On the morning of May 16, all eyes inside the Utsav Upvan wedding resort in Jharkhand’s Giridih town were set on a bespectacled, sari-clad woman as she went from its halls to the garden area greeting those who had gathered to meet her. “Johar!” she said, with a stately but smiling demeanour, using the traditional greeting in Jharkhand.

Until two months ago, Kalpana Murmu Soren was a homemaker and the owner of a school in Ranchi. Today, she is the star campaigner of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. She is also contesting the bye-election from the Gandey assembly seat that fell vacant after the party’s legislator Sarfaraz Ahmad resigned from the seat and was elected to the Rajya Sabha.

Kalpana Soren, 48, was compelled to enter the political limelight after her husband and president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Hemant Soren, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on January 31 in connection with a money laundering case.

Resigning as chief minister hours before his arrest, Hemant Soren alleged that the central agency had been set upon him by the Bharatiya Janata Party as part of a “well-orchestrated conspiracy” to damage his party’s prospects in the Lok Sabha elections.

On March 4, making her political debut on the foundation day of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Kalpana Soren broke down while speaking of Hemant Soren’s arrest. Allowing her a brief pause, party workers began sloganeering, “Jail ka taala tootega, Hemant Soren chootega.” The lock of the jail will break, Hemant Soren will be freed. Quickly composing herself, Kalpana Soren went on to deliver the rest of her speech proclaiming, “Jharkhand jhukega nahi.” Jharkhand will not bow down.

Since then, Kalpana Soren has led a spirited election campaign across Jharkhand. She also joined the INDIA alliance’s election rallies in Delhi and Mumbai. Her ability to quickly adapt to her new role and deliver galvanising speeches has come as a relief to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha workers, who were anxious about the party’s prospects after Hemant Soren’s arrest.

“Kalpana ji has stepped up to her new role very well,” said Dilip Murmu, a party worker from Giridih. “She speaks well and talks to people from all walks of life.”

Not only has Kalpana Soren established her credentials as a campaigner, she has proved to be an articulate spokesperson for the party in interviews with the media. In a conversation with Scroll, Kalpana Soren said her entry into politics was a collective decision, initiated by party workers and encouraged by Shibu Soren, her father-in-law and the founder of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

“I am a sepoy of the party and I will do what is required of me,” she said.

At a rally in Dhanbad constituency. Credit: Hemant Soren @HemantSorenJMM/X

‘Adivasi son dared to stand up’

Kalpana Soren was born to an army officer and homemaker who were stationed in Punjab at the time of her birth and later moved to Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. The discipline and multiculturalism of her childhood, she said, helped her embrace her new role. In public interactions, she switches with fluency across Hindi, Santali, English, Odia and Bengali.

“Jharkhand is not a poor state, it has been made so,” Kalpana Soren told Scroll. In her speeches, she talks of the Centre discriminating against Jharkhand, by diverting funds owed to the state to other BJP-ruled states. She has alleged that the Central government owes Jharkhand Rs 1.36 lakh crore for coal taken from the state.

In her speeches, Kalpana Soren said her husband is being punished for standing up to the central government. His arrest, she repeatedly says, is not just an attack on the self-respect of Hemant Soren but of Jharkhand and its people. “They couldn’t stand the fact that an Adivasi son of Jharkhand dared to stand up to them,” she told Scroll.

At rallies, she recounts the several schemes Hemant Soren implemented in the state and his efficiency in managing the crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. She reminds them that while Hemant Soren might be imprisoned, his love and vision for Jharkhand’s people can never be caged.

Credit: Hemant Soren @HemantSorenJMM/X.

Women and education

Kalpana Soren’s entry into the campaign has helped the party in its outreach to women voters. At rallies and nukkad sabhas, women throng to see her. “Since an Adivasi woman is fighting for the seat, we thought we should come see her,” said Sushila Murmu, a young Santal Adivasi woman from Giridih who had come to the resort on May 16 with women in her extended family.

Sushila Murmu finished her BEd degree four years ago, but is still looking for a permanent position at a school. She is hopeful that if Kalpana Soren comes to power from the Gandey assembly seat, she will ensure upliftment of the women of the area.

Kalpana Soren, too, appears the liveliest during her meetings with women voters. With MTech and MBA degrees herself, Kalpana Soren is a firm believer in education as a route to empowerment. “I hope to open a women’s college in Giridih and extend support to women-led enterprises,” she told Scroll, talking of her plans if she wins the assembly bye-election from the area.

Credit: Hemant Soren @HemantSorenJMM/X.

A family feud

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha loyalists have embraced Kalpana Soren’s but there is discontent elsewhere in the family. On March 19, Sita Soren, the widow of the late Durga Soren, who was the eldest son of Shibu Soren, defected and joined the BJP.

Sita Soren has been a three-time legislator of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. When speculation arose that Kalpana Soren might be made chief minister after Hemant Soren’s arrest, Sita Soren is said to have opposed the move strongly, arguing that there were many other senior leaders to take up the role. On March 2, the party picked Champai Soren as the next chief minister. He is a six-time MLA and vice president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Sita Soren resigned soon after on March 19. In her resignation letter, Sita Soren alleged that she and her daughters were isolated and neglected by the party after the death of her husband.

A day later, Kalpana Soren alluded to Sita Soren joining the BJP. In a social media post, she wrote that Durga Soren had been a father-figure to Hemant Soren. She recalled how the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was born out of a socialist and leftist ideology and that Hemant Soren was jailed fighting the same capitalist and feudal forces that Shibu Soren and Durga Soren had fought in the past.

“Our Adivasi society has never learned to move forward by turning its back and compromising,” she said.

The future

Two months after Hemant Soren’s arrest, the Enforcement Directorate arrested Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in a liquor scam case on March 31. But on May 10, the Supreme Court granted Kejriwal interim bail to campaign for the Lok Sabha elections.

The court has, however, refused to entertain a similar plea by Hemant Soren, leaving legal experts puzzled. Kalpana Soren, though, remains hopeful. “I have full faith in the justice system of this country,” she said.

With the Jharkhand Assembly elections due later this year, there is speculation that Kalpana Soren is preparing for the chief minister’s seat. But she denied this. “For now, I am focused on the Gandey Vidhan Sabha seat and hope to serve the people’s constituency,” she said.