The elevation of Jitan Ram Manjhi as Bihar’s new chief minister comes just after a defeat in the Lok Sabha election from Gaya. Manjhi, 68, who belongs to the Mushahar scheduled caste, is SC/ST welfare minister in the outgoing Nitish Kumar cabinet but has always kept a low profile,
“This piece of news came from nowhere,” an overjoyed Manjhi said after returning from Raj Bhawan, where he had staked his claim to forming the new JD(U) government.
“I was packing my suitcase to go to Gaya for a wedding when I suddenly got a call from the chief minister asking what he thought about his decision to resign. I said I lauded his decision, which would be always cited as a benchmark for high standards in public life,” Manjhi said.
“Nitishji told me to defer my trip by a couple of days. Another call came 20 minutes later. Nitishji called me to his residence at Anne Marg. When I reached there, he said, ‘This house is yours now’. I could not believe my ears.”
Manjhi, the MLA from Maqdumpur in Gaya, hails from Mahakar village in the district. His father, Ramjeet Ram Manjhi, worked as a labourer.
Manjhi said Nitish has given the opportunity to a man who comes from one of the most backward communities, socially, economically and educationally. “Giving this honour to a person from the Mushahar community underlines Nitishji’s commitment to working for the downtrodden,” he said.
He had begun his political career in the 1980s, joining the Congress. He won his first election that year from the Fatehpur assembly seat. He retained it in 1985 and lost it in 1990. When Lalu Prasad became CM, Manjhi joined the RJD and was elected twice from Barachatti assembly seat of Gaya.
He served as minister of state in both the Congress and RJD governments. His first cabinet posting came during Nitish Kumar’s first term, but he had to quit after his name cropped up in connection with an education scam. He was eventually cleared and he rejoined the Nitish cabinet, this time in charge of SC/ST welfare, a department carved out of welfare. The portfolio put on him the onus of carrying forward Nitish’s Mahadalit agenda that includes distribution of three decimals free land to over 2.5 lakh landless families of Mahadalits, a conglomeration of 21 scheduled caste minus the Paswans.
Asked if he would seek guidance from Nitish, Manjhi said: “There are no two ways about it. He is the undisputed leader of our party. He will continue to guide us. Woh to murdhanya neta hain.”
Manjhi, a graduate, has five daughters and two sons.