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Dalit Politics In Bihar: Will Manjhi Take The Cake And Eat It Too?

Posted on November 21, 2014 in Politics

By Jai Prakash Ojha:

“Upper castes are foreigners and they are descendants of the Aryans. Dalits and the tribals are the original inhabitants of the country”.

“The dalit youths must marry within and outside their castes to increase the population. Dalits and tribals constitute around 22 percent of the population and it’s time for them to unite to be in a position to have their own chief minister.”

“Rat eating is not bad and I eat rodents.”

manjhi bihar

“A temple in Madhubani district was washed after my visit to purify it as my entrance to the temple desecrated it.”

You must be wondering who is making such statements. For many observers of Bihar polity, these utterances are mere cases of the Bihar CM Manjhi biting more than he can chew. However before jumping at any conclusion, it is time to ponder over the real motive of the Bihar CM who should not be construed to be naïve enough to make such irresponsible statements keeping in view the fact that his public life has spanned over more than three decades.

When Manjhi became the CM at the behest of Nitish, the widely held view was that it was just a short gap arrangement. Manjhi would be a mere puppet into the hands of Nitish and would simply carry forward the agenda of his predecessor. For many, this was a masterstroke that would showcase the love that Nitish has for the Mahadalits enhancing his electoral prospects for the 2015 Bihar Assembly Elections. The grand alliance between RJD-JD(U)-Congress has already been more or less cemented despite an air of confusion over the leadership of the formation. In all probability, neither Nitish nor Lalu will cede ground to each other, leaving the field open for a candidate acceptable to both. Manjhi has pretensions of himself filling in the slot and it is precisely with this mindset that he is positioning himself as the leader of the dalits/tribals. Some of his utterances of corruption and misrule during the Nitish regime have even put his own party under the scanner with some of his own ministers and legislators in perpetual sulk. Is Manjhi trying to grow out of the shadows of his mentor Nitish or is he making attempts to carve out a distinct dalit space in Bihar polity for himself? Does he nurture ambitions of becoming the Mayawati version of Bihar? Bihar had had two dalit chief ministers—Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sunder Das in the past but frankly speaking, they failed to carry forward the exclusive dalit agenda and more or less, remained immersed in the political mainstream. The powerful dalit leaders like Jagjivan Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan, too, failed to provide a foothold to the surge of a potent dalit movement in the state. The dalit political leadership continued to dance in tango, either with the Congress or BJP or the likes of Lalu-Nitish depending on the political exigencies without crafting an independent trajectory of its own. To what extent Manjhi would succeed, only time would tell but the ball has already been set in motion.

When we look back at history, most of the subaltern movements are preceded by vitriolic outbursts against the existing socio-political order. History is sought to be written or rewritten, facts are corrected or distorted and leadership contemplates to connect with the constituency by appealing to identity to forge solidarity among the members of the constituency. Seeds of sectarianism and exclusive identity are shown to create an impression among the members that their social, political and economic interests differ drastically from the mainstream and until and unless they unite and fight, their rights will elude them. Whether it was Ambedkar or Kanshiram, both were known to be baiters of upper castes or the so called Manuwadis. They played the politics of victim-hood in order to further their interest and exhorted their followers to take up the reins of power to correct the historical wrong that had been perpetrated against them. Manjhi wants to follow into the footsteps of these icons of dalit empowerment. But odds are heavily stacked against him. Nitish is the undisputed leader of the party to which the present CM belongs. The social base that provides sustenance to the JD(U) is a motley combination of Mahadalits, backward caste Muslims, extremely backward caste groups and a fair sprinkling of the upper caste groups most of who have drifted way from JD(U) in the aftermath of its acrimonious split with its long term ally BJP. It is highly unlikely that Manjhi would be allowed to carry forward his tirade against the non-dalits by resorting to such histrionics and caste rhetoric.

