Four decades ago, in the early 1970s, when Shibu Soren, 70, resolved to fight against oppression of moneylenders, the Santhali tribesmen in Santhal Parganas (now it's a cluster of five districts in north Jharkhand) used to greet him with Re 1 as contribution and a bowl of rice with love.
The contributions paid for his travel and food during his journeys. Four decades hence, it's the same Soren who has got richer by Rs. 82 lakh and even owns two SUVs, as per his declared assets and uses a chopper for his poll campaign. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief is seeking re-election from the Dumka seat for a record eighth term.
While the life of this tribal leader has taken strides ahead, not much has changed for tribals for whom 'Guruji' had fought for decades. Despite lack of development, quite a few elderly tribal women still come up to him and offer him the same 'alms' – Re 1 and a bowl of rice.
"It's a tradition we have been following since years," said septuagenarian Savitri Purty at one of Soren's election meetings in Dumka. She, however, is not aware of the fact that the private chopper that Soren flies charges him at the rate of Rs. 1 lakh an hour.
Despite lack of development in the constituency, Soren continues to enjoy unflinching support among the tribals – unparalleled for any other tribal leader in the country.
Apart from the challenges posed by falling health and a fading memory, Soren is struggling to keep his flock together. In the past one month alone, two JMM legislators and an MP have switched loyalties.
"JMM will soon be just a father-son party," said Simon Marandi, a minister in the Hemant Soren, son of Sibu Soren, government. Simon is likely to join JVM-P shortly.
In this context, Guruji has high stakes in Dumka seat that goes to poll on April 24. Soren is fighting a tough battle against Babulal Marandi, former chief minister and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik (JVM-P) chief. He is leaving nothing to chance and has been camping in Dumka to neutralise the JVM-P campaign.
The JVM-P has been bolstered by the support from Stephen Marandi and Simon Marandi— both JMM deserters -- who enjoy considerable support among converted tribal Christians.
Even as people feel that this could be Guruji's last election, the veteran politician says he is not going to quit any time soon. "I am not going to retire from politics," he tells reporters at the Dumka airport before he flies off.
Tribals, who consider him a meesiah, are the real source of his optimism. At each doorstep that offers him the alms, Guruji is assured of his win.