Inside Story: How ‘Team Hemant’ destroyed Amit Shah’s gameplan for Jharkhand

A core team of 12 professionals built a lethal hyper-local campaign for Hemant Soren against the BJP.

ByAmit Bhardwaj
Inside Story: How ‘Team Hemant’ destroyed Amit Shah’s gameplan for Jharkhand
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In this era, data is sacrosanct, the most powerful weapon. And its beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. 

“Team Hemant” knew this from the very beginning. 

On December 29, 2019, when 44-year-old Hemant Soren took oath as the eleventh chief minister of Jharkhand, it was the culmination of 780 days of hard work put in by Team Hemant, comprising 12 professionals. The ground for Battle Jharkhand was, essentially, laid by 12 professionals who revamped the traditional tribal party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. In the 2019 Assembly election, the JMM was tech-savvy and, at the same time, approachable to its electorate on the ground.

Team Hemant’s work heavily depended on first-hand data collected from Jharkhand’s electorate. In the process of building the campaign for Soren, each core team member covered roughly 50,000 kilometres in Jharkhand — travelling to every district and constituency, often to even blocks and booths. 

The entire process led to heavy data collection and decoding. JMM’s manifesto was carefully carved out of this data. Soren’s speeches included his team’s inputs from the ground. His attacks on the Bharatiya Janata Party were sharpened by minute details that came directly from the electorate of each constituency. 

This hurt the BJP and the Raghubar Das government mainly because their campaign was based on “national issues”. While Modi-Shah used star campaigners and a focus on Ram Mandir and Article 370, the JMM, through its data mining, was building a campaign that was hyper-local and focused on state affairs. 

Team Hemant ensured there was no digression from this strategy at any point in time during the campaign. A core team member had told me that the team planned a campaign and kept it focused on Soren versus Das. The team member added that they didn’t fall into the BJP’s “trap” of trying to “communalise the poll by playing the Hindutva card”.

Team Hemant’s strategy included collating clips of erstwhile chief minister Raghubar Das misbehaving with common Jharkhandis during his public appearances. These clips were played on loop on outdoor LED campaign vans. The team juxtaposed these clips with a video of Soren meeting the electorate with a smile. The anti-Das wave, triggered by his percieved arrogance towards voters and government staff, was successfully exploited. 

This strategy was reflected in Soren’s own understanding of state affairs. 

Learnings from the JMM’s Lok Sabha defeat

In early December, 56-year-old Sunil Kumar Srivasthwa, Soren’s personal secretary, told me: “After the Lok Sabha defeat, we thought possibly we will not be able to return to power. But he asked each worker to fight bravely because in the 2019 Assembly election, ‘the fight will be between Raghubar Das and me [Soren]’.” 

Therefore, Team Hemant had a clear idea about the task at hand. Their battle was not the Lok Sabha election but the fourth Vidhan Sabha election. And the target was to ensure Soren takes oath as chief minister of Jharkhand for the second time. 

It worked.

On December 23, the Soren-led Grand Alliance — comprising the JMM, Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal — clinched 47 out of 81 seats in the Assembly. At a strike rate of 73 per cent, the JMM alone won 30 of the 41 Assembly seats on which it fielded candidates — the best ever victory rate achieved by any party in Jharkhand.    

This was a big leap, considering how the JMM was decimated by the BJP in the Lok Sabha election. Then, the BJP won 11 of 14 Lok Sabha seats. Even more shocking, the BJP was leading in 67 of 81 Assembly constituencies in the Lok Sabha results. 

But this setback formed the basis of Team Hemant’s learning curve. 

“Our battle was for the chief minister’s office,” said a core member. “After the defeat, we realised we need to increase our penetration in Assembly constituencies, mobilise from volunteers more, and built a strong organisation.” 

During the general election, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha was part of the Grand Alliance. The JMM had to strengthen its organisation in those seats as well because, in the Assembly elections, the JVM didn’t join the alliance. Also, right from the beginning, the team focused on nearly 52 seats, which it later reduced to 47 Assemblies. When the Grand Alliance was announced, it was clear that the JMM was fighting on only 41 seats. 

The JMM is a small regional party with limited resources. Reducing the seats it was fighting on ensured that its workers didn’t waste energy and resources on a large chunk of seats that would go to alliance partners. 

Despite registering a mammoth victory for Soren, his core team members continue to stay low-profile. They don’t want their personal details to be made public. 

 The average age of the team is 30-38, and a couple of them are alumni of foreign institutions. The team has prior experience of handling three Assembly election campaigns. Each member has their own forte in building electioneering mechanisms, including field and ground analysis, 360 communications, social media strategy, and organisation building. 

Were old guards of the party resistant to the team’s new methods? One of the members said: “We didn’t sabotage the party mechanism and its workers. Rather, we mobilised them, expanded their reach and told them if JMM wins, it’s you who will return to power.” 

