On February 7, even as Delhi went to vote for Arvind Kejriwal as its next chief minister, another drama of chief ministership was unfolding in Bihar, the next state to go for assembly elections later this year. The incumbent JD(U) wasn’t happy with current CM and Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi. In preparation for the assembly election, the party — with support from its present ally, the RJD — had decided it was time for Nitish Kumar, who had resigned from chief ministership in May 2014 following a poor performance by his party, to take back charge as CM.
But when asked to resign, Manjhi refused. Instead, he held a cabinet meeting in which he proposed — allegedly with support from the BJP — the dissolution of the House. Only seven of the 28 ministers supported the proposal, four of the seven are upper-caste leaders, and all seven either want to join the BJP, or have personal grudges against Kumar.
Alleging a BJP-orchestrated coup, on February 11, Kumar, along with 130 MLAs of his coalition — the required number for forming a government is 117 (out of 233) — marched in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, requesting President Pranab Mukherjee to intervene. The same day, though, governor Keshari Nath Tripathi — a former chief of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit — asked Manjhi to prove his majority in the assembly on February 20. Giving Manjhi time to prove his majority, Team Kumar alleges, will lead to horse-trading of MLAs.
With the help of the BJP’s 88 MLAs, Manjhi might break the JD(U) with enough rebels to form a government. But the BJP has been gleefully noncommittal so far. Its rout in the Delhi assembly election has further added to the confusion.
Before examining future possibilities, an analysis of what led to the conundrum is in order.
The elevation of Manjhi to chief ministership by Kumar last year was intended to be a safe, symbolic and short-term strategy. Even then, there were rumours of the BJP attempting to run away with some JD(U) MLAs unhappy with Kumar for having broken from the NDA coalition — which, as the Lok Sabha election results showed, proved disastrous, with the JD(U) winning only two of the 40 seats. Kumar’s resignation was supposed to quell the rebellion within his party. Manjhi’s elevation was also done with a view to establishing a bond with the Mahadalits, who traditionally supported the JD(U) but a section of whom voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. Manjhi, who was earlier the minister for SC and ST welfare, was never seen as Kumar’s competitor.
Moreover, Manjhi also seemed more acceptable to new ally RJD, which, banking on a relatively better performance in the Lok Sabha polls (the RJD-led UPA won seven seats), preferred the 2015 chief ministership to be an open question. It was assumed that Manjhi would be willing to step down whenever his party wanted him to.
It’s hard to say whether Manjhi was ambitious to begin with, or whether his aggression is a result of his general lack of acceptability among middle- and upper-caste JD(U) leaders. Whatever the reason, a few months into his tenure, Manjhi began to see the top post as an opportunity to consolidate the Dalit base, which constitutes around 16 per cent of Bihar’s population.
Manjhi’s statements on the discrimination against Dalits, often true but politically incorrect, embarrassed fellow party workers from the middle and upper castes; his statements on developmental failures in Bihar — on one occasion, he claimed Kumar had failed to reduce corruption — threatened to undo the “development man” image Kumar had assiduously built over two terms. While Manjhi did initiate a few policies for the uplift of Dalits — homestead land for landless Dalits, ration cards for all SCs, free higher education for SC children — he never showed an inclination to talk about the more structural problems, such as land reforms, or even the recent biased verdicts on the caste massacres in Shankar Bigha and Laxmanpur Bathe villages. In January, he haphazardly posted Dalit civil servants to important positions and transferred secretaries without the consent of the concerned ministers.
It slowly became apparent that Manjhi had developed ambitions to see himself as CM for the next term. When confronted by the party leadership, Manjhi signalled that, if removed, he wouldn’t mind joining the BJP, thereby bolstering the BJP’s chances of attracting a substantial section of Dalit votes. However, if Manjhi continued as CM, the JD(U) risked losing the development vote bank across all castes, which could electorally cause more lethal damage. In the end, the JD(U) decided to risk Manjhi’s ire.
There is a possibility of Manjhi continuing as CM with the BJP’s support. The BJP has 88 MLAs and Manjhi would be required to horse trade in order to reach the magic number of 117. But the BJP, unsure of whether Manjhi could gather the rest of the number, hasn’t so far declared support. The party’s Bihar unit is mired in its own leadership woes. The defeat in Delhi has made the BJP’s central leadership more circumspect. Supporting Manjhi might also confuse the BJP’s traditional upper-caste supporters. On February 9, for example, Manjhi’s cabinet passed a bill announcing reservations to contractors belonging to SC and ST categories in the road construction department — something upper-caste voters wouldn’t appreciate. Then again, thanks to the BJP’s own anti-Manjhi campaign till recently, upper-caste voters hold Manjhi responsible for the declining law and order situation in the state.
The other, perhaps more likely, possibility is that Kumar would prove his majority and become CM. The Manjhi fiasco may lead to a reduction in the Mahadalit vote for the JD(U)-RJD alliance, but clarity about Kumar as leader would allow the alliance political stability and time to prepare better for the assembly election. The alliance doesn’t have a better leader than Kumar to fight the resurgent BJP in Bihar.
The only remaining scenario is fresh polls. The BJP has nothing to lose by this, as the first two choices are riskier. An early election would also mean the BJP might be able to reap some benefits from what now looks like a fast-declining Modi wave.
In retrospect, Nitish Kumar’s decision to first elevate and then attempt to oust Manjhi from the chief ministership may appear to be a blunder. But it could serve as a wake-up call for the JD(U)-RJD alliance, which had become complacent and did not seem to make any progress on choosing a leader, or on a joint campaign strategy. Manjhi’s ouster is also likely to serve as another reminder to the alliance — it cannot win Bihar merely through a realignment of castes or palavers of secularism. It’s time Kumar revised his governance lessons and pitched sensibly to voters. He may not get the two-thirds majority his NDA coalition had managed in 2010, but he could certainly make an honourable comeback.
Kumar is an economist with the International Growth Centre, Patna; Choudhary is a Delhi-based journalist.
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