Jharkhand Mukti Morcha president Shibu Soren, in hiding for over a week now dodging a non-bailable arrest warrant issued by a court in Jamtara, Jharkhand, has his eyes set firmly on the state assembly election due in February.
Soren's resignation letter delivered to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by his party colleagues on July 24 gave enough indication of this, as also of his determination to make the Chirudih massacre of 1975, in which he is facing arrest, an election issue.
According to JMM sources, Soren, who is "somewhere in the jungles of south Jharkhand on the state's border with Orissa," has made up his mind to appear in public only after the high court delivers an order on his petition seeking the quashing of the arrest warrant issued on July 17.
This is not the first time the JMM leader has played hide-and-seek with the law.
He was one of the main accused in the JMM MPs bribery scandal of 1993. He knows, and so do his rivals, that the arrest warrant and his run from the law can in no way damage his party's chances in the assembly election. If anything, it will only benefit him.
After the violence in Chirudih, in which 10 people were killed, Soren won the Dumka Lok Sabha seat five times.
Jharkhand is Shibu Soren's real battle.
The JMM leader, who helmed Jharkhand's struggle for statehood, cannot get over the fact that his party did not gain power when the new state was finally formed late in 2000.
February 2005 may be just the right time to change that.
A source in the Union government told rediff.com, "Soren's letter of resignation in Hindi indicates clearly his next moves."
Soren wrote to the prime minister: 'Main high court mein apni appeal per faisle ka intezaar kar raha tha, per sarkar ke rajnaitik pareshani se mera man dukhi hain.' (I am waiting for the high court decision [on his plea to quash the arrest warrant], but I am pained by the political headache this controversy has become for your government.)
'Ab maine Jharkhand ki janata ke beech jakar rajnaitik sangharsh karne ka nirnay kiya hain.' (Now I have decided to wage my political struggle at the grassroots level in Jharkhand.)
Though the prime minister must have felt relieved when he received Soren's letter, his party surely knew what it means for it in Jharkhand.
A stronger Shibu Soren will mean smaller space for the Congress on Jharkhand's political stage.
The Congress will have to go with the JMM and the Leftists in the assembly election, in all probability in a pre-poll alliance. Alone, the Congress leaders know, they do not stand a chance against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies.
Congressmen are also aware that the uproar in the media over the Chirudih massacre will only serve to strengthen Soren's position in his constituency of tribals.
Soren did not bargain for the delay in the high court taking up his petition. He was forced to put in his papers after the Opposition stepped up the heat on Manmohan Singh's government.
Another reason he wanted an honourable exit is because he does not want his chances of grabbing the chief minister's post in February ruined by a technicality. The case dragging on for a few years more does not bother him. It only reinforces his position as a messiah of the tribals.
Among his followers, the Chirudih incident is known as a fight for tribal rights. Soren remains the much revered Guruji to his supporters.
The Congress believes the anti-incumbency factor will work against the BJP in the next assembly election. But it will need Soren's support to dislodge the Arjun Munda government.
Soren knows the challenge to his party comes from BJP and the challenge to his leadership is from the Congress. Hiding in the jungles of Jharkhand, he must be happy that in some ways he may have already neutralised the second challenge.