On the ground, Team Hemant had clearly gained acceptability among party cadres and senior JMM leaders. During the poll, these strategists could be spotted working alongside the JMM workers. One might even mistake them for party volunteers.

One more advantage for Team Hemant was that Soren himself was open to new ideas, debate and rejection while discussing these ideas. Another core team member, who prefers to keep an extremely low profile, had told me this at Soren’s Dumka residence. 

Badlav Yatra and meeting youth 

Team Hemant began working on the JMM’s campaign nearly two years before the Assembly poll. However, work in full throttle — and strategic changes — commenced after the Lok Sabha election.

The first task was to gauge the electorate’s opinion. During the Lok Sabha election, the JMM tried to swing public opinion through a Sangharsh Yatra in February. This time around, Team Hemant chose a three-pronged approach: (1) a Badlav Yatra to boost the morale of party workers and expand its base; (2) door-to-door campaigns to understand the aspirations of voters in their respective constituencies;  and (3) cycle campaigns to introduce the party’s agenda and its local candidate to households.

Soren with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and (below) Sonia Gandhi.

In September and October 2019 — or, rather, until the model code of conduct was implemented — the JMM carried out these operations simultaneously. It gave them an edge over the incumbent  BJP.

Between September 27 and October 28, Hemant Soren travelled to all 24 districts of Jharkhand “in order to revive the cadre”, as his personal secretary Srivasthwa told this correspondent. Soren projected himself as the underdog who could change the state of affairs in Jharkhand. This early start also meant he had claimed the berth for the Opposition’s chief ministerial face, and he telegraphed this message to voters. 

Ahead of the yatra, Team Hemant shared volunteer forms aimed at college-going students. Those interested were verified and contacted. When Soren’s rally reached the respective districts, these volunteers were given a chance to meet Soren directly. 

“There was not even a single meeting in which strength of such volunteers was less than 40-50,” said an insider. 

During these meetings, Soren would hold freewheeling conversations related to the aspirations and needs of Jharkhand’s youth. This enabled Team Hemant to gauge their opinions. 

Berozgari patra and the cycle campaign

In this phase, the JMM was also carrying out door-to-door campaigns in 41 to 47 constituencies. They introduced a berozgari patra — an unemployment form. The plan was to reach out to 30,000 families in each constituency and get these forms filled.

“Even if we count three votes from each household, we were reaching out to 90,000 voters in each constituency. That is a big number as far as direct communication is concerned,” a core team member said. “The idea was even if 10,000 voters get swayed towards us, based on the promise of employment, we were adding a new voter base.” A similar form on women self-help groups was also circulated.

The data the team received from these was pure gold. They accessed the exact profiles of 30,000 families and their names, ages, addresses, phone numbers, class profiles, and aspirations. This kind of data opens up a whole new possibility for a targeted campaign — both online and offline — and constituency mapping.

To keep the process leakage-proof and ensure the purity of data, the team asked the volunteers to photograph each household being visited and their respective form. These pictures were uploaded on WhatsApp. In each constituency, certain members were assigned to keep track of the pictures being posted.

Berozgari patras being collected.

These berozgari patras culminated into two major promises of the JMM manifesto: an unemployment allowance and the creation of 5 lakh jobs in the first year of Soren assuming office. Soren had promised that his government if elected, would give Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 to unemployed graduates and postgraduates. 

The third prong of the team’s strategy was the cycle campaign — a masterstroke.

Jharkhand is a state with a diverse geographical area. Many of its villages are difficult to reach. The JMM couldn’t match the BJP’s mammoth election expenditure. While the BJP focused on traditional outdoor campaign methods, the JMM chose to reach out to families in rural and urban areas — using bicycles.

The cycle campaign was launched in each constituency and aimed to reach 25,000-30,000 families. The humble cycle was chosen since it’s cost-effective, decentralised, and encouraged local volunteers, both male and female, to directly contribute to the campaign. 

Advertisement materials were mounted on a frame and installed on each cycle. These would include pictures of JMM patriarch Shibu Soren, Hemant Soren, and either the sitting MLA or party candidate in the constituency. Each cycle had a music system and volunteers were given pen drives containing 10 or 12 songs. 

Every volunteer was expected to visit 50 households per day. They would meet families in villages and farms, asking their aspirations and explaining how the JMM would deliver. Again, a WhatsApp exercise was done to upload all the data and maintain purity.

In the process, the JMM’s stickers, pamphlets and campaign materials made it to houses in Jharkhand’s most interior, remote areas, reaching a voter base that’s largely untouched by election campaigns. Additionally, the JMM introduced its candidates to voters way before any other party could.

