By Jai Prakash Ojha:
The political drama finally ended in Bihar on 20th February when Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi resigned from his post before facing the trust motion in the House. Nitish Kumar, his mentor-turned-bête noire, has taken up the reins of administration. Manjhi may be down, but is not yet out, and has kept all his options open. His increasing proximity to BJP and the new found confidence after successfully carving out a distinct dalit identity in his nine months of tenure has made the scenario fluid, and the air in Bihar is pregnant with possibilities of new socio political configurations. For long, Nitish had been the Chanakya of Bihar politics with his social engineering concept that saw him lead the rainbow coalition of Mahadalits, Pasmanda Muslims, extreme backward castes, non Yadav intermediate castes like Kurmis-Koeris, and upper castes owing to his alliance with BJP, vanquishing Lalu led RJD in the process. However, things changed suddenly after Nitish broke away from the NDA and then had to bear the ignominy of a humiliating defeat at the hands of a resurgent BJP, buoyed by the Modi wave. Facing existential crisis, he installed Manjhi as the CM to showcase his love for the Mahadalits and secure their electoral loyalty.
Challenges before Nitish
His ambitious political strategy of creating a grand alliance of erstwhile Mandal forces to take on the NDA may be weakened considering the fact that the power tussle within the party has alienated the Mahadalits from JDU, as can be seen in the way the Musahars & the Doms (major Dalit sub castes) came out on the streets in Patna in support of Manjhi. Manjhi also tried to undo Nitish’s strategy of social engineering by including Paswans in the mahadalit category. Absence of dalit votes would mean that Nitish would be left with only a diminished clout in the grand alliance where RJD with its solid vote bank of Yadavs (11 percent) and Muslims (16 percent) would have a overbearing presence, putting his political survival at stake as the upper castes (13 percent) have already deserted him. In the remaining period before election, Nitish has to do a lot to win back the trust of Dalits while also having to contend with the plethora of populist announcements made by his predecessor Manjhi, like free electricity for farmers possessing land up to 5 acres, reservation for poor upper castes in public jobs, wage hike for contract teachers, reservation for dalits in government contracts and a host of others, with precarious state resources.
Manjhi’s drift towards BJP may bring about a socio political alignment between the upper castes and Dalits (22 percent), which would be a setback to the politics of social justice. Since the heydays of Congress domination, the dalits and the upper castes have never come together to vote in Bihar. Not to forget that BJP had played the backward caste tag in Eastern UP and Bihar in the Lok Sabha Elections to hoodwink the Janata Pariwar constituents. The EBCs (extreme backward castes) constituting 32 percent of the population, who have been marginalized in the intermediate OBC heavy Mandal phenomenon, are turning to the BJP in a big way as seen in the last elections. Moreover, presence of OBC leaders in BJP at state level can be a counterweight to the RJD-JDU game plan.
If Manjhi were to form his own party, a section of RJD may break and join forces with him. The Kosi strongman Papu Yadav is a sympathizer of Manjhi. It is not without reason that Lalu maintained a studied silence in the recent standoff and advised the outgoing CM Manjhi not to join hands with the so called communal forces.
Nitish did a Kejriwal by asking the people to forgive him for his resignation. It is an irony that Nitish, who earned appreciation for his inclusive development model and social engineering, sided with a party which he had lambasted for jungle raj in the past. However, Nitish would do well to adopt a development plank as this is his forte. Kejriwal transcended caste and religion in Delhi, taking the wind out of BJP’s sails when he spoke for the underclass as a whole and addressed issues linked to governance, development and concerns of the masses. However, Bihar is not Delhi, which is just a city state with urban population having different aspirations. Caste arithmetic is a reality, though it has to be welded together with governance & development. Apart from this, the increasing young population and a bit of urbanisation with a now visible middle class may force the parties to change their grammar of polity.