By expanding the Mahadalit bracket to include Dharis and Dhadis, sub-castes of Dusadh or Paswan, Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has effectively staked his claim to being the leader of Bihar’s Dalits, a role so far associated with Ram Vilas Paswan.
So far, Paswans were the only one of 22 Scheduled Castes kept out of the bracket. Mahadalit status entails benefits of over a dozen welfare schemes, including free land to the landless. And so far, Ram Vilas’s stand has been that Paswans, being the most “forward looking of Scheduled Castes”, did not need the Mahadalit tag.
The LJP chief cannot, however, openly criticise the new move. He was the first prominent NDA leader to come out in support of Manjhi in his showdown with Nitish Kumar. “Manjhi is a fellow Dalit,” Paswan has said, describing him as a better CM than Nitish, but has steered clear of reacting to the cabinet decision.
Paswans constitute six per cent of Bihar’s population.
“In long-term politics, Ram Vilas Paswan and Manjhi are going to share same the Dalit space,” says a senior leader of Paswan’s LJP. “With Manjhi moving close to the BJP, there is bound to be competition between the two leaders.”
“If Manjhi joins the BJP, the conflict would be less intense,” says a BJP leader, “but Ram Vilas Paswan can still lose some of his bargaining power with the BJP. If Manjhi floats a party, the BJP will have to deal with two allies with a similar profile. It will be a problem of plenty.”
CM Manjhi said after the cabinet meeting: “The government saw no point in leaving Paswans out of the Mahadalit umbrella. In fact, we have proposed to appoint Paswans as chowkidars across the state.”
The Nitish Kumar camp has already lodged a protest with Raj Bhavan, questioning how the cabinet of “a government of 13 MLAs” can decide ahead of a floor test. “It is not about what decisions have been taken by the cabinet but whether Manjhi can take such a decision when his government is in a minority,” says JD(U) leader Bijay Kumar Choudhary.
As chief minister, Nitish had introduced the Mahadalit umbrella in 2007 after the Bihar State Mahadalit Commission recommended inclusion of 18 SCs in the category. Subsequently, three more SC groups were included, leaving out only the Paswans or Dusadhs. Following the inclusion of Paswans, there remains no distinction between Dalits and Mahadalits.
Ravidas, Mushahar and Paswan are among the most dominant groups among the Scheduled Castes, accounting for 18 per cent of the population. And a caste conglomerate created with meticulous social engineering by Nitish Kumar now has three claimants to their leadership — Nitish, Manjhi and Paswan.