The data collected helped JMM carve out a manifesto which reflected the aspirations of Jharkhandi electorate. It mentioned issues like 67 per cent reservation to ST, OBC and SC communities, land rights to the landless, policies for contractual workers and teachers, and a promise that contractual workers attached to government departments will never be paid less than Rs 335 per day. These were specific promises, tailormade to the voters, and it made a difference.

Most importantly, this first-hand data collection helped the JMM to categories the 41 constituencies that it contested from. Based on this data, feedback from different teams, visits by the core team, yatras and rallies, Team Hemant mapped the constituencies, dividing them into four categories: Safe, Favourable, Battleground and Critical. 

The cycle campaign, launched in each constituency, aimed to reach 25,000-30,000 families.

The JMM’s ultimate strike rate of 73 per cent is indicative of the strength of this mapping. In fact, much before results were declared, a source told this correspondent that in the worst-case scenario, the JMM would win 31 seats, the Congress 7-13 and the RJD 0-2. The results reflected almost similar numbers.  

Social media and creating ‘party soldiers’ 

While the team tried their hand at all social media platforms including Tik Tok, “the kind of success we got through WhatsApp is incomparable,” said a team member. 

Facebook campaigns remained focused on Hemant Soren, pro-Jharkhand issues, and his attacks on the BJP and Das. On Twitter, the social media team tried to get even district level handles of the JMM verified. 

But the biggest social media battle was being fought on WhatsApp, with the help of nearly 28,000 groups directly controlled and monitored by the JMM, said a core team member. The team member said members of these groups were used as “soldiers” of the party. 

The second strategy employed was to penetrate pre-existing identity-based groups on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. The member said that while the team allowed a free-flow exchange of information, it ensured no abusive messages were circulated through these WhatsApp channels against the BJP or its leaders. 

Interestingly, the member also said that group members would share problems being faced in their respective area or village or constituency. The team would track these problems, allowing WhatsApp to serve as another tool of dialogue between workers, the electorate and the party. 

Since the penetration was right from the constituency-level to the block- and booth-level, the exchange of data was swift. A massive volume of messages was circulated. 

The effect of this data on the final round of campaigning

Now, what happens when the core team members of a party chief have such extensive data? It allows them to draft speeches for their leader that combines the central campaign and lethal political attacks based on constituency-wise problems. “Hemant Da would raise problems of respective constituencies in his speeches,” said Soren’s core team member. 

In the final round of campaigning, Soren started holding five to six public rallies each day. His campaign stood in stark contrast to the BJP’s: it was hyper-local, he targeted Das, he focused on Jharkhand and its electorate. He countered the BJP’s Ram Mandir narrative while attacking the party on issues like inflation, price rise and lack of employment opportunities. During national media interviews, he criticises the Citizen Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens and tore apart allegations of corruption and dynasty politics and that the JMM’s return to power would increase Naxal problems in the state. 

On the other hand, the BJP’s Chanakya, Amit Shah, relied on Prime Minister Modi’s face and national political issues. At the beginning of the campaign, the BJP’s overconfidence was seen in its slogan: 65 paar (Mission 65). The slogan was coined when Shah was being hailed after electoral success in Haryana and ploys used in Maharashtra. In Jharkhand, he pitched Article 370 and the Ayodhya verdict, assuming hyper-nationalism and the Hindutva card was enough to sway voters. 

Soren’s campaign brought his pamphlets, stickers and memorabilia to the most interior parts of Jharkhand.

Team Hemant’s tactics paid off. The Congress made full use of it too. For the first time since the creation of Jharkhand, its dividends touched a double-figure: 16 seats. 

Post-poll strategy and preparations to yet again beat the BJP’s Chanakya 

By the second phase of Jharkhand’s five-phase election, the BJP was realising things weren’t going their way. Das, who was leading the campaign, was asked to take a step back.

But it was too late.

On December 20, when the fifth phase of polling marked the end of the election, the exit polls spelt bad news for the BJP, giving the Grand Alliance an edge. Yet, possibilities circulated over a hung Assembly. Political pundits would have argued that the BJP would have managed to get the numbers had the alliance fallen short of the majority mark. 

But Team Hemant was quick in this game as well. In the days following the exit polls, sources said, the JMM pulled out all stops. Jharkhand Vikas Morcha chief and former chief minister, Babulal Marandi, agreed to support the alliance if need be. The core team also tracked down nearly 10 candidates — either independents or from small parties — who might win the election according to calculations. These candidates were also brought on board. 

However, sources confirmed that they had not held any talks with the All Jharkhand Students’ Union — a former ally of the BJP that was also part of the Raghubar Das government. 

The JMM’s Plan B was ready, but the alliance surged to its tremendous victory on December 23. The efficiency of Team Hemant’s strategies can be understood by the fact that at the time of government formation, 3 JVM MLAs and one MLA from the Nationalist Congress Party, Kamlesh Singh, had also extended their support to Soren.

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