By Jai Prakash Ojha:
After the decimation of the JD(U) in the parliamentary elections at the hands of a reinvigorated BJP, Nitish Kumar stepped down from the post of chief minister of Bihar and installed his protégé Jitan Ram Manjhi, a mahadalit on the hot seat. For many, it was a political masterstroke from Nitish to keep the dalits of the state in good humour, keeping in view the ensuing 2015 Assembly Elections, though the oft cited reason from the JD(U) leader for tendering his resignation was the owning of moral responsibility in the aftermath of the humiliating electoral reverses suffered by the party. Manjhi’s coronation was supposed to be a stop gap arrangement and it was not without reason that he was ridiculed for being a puppet CM or the one who acted on the whims and fancies of Nitish. But things are not as simple as they look. There is more to the story than what meets our eyes.
Eyebrows have been raised over the utterances of Manjhi on more than one occasion. His statements regarding the foreign origin of upper castes, exhorting dalit youths to marry outside caste to increase population to have a go at the corridors of power, supporting rodent eating and lamenting about non support from his cabinet colleagues have raised the political temperatures of the state, keeping the caste embers simmering. Is Manjhi naïve enough to issue such statements and that too, after spending more than 3 decades in politics? Are the statements a mere slip of tongue? Is Manjhi treading into the volatile territories at the behest of Nitish? Answers to all the said questions are not so easy but ones that are pregnant with various political possibilities. According to some political analysts, Manjhi’s actions are being guided and instigated by Nitish who has so far maintained a studied silence despite all political hue and cry. Nitish knows that his split with the saffron camp has led to desertion of his upper caste constituency and a fair sprinkling of backward caste votes. His core constituency of Kurmis & Koeris comprises around just 4-5 percent of the Bihar population and hence from an electoral perspective, it becomes imperative for him to bank upon the dalits. Since the most popular dalit leader of the state, Ram Vilas Paswan, is with the saffron side, it makes sense for the Nitish-Manjhi duo to raise the shrill dalit pitch to consolidate this constituency. Nitish can’t challenge BJP on the planks of governance & development as his alliance with the RJD has rekindled the dark memories of lawlessness and governance deficit eroding his credibility. Hence, a return to Mandal era politics, riding high on vituperative caste rhetoric, gives some hope to him in some corner. However, BJP of 1990s is a lot different from BJP of 2015 which appears to be a mandalised version of Kamandal under the Modi-Amit Shah duo. Backward votes will be divided between the rival players and hence, the best bet for Nitish lies in the dalit votes.
But herein lays the root of the problem. Manjhi is making attempts to outgrow from the shadows of his mentor and carve out his own constituency among the dalits, very much in the mould of a Mayawati in UP. The coming together of the constituents of the erstwhile Janata Pariwar and the likelihood of a merger between the JDU and the RJD to prevent the BJP juggernaut from running over the entire northern heartland have led to complications in political equations. Manjhi knows that in the wake of alliance victory, the chances of Nitish becoming the CM are slim as it is highly unlikely that RJD with its formidable Muslim-Yadav base will support the candidature of a person who not long ago, was a known Lalu baiter and an accomplice of the NDA. In the same vein, Nitish will not pitch for any Lalu loyalist for the top post. Hence, Manjhi may get the opportunity to be accepted as the compromise candidate of the alliance in the case of lack of suitable alternatives. He firmly believes that Nitish is not in a position to dethrone him as this action would give a wrong message to the dalits about him. Moreover, Manjhi has his own calculations to read the situation. Nitish can’t depend upon the upper castes, the Muslims-Yadavs will anyway support RJD, BJP will look for upper and extremely backward caste support and hence, Nitish has to cultivate dalit base considering the limitations of his low population Kurmis-Koeris base. He can’t afford to bargain with Lalu from a position of low strength in the event of victory at the 2015 hustings. Manjhi is slowly but strongly positioning himself as the future CM of the state by not holding back and making his intentions clear. Indications coming from the seat of power at Patna show that all is not well within the party as a good number of Nitish loyalists are upset with the high handed manner in which the Manjhi government is sidelining them and also the blue eyed boys of the previous Nitish regime in the bureaucracy. Rifts between Nitish and Manjhi are in public domain on the streets of Patna.
Why is Nitish annoyed? Has Manjhi grown too big for his boots? There have been dalit CMs in the past in the state like Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sunder Das; there have been towering dalit politicians like Jagjivan Ram and Ram Vilas Paswan but none attained the stature of a Mayawati or a Kanshiram as they remained enmeshed in political mainstream, without conjuring up a potent dalit identity. Manjhi wants to emulate a Mayawati but there lies a difference between the two. Mayawati is the undisputed leader of BSP while Manjhi has to contend with the powerful Nitish even within his own party, the JD(U). History has been witness to the failure of the dalit polity and the Mandal polity to forge together a unity of purpose. Both the streams of political thoughts have thrived on the social justice plank and reservation but their aspirations have been diametrically opposite. For the Mandalites, dalits have been the challengers to their political roadmap. The backwards didn’t give the dalits a share in power whether it was in the aftermath of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu or the Mandal movement in UP or Bihar. The ground hostilities between their cadres grab the media headlines. Lalu and Nitish—both made their political fortunes on Mandal and so did most of the leaders of the Janata Pariwar. Lohia-ism hasn’t yet reconciled to Ambedkarism. Most of the Mandalites depend upon the powerful farming and cattle rearing social groups for sustenance and when you look at the rural hinterlands, the dominant OBC communities have become the land owners employing the dalits as labourers and working hands treating them as badly as the upper caste landlords of yester years. The Mandal protagonists may deny a chance for Manjhi to have a shot at CMship.
Whether Manjhi is assiduously contemplating to woo the dalit constituency to give him a position of invincibility as a dalit messiah, or he is acting as a pawn of Nitish to checkmate BJP is difficult to conjecture but the recent incidents have set the rumor mills in motion with animated TV channel debates and eye grabbing media headlines. But as far as I am concerned, the verdict is out. Nitish may love or hate Manjhi, he can’t disown him. Manjhi may either become the proverbial Frankenstein monster for Nitish or his comrade-in-arms against the BJP. However, considering the caste arithmetic, projection of Manjhi as the CM contender of the alliance will lead to accrual of dalit votes and these votes may matter considering the fact that Mandal votes (OBC votes) will be split vertically between the two camps. Upper castes and a rainbow coalition of extremely backward castes may vote for NDA while the minorities may pitch in for JDU-RJD-Congress combine. Dalits may be the ultimate deciding factor.