A masterstroke or a mistake?

With Jitan Ram Manjhi (right) carving out his own place in Bihar’s political field,Nitish Kumar is slowly being sidelined. Picture shows the two leaders in Jehanabad, Bihar. — PHOTO: PTI   | Photo Credit: PTI

In May, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar handpicked one of his cabinet colleagues Jitan Ram Manjhi from the Maha Dalit community to succeed him, he did not realise that his “masterstroke” would soon prove to be a political disaster for his party and a nightmare for him. Little did Mr. Kumar know that Mr. Manjhi would become a political liability and a calculated game plan would go horribly wrong.

On becoming the third Dalit Chief Minister of the State after Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sundar Das, Mr. Manjhi realised his socio-politico strength and refused to become a remote-controlled or puppet Chief Minister of his predecessor, as many had believed he would be. Instead, he began nursing his own constituency in Bihar’s caste-ridden political firmament. Mr. Manjhi made headlines with controversial statements and slowly nudged Mr. Kumar into the inside pages of newspapers.

Acknowledging the fact that he was not elected but was made Chief Minister, Mr. Manjhi keenly observed the nuances of governance for a month, but started acting on his own thereafter. He also knew that he had been anointed as a stop-gap Chief Minister only for a limited period of time as Mr. Kumar was re-elected as the leader of the Janata Dal (United) Legislature Party. Under Mr. Kumar, the party will contest the State Assembly elections due in October or November next year. In the game of political peek-a-boo, Mr. Manjhi also realised that by making him his successor, Mr. Kumar has, in fact, been making steady moves to seize the Dalit vote bank (comprising 16 per cent of the electorate) which, with the support of votes from the Extremely Backward Caste, (who comprise 30 per cent of the electorate), will most likely make him politically invincible, despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s surge in the State.

Nursing political ambitions

It was a deft move by Mr. Kumar to carve out a political space for himself in the changing political scenario of the State. But being a seasoned politician who began his political career with the Congress party, moving later to the Rashtriya Janata Dal and then the JD(U), Mr. Manjhi knew how to nurse his political ambitions. He knew that to remain relevant he would have to carve out his own place. This is where the real nightmare began to unfold for Mr. Kumar and his party — when the Chief Minister began shooting a barrage of controversial statements.

If Nitish Kumar removes Jitan Ram Manjhi, he will lose Dalit votes and there will be a conspicuous rift between lower caste and upper caste leaders within the party

However, though the Chief Minister’s statements have been embarrassing for the party, they have managed to strike a chord with the Dalit community. It also appears as though Mr. Manjhi has been making these statements to prevent leaders such as Mr. Kumar and Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan from carrying the tag of Dalit leaders. “With some struggle I’ve become the Chief Minister of the State. Who knows, one day I may become the Prime Minister,” he declared at a function. He also stated on his home turf in Gaya that the next Chief Minister of the State must come from his area.

But Mr. Manjhi has also become a man of many gaffes. He said he would “chop off the hands of doctors if they neglected treatment of the poor,” stated that he paid a bribe to bring down the power bill, said upper caste people are foreigners, said “Maha Dalits are not able to look after their children properly or improve their lifestyle,” and that if they “have to drink alcohol, [they] should take a little of it in the form of medicine.” His statement on upper castes was met with scathing criticism from upper caste MLAs who called the Chief Minister “mentally unstable.” However, as political observer Professor N.K. Chaudhury said, all these were ways of “humiliating” the Chief Minister and forcing him to resign on his own. But, as he pointed out, Mr. Manjhi moved on while setting his eyes fixed on his constituency.

And to defy opinion that he is a “rubber stamp Chief Minister,” Mr. Manjhi took some tough administrative decisions. He overhauled the top bureaucracy of Patna district after the Dussehra festival stampede and punished erring doctors while promising to hit hard on those slacking in their duties.

But all these measures set alarm bells for Mr. Kumar who was ready to embark on his 17-day Sampark Yatra, a party cadre contact tour. Mr. Kumar reportedly sent an SOS to party President Sharad Yadav and some other senior party leaders to rein in Mr. Manjhi.

A liability?

Has Mr. Manjhi now become a political compulsion and liability for Mr. Kumar, at least till the Assembly polls next year? The answer is yes. The Chief Minister knows that Mr. Kumar cannot take a shot at him unless he takes RJD president Lalu Prasad into confidence. And for the beleaguered Mr. Prasad, no one is better suited as Chief Minister than Mr. Manjhi.

Second, Mr. Manjhi also knows that by removing him, Mr. Kumar would lose Dalit votes and there would be a conspicuous rift between lower and backward castes and upper caste leaders within the party.

Third, Mr. Kumar also doesn’t have any other candidate to replace Mr. Manjhi. There are many aspirants for the post and they come from different castes but any replacement would trigger an instant rebellion among the party legislators — something Mr. Kumar can hardly afford at this juncture. And above all, the opposition BJP which has been watching hawk-eyed all the developments could also turn Mr. Manjhi’s replacement into an election issue.

Mr. Manjhi has definitely become a political problem for Mr. Kumar. How long will this last? Nobody knows for politics is always a game of possibilities. But the situation is not doing Mr. Kumar or his party any good.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 11:45:09 AM |

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