By Bhanvi Satija:
It seems like February is an eventful month for politics in our country. While last year Delhi saw an interesting move by its chief minister during the same time, this year elections were conducted in the region. Meanwhile, the state of Bihar is also struggling to keep its political affairs stable this month.
On Friday evening the chief minister of Bihar, Jitan Ram Manjhi, wrote to the Governor of West Bengal, Keshri Nath Tripathi, recommending the removal of two cabinet ministers – Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lallan, Minister for Road Construction and P K Shahi, Minister for Forest – they are reportedly close confidantes of Nitish Kumar, the other player in the controversial story that has been building up in Bihar since Friday. On Saturday morning, Manjhi visited Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav (party chief), while the people of Bihar waited in anticipation of a resolution amongst the key players.
Eight months ago, Manjhi was picked by Nitish Kumar to take his place as the Chief Minister. According to Kumar, “After the Lok Sabha polls, I expressed my wish to tender my resignation but the party members were not in favour of this. But I thought, as we didn`t get the expected mandate, I needed to reach out to the people and restore their faith in us. I was given the authority, I recommended Jitan Ram Manjhi ji`s name and he became the Chief Minister.”
However, the meeting on Saturday did not lead to positive results for the people of Bihar. In fact, things have gone downhill ever since. The attempts to reconcile have failed and on Saturday afternoon, Manjhi called for a state cabinet meeting. A resolution authorising him to recommend the dissolution of assembly was moved; however, it was not supported by a majority of the house as only seven ministers had voted in favour of it. Despite not having attained a majority on the resolution, Manjhi went on to recommend the dissolution of the assembly to the Governor.
In another attempt to stabilize affairs, Sharad Yadav, the party chief of JD(U), called for a meeting of the party. Manjhi and his supporters refrained from attending this meeting, and claimed that it was an “unauthroised” meeting; as according to Manjhi, only the chief minister can call a meeting. This meeting was attended by a majority of the party legislators, and Nitish Kumar was elected as the new leader of the party during the meeting. Assembly speaker, Uday Narayan Choudhary, has also reportedly recognized Nitish as the occupant of the new post. However, experts claim that this recognition is ‘unconstitutional’. “The leader of the House is recognized by the speaker only after the governor administers oath to the new leader as chief minister,” said Brishen Patel (education minister of Bihar) to Hindustan Times.
On the other hand, Jitan Ram Manjhi is adamant that he will not resign. “I will prove my majority in the assembly or step down if I can’t. They (Janata Dal United) had a misunderstanding that they can make me do whatever they want. But I can’t be a rubber stamp CM,” HT quoted him on 9th February. Expert opinion has it that if Manjhi does not resign on his own, then the only way to remove him from the post is to defeat him on the floor of the Bihar Assembly. According to constitutional lawyer Basant Chaudhary of the Patna High Court, this is the law as established by the Supreme Court Bommai Judgement of 1994. (Read more about the case here)
Manjhi reportedly flew to Delhi, amidst the turmoil in Bihar, to attend the NITI Aayog meeting held on 8th February and to seek support from the Bharatiya Janata Party, if required. The BJP, however, seems to have kept quite on the issue and claimed to have only been keeping a close watch. “We are keeping a close watch on the developments in the ruling party and will take a stand at an opportune moment. Right now all options are open,” said senior leader Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP on Friday. He added that fresh assembly polls at the earliest would be in the best interest of the people of Bihar.
The involvement of BJP adds more spice to the crisis in Bihar as BJP leaders and Nitish Kumar are leaving no opportunity to target each other. On the one hand, Kumar is blaming BJP for creating a divide within the party and for the instability of the government, on the other, Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP has told the PTI that “Nitish Kumar seems hungry for power and that is why he has got himself re-elected as the Legistrature Party leader by ousting a maha-dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi.” The BJP seems to be interested in the affairs for it sees this opportunity as a chance to settle scores with Nitish Kumar, who had walked out of the NDA ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. The party would refrain from extending support to Manjhi because they wouldn’t want to be held responsible for his misrule. At the same time, they wouldn’t want Kumar to take over the affairs of the State either.
Another interesting view in this situation is the caste angle. Manjhi belongs to the Mahadalit community, which is recognized as a subgroup of 21 out of 23 schedule castes (SC) in Bihar. The SC’s constitute 16% of the state’s population and largely vote en-bloc in favour of a particular party. The BJP seems to be exploiting this situation, as is evident from Sushil Kumar Modi’s remark to the PTI. Manjhi too has been flaunting his background, and saying that his community is not ready to accept any more insults. A case has been filed by a local dalit leader, Lalan Ram, against the JD(U) national president Sharad Yadav, general secretary KC Tyagi, and spokesperson Neeraj Kumar, on Saturday at a local court at Hajipur in the Vaishali district. The case charges the aforementioned party leaders and members of “conspiring to remove” Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi and insulting him.
In a show of strength, Nitish Kumar led 130 leaders from the JD(U) and its allies to the Governor’s house on Monday. “We told the governor that all the legislators were at the gate of his house with their Identity cards and he could count them. We asked him to take a decision and it must be taken immediately. We are ready to prove majority on the floor of the assembly as soon as he wants,” Nitish Kumar told NDTV. JD(U) has expelled Jitan Ram Manjhi for anti-party activities – referring to his meeting with Mr. Narendra Modi and other senior BJP leaders, while Manjhi refused to resign as the Bihar chief minister.
Currently, as far as the situation in the assembly is concerned, the JD-U has 115 legislators in the 243-member assembly. It is supported by 24 legislators of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, five of the Congress, one from the Communist Party of India and two independents. This is more than the simple majority figure of 122. The opposition, BJP, has 88 legislators and it enjoys the support of three independents. Five seats are vacant at present. The JD(U) is divided haphazardly over the two leaders. They can’t possibly let go of Manjhi either – that would cost them the votes of an entire community and considering that the elections are due in September-October, they can’t possibly afford to lose votes.
This is a peculiar situation and a few basic questions regarding the instability and chaos in Bihar remain unanswered. How is the recommendation made by Manjhi for the dissolution of the assembly valid when the resolution did not get a majority in the House? How is it possible that Nitish Kumar has been elected the new leader without Manjhi resigning or failing a no confidence motion in the house? But most important of all, why should Manjhi be removed by the same JD(U) and Nitish Kumar who had nominated him? A possible explanation of this question is Manjhi’s poor performance at the office and the bizarre statements that he has made, defaming the party during his tenure. However, could this sudden agitation against him possibly be because of his background? What role does BJP play with the creation of this faction based on caste within the party?
While these questions remain unanswered and the Bihar turmoil unfolds by the second, the ball seems to lie in Governor KN Tripathi’s court, who interestingly also belongs to the BJP, and is holding charge of the governor for both West Bengal and Bihar.