Two days before the trust vote in Bihar, Nitish Kumar, former chief minister, recounts the events of the day that became, for him, the turning point in a saga that began nine months ago with his decision to instal Jitan Ram Manjhi in his place and which is now rolling towards a dramatic Mentor vs Protégé climax.
On February 7, he says, the JD(U) president called a legislature party meeting. On the agenda was a discussion on the performance of the Manjhi government, his controversial statements, and a snowballing sense of crisis within the ruling party because of perceptions that Manjhi was turning on Nitish.
“I met Manjhi ji that morning and asked him to attend the meeting in the evening. He expressed unease, said the rumour in the political marketplace was that he would be asked to step down. I assured him he would not be replaced and asked him to take an hour, think it over.” Manjhi took that hour, says Nitish, to call a cabinet meeting that recommended dissolution of the House.
“That was the moment of decision for me,” says Nitish. “I had won the mandate but I had given him my government. But he also wanted the party. He wanted it to do as he says. It’s not wrong to trust; Manjhi’s is an unprecedented betrayal.”
Having installed Manjhi after he read a personal snub in the JD(U) setback in the Lok Sabha polls — “I felt hurt and thought my 2010 mandate had been weakened” — which, he now admits, was a “samajh ki chook”, Nitish claims he kept a distance from the Manjhi government. “I could sense things were going wrong, I was getting feedback that the administration was deteriorating, law and order worsening, transfers and postings becoming controversial. Yet I would tell those who came to me with complaints that my focus was on 2015 (assembly polls) and on the merger (of the Janata Parivar).” Then, “people started warning me that ‘kuchch bachega tab na’.” He began to realise, he says, that since the mandate was his, the blame for government failures would also be seen to be his.
NITISH KUMAR ON JITAN RAM MANJHI
Manjhi himself has suggested the souring of relations began when Nitish found that Manjhi was his own man, but Nitish claims that when he asked Manjhi to attend that legislature party meet, it was only the third time he had directed him to do something after making him chief minister. “I had asked him to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in, and when the Yojana Aayog was being targeted by the Modi government, I asked Manjhi to advocate its reform instead of dismantling.”
Before that, when he made him CM, Nitish remembers advising Manjhi to do two things: “I told him a roadmap of governance is in place, he should work on its implementation. And I asked him to keep his family away from government.” Manjhi reneged on both promises, Nitish says. “He began behaving as if there is no continuity in government, as if he was providing an alternative. And everyone knows what happened on the second count,” he says, referring to allegations of interference by Manjhi’s family in affairs of government.
Amid hectic lunch-and-dinner politicking — JD(U) leaders meet daily, ostensibly to sup together and arguably to count heads for the trust vote — Nitish is bitter about Manjhi, and angry with the BJP. “The BJP is choreographing the crisis, behind the scenes. First, the governor gave more time for the floor test though he had earlier accepted our demand for an earlier date. Manjhi met the PM and pressure was applied from Delhi. And now the BJP is openly speaking in Manjhi’s favour.”
Today, the question, according to Nitish, is: “Which party does Manjhi represent? Which party is in government? The JD(U) has already expelled Manjhi. There are only five parties in the assembly — JD(U), RJD, Congress, CPI, BJP.” The BJP, he alleges, wants to impose President’s rule.
Nitish claims the support not just of the Janata Parivar, but also of other opposition parties and even a BJP ally: “Mayawati has spoken against the BJP gameplan, and so have Mamata Banerjee and Shiv Sena.”
But in all that has changed since Nitish was last chief minister, the coming together with Lalu is still remarkable. “We have developed different habits over 20 years. We have been habituated to criticise each other. We must change our habits now,” he says, wryly.