In May 2014, Jitan Ram Manjhi had been Nitish Kumar’s surprise choice for chief minister — a choice dictated both by the 70-year-old’s surname and the fact that he kept a low profile and was expected to keep the seat warm for the JD(U) leader who had resigned in a huff after a massive defeat in the Lok Sabha elections that year. It marked a big moment for Manjhi’s Mushahar community, among the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy and around 2% of the state’s voters. It was also only the third time that a Scheduled Caste leader had become the CM of Bihar, despite the caste churning that rose from its fertile politics. The others were Bhola Paswan Shastri and Ram Sunder Das.
Nitish was seen to have retained EBC and Scheduled Caste votes in the 2014 polls, besides those of his core constituency of OBC Koeris and Kurmis. Manjhi was a gamble to get the Mahadalits behind him too.
However, Nitish — who was candid in his admission to this reporter at the time that he had “chosen Manjhi for CM post because he was not a leader” — had been in for a surprise. Just two months in, Manjhi had shown he was far from content remaining in the JD(U) leader’s shadow — so much so that Nitish had returned as CM in February 2015, a few months before the Assembly polls. Manjhi, in turn, had split and set up his own party, the Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAM-S), and joined the BJP-led NDA. Nitish fought those polls aligned with the RJD and Congress.
The 2015 results had proved a non-starter for Manjhi, getting him only one seat and ensuring he had almost no bargaining power with the BJP. Then, Manji had headed to the Grand Alliance, though the Modi sweep in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls ensured the NDA had left little for anything else.
Now, with the NDA still holding the upper hand, Manji has used JD(U) channels to return to the alliance. The JD(U) has given the HAM-S seven seats from its share of 122. Manjhi himself is re-contesting from Imamganj, against two-time Bihar Speaker and RJD candidate Uday Narayan Choudhary.
Born in the small village of Mahkar in Khijrasarai of Gaya, Manjhi got into politics early, with his brother, who was in the Bihar Police, supporting him financially. He became an MLA from the Congress in 1980 and a minister in 1985. When the Congress’s fortunes declined with the rise of Lalu Prasad, he joined the Janata Dal and later the RJD. In 2015, Manjhi became a minister in the Nitish Kumar government, but remained unnoticed till the JD(U) supremo sprang that surprise.
Despite their history, Nitish realises the need for the Dalit support Manjhi represents. After Shyam Rajak left the JD(U) to return to the RJD, Nitish is left with only a few Scheduled Caste leaders, such as JD(U) Bihar working president Ashok Kumar Choudhary and Maheshwar Hajari. Even the NDA is left with few Dalit leaders after the LJP walked out.
Manjhi personally too has come far from that small house in Mahkar. The village’s sole two-storey pucca house belongs to him. His son Santosh Kumar Suman is an MLC.
However, with that clout not translating into seats in elections so far, this may be a battle for survival for Manjhi. Dalits, comprising 16% of Bihar voters, are seeking a leader to unite them. The HAM-S is expected to wield the most influence in Gaya, Jehanabad and some pockets of Purnia, Khagaria. Should Manjhi win even three-four seats, he will continue to count.
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