For those still in the village, water is the biggest crisis. “In 1987, there was a District Commissioner named Sushil Kumar who ran a scheme to revitalise our wells,” recalls Harinarayan Girhi, one of the village’s most educated men. The officer’s name is recalled with awe across the district. “He was wonderful. He would wade into the fields in half-pants like one of us,” Jailal Pujhar says. “If he contested even today, people would forget caste and religion and elect him for sure.”