Moreover, the major alliance leaders Lalu and Nitish are manifestations of the backward caste upsurge who have made their political fortunes riding on the Mandal wave. They have cut their political teeth under the tutelage of the likes of JP Narayan and Karpoori Thakur. They flaunt their connection to the Lohia ideology and admire the leaders like Devi Lal and Charan Singh. What I mean to drive at is the fact that the backward caste leaders or say the Mandalites have still a tinge of Congress-ism in their DNA as most of their mentors were previously a part of Congress. They could never accept dalits in power sharing; for them, dalits, though a part of the same social justice bandwagon to which they belong, are a mere vote bank. The interests of support base of both the dalit leadership and the OBC leadership are often diametrically opposite as can be seen in the rural hinterlands of the country. You go to UP where you will find mutual hostility at the ground level between the supporters of BSP and SP. Deep down into the south in Tamil Nadu, clashes between the backward Vanniyar community and dalits are frequent happenings. The Dravidian movement in south or the Mandal movement in the north has never given a space for dalit aspirations. To think that Lalu or a Nitish will allow Manjhi, a dalit, to hog the limelight is preposterous. Kanshiram’s grand political strategy of bringing the dalits and OBCs on a common platform to break the political monopoly of upper castes suffered contretemps when Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati allowed their personal ambitions to get the better of Kanshiram’s sagacity. Nitish and Lalu may come together as they belong to the same school of thought but to think that Mulayam and Mayawati would come together is simply outrageous.

Now, coming back to our moot point of discussion, where does Manjhi fit in JD(U)’s scheme of things? According to some keen watchers of Bihar polity, Manjhi is simply doing what is being dictated to him. Then, should it be assumed that the present Bihar CM is inflaming caste passions on the directions of Nitish? Before arriving at any definite conclusion, let’s pause and think. Nitish – the very epitome of the Bihar model of development, and that too inclusive – has he returned back to the caste plank under the influence of his good old Mandal friend Lalu? The grand alliance knows that as far as issues of governance & development are concerned, it is difficult to argue with BJP especially at the time when people all over the country are willing to believe Modi, buying his dreams with alacrity. And then, who would turn a blind eye to what BJP ruled states have been achieving in terms of governance? Hence a return to Mandal and a return to Lalu styled caste rhetoric as in the heydays of the Mandal agitation seems the way to go. Manjhi is precisely doing this with Nitish maintaining a studied silence. Mandal can’t beat BJP as BJP of 2014 is different from the BJP of the early nineties. It’s a Mandal-ised version of Hindutva with several tall leaders of the saffron camp coming from the OBC category, including the PM Modi. Non-Yadav OBCs are not hesitant to cast in their lot with the BJP. While RJD can bank on the MY (Muslims-Yadavs) combination despite the fading Lalu charisma and disenchantment of a sizable section of aspirational middle class Yadavs due to Lalu’s obsession with family empowerment, Nitish faces a dilemma. His core support bases of Kurmis-Koeris constitute less than 5 percent of the population of the state. The upper castes have deserted him and a fair chunk of extremely backward castes are singing paeans to BJP. In this scenario, his cultivated constituency of Mahadalits may fetch dividends and hence, his ploy of letting Manjhi on the loose. Manjhi belongs to Musahar caste, a major dalit community of Bihar in terms of numbers. Manjhi‘s anti upper caste rants are aimed at consolidating the dalit constituency, though the consequences may rupture the fragile social fabric of the state that has seen series of caste wars. Nitish has staked his political future on dalits and the fight would be intense between the grand alliance and NDA for their votes. Though the towering dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan is an integral part of NDA, taking into account the proclivity of BJP not to give an inch to its alliance partners in bargaining, I won’t be surprised if BJP projects a dalit face as CM. This will take the wind out of the sails of Nitish’s real politicking. Moreover, social justice plank will be more meaningful and occupy a higher moral ground when a dalit candidate is pitted against Mandal forces.

Whether Manjhi is nurturing higher ambitions by assiduously wooing the dalit constituency or Nitish is using Manjhi as a pawn to checkmate BJP, it is difficult to conjecture but it can be definitely said with certainty that the electorate has matured. Today people don’t want dole outs but their aspirations have gone up a notch higher. The population is young who long for opportunities rather than affiliations. The vocabulary of politics is different now. The Haryana and the Maharashtra elections have proved beyond doubt that the state elections are getting more and more nationalized and it’s high time for the regional parties to reform themselves otherwise they will become redundant. Politics of caste and kinship may not always work. In this age of connect, local issues can have national perspectives.

The 2015 Bihar Assembly will be closely watched. It will throw up indications as to the likely contours of the future emerging political direction of the nation. It will be a referendum on the Modi magic or say, the nationalization of state elections. It will also be a litmus test for Mandal. The entire nation is watching the developments with round eyed consternation.