The political survival of former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has come to dominate conversations everywhere in Bihar, from urban middle-class drawing rooms to roadside tea stalls. While his admirers find the questions raised over his continued relevance unpalatable, others find it difficult to pinpoint the reasons why things came to such a pass for someone who, not so long ago, was widely regarded as the man who “liberated” Bihar from “jungle raj”.
This writer eavesdropped on one such conversation among a group of corporate executives, who were visiting Bihar after a year. Ecstatic over the economic and entrepreneurial growth that the state saw under Nitish, the executives were clueless about why the “architect of modern Bihar” seems to be so helpless today.
It is indeed difficult to fathom what went wrong. Nitish’s detractors trace his downward spiral back to the point where they think it all began — his severing ties with the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election on the ground that he could not be part of an alliance that projected Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. When Modi went on to lead the BJP to an unprecedented victory and became India’s 15th prime minister, Nitish appeared to have lost the plot.
The detractors argue that whatever Nitish had achieved in Bihar would have been impossible without the BJP’s support and so it was foolhardy of him to break ties with the saffron party. They imply that things would have been much better for him had he continued to rule the state in alliance with Modi’s party.
As Bihar heads towards the Assembly election to be held next year, the political scene is turning more and more gloomy for Nitish. He is seen to be losing his coherence, combative instinct and political composure.
When he brought in Jitan Ram Manjhi to replace him as the CM, it was described as an astute and shrewd move. It helped Nitish consolidate his hold on the Dalits and Mahadalits. As the BJP has been striving to work out a new type of social engineering by bringing together the upper castes and the backward castes, Nitish has no option but to focus on the Dalits and Mahadalits. Even earlier, he had granted some special privileges to the Mahadalits. His move to reserve 50 percent of the panchayat seats for women also benefited the most oppressed castes.
Though Nitish’s detractors described Manjhi as his puppet, the latter’s reputation as a no-nonsense politician committed to the development of the state endeared him to the electorate. But when he made statements such as his threat to chop off the hands of doctors who ill-treated the Dalits and the poor, it boomeranged badly. The BJP and the media, which were hostile to Manjhi until the other day, started projecting him as Nitish’s competitor, one who had the audacity to question his leader’s authority.
A TV news channel aired a story about how during Chhath puja, Manjhi’s wife was praying for a second chief ministerial term for him. A shocked Manjhi dismissed the report as “sheer lies and motivated”.
When Manjhi found himself isolated within the JD(U) over the appointment of his son-in-law as his personal assistant in violation of a government circular that clearly prohibited persons holding public office from appointing their relatives as members of their staff, the BJP, too, joined the chorus.
Shockingly, Nitish did not show any interest in stopping this campaign to play up the “differences” between him and the man he appointed as CM. Even Manjhi’s Cabinet colleagues known to be loyal to Nitish started distancing themselves from the CM.
Reports of the “differences” started doing the rounds after Manjhi made some remarks that indicated his desire for a second term as CM after the 2015 Assembly polls. Though Nitish has not uttered a word on the issue, some events that he skipped and where Manjhi was present gave rise to speculation. Again, when Nitish called a meeting of party MPs and MLAs for his “Sampark Yatra”, Manjhi was not present. And on 6 November, five senior ministers who had been invited to attend a teachers’ function that was addressed by Manjhi did not share the dais with the CM. A seasoned politician, Manjhi was quick to figure out the reason. “I know that I am chief minister only for a short time,” he told the audience. He also said that he had no extraordinary qualities and did not expect to be projected as the CM candidate of the JD (U)-RJD “grand alliance”.
Surprisingly, Nitish did not pull up his ministers for this act. This even prompted the BJP to allege that the insult to Manjhi was planned by Nitish himself. In fact, Nitish’s ostrich-like behaviour has only added to the confusion. He was expected to make the party rally behind Manjhi. But he preferred to be a passive spectator.
Nitish did not speak out even when Manjhi was being riled by his own ministerial colleagues for saying that a temple in Madhubani was cleaned and purified after his visit, obviously implying that Dalits and Mahadalits are still being despised in Bihar. Manjhi had visited the temple during the bypolls held in August. Later, at the birth centenary celebrations of former Bihar chief minister Bhola Paswan Shastri, who hailed from a Dalit family, a deeply hurt Manjhi observed, “A deep-rooted bias prevails against Mahadalits and those from the downtrodden sections of society… I have myself been a victim of caste bias. But, when it comes to getting their work done, the upper-caste people don’t mind even touching my feet despite knowing my background. Bias against Dalits prevails in the official machinery, too, and hurdles are created in the execution of work related to the welfare of the weaker sections of society. We are like the wounded soldiers of society.”
Nitish had handpicked Manjhi with the aim of consolidating his Mahadalit support base. But, now it appears that the running feud between the two has inflicted damage on Nitish’s political interests. The Musahars are feeling let down. Manjhi belongs to the Musahar caste that derives its name from the practice of eating rats. An estimated 2.3 million Musahars live across Bihar in extremely poor conditions. Less than five percent of them are literate and most of them make a living as labourers. They are still considered untouchables despite the law against untouchability. Through his actions and speeches, Manjhi had succeeded in raising the hopes and aspirations of the Mahadalits. But, in the changed situation, they are feeling betrayed.
The BJP, which has also been trying to identify itself with the aspirations of the Mahadalits, has been quick to respond. The Dalit face of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, Ram Vilas Paswan, hit out at Nitish for frequently “humiliating” Manjhi. “What kind of politics is Nitish Kumar doing? He is simply inflicting humiliation on a Mahadalit,” said Paswan. “This is not fair. The Mahadalits will not tolerate this kind of politics.”
Paswan accused Nitish of making a mockery of Manjhi by choosing him for the chief minister’s post on a “contract basis”. “If Nitish is so sincere about the welfare of Dalits and Mahadalits, he should have chosen a permanent chief minister from those castes and not one on a contract basis. The two cannot walk together on the same path,” quipped Paswan. Alleging that Nitish is not allowing Manjhi to work, the Lok Janshakti Party leader said, “In violation of practice, Nitish calls meetings of legislature party leaders at his residence and keeps Manjhi out. What signal does he want to give through such acts?” He added that Nitish wanted to play the “Mahadalit card” by installing Manjhi temporarily on the CM’s chair until the Assembly polls, but the move had gone terribly wrong.
Nitish seems to have finally understood that the BJP is trying to derive maximum mileage from the perceived chasm between him and Manjhi. Soon after returning from a meeting in New Delhi of various parties that had originated from the Janata Dal, Nitish met Manjhi. In fact, Manjhi called on him at his residence and agreed to avoid any public confrontation that could erode the JD (U)’s credibility. But this did not go down well with the people of the state, especially the Mahadalits. What hurt them most was that Nitish had brandished a veiled threat of replacing Manjhi with another Mahadalit leader. Many people think that Nitish should have shown more political maturity than was evident in his attempt to gag Manjhi.
The more Manjhi is despised and abused by the upper castes for his actions and pro-Dalit utterances, the more the Dalits and Mahadalits would identify themselves with the JD(U). But Nitish’s arrogance and lack of trust in the CM he had himself chosen is whittling away at his support base and alienating even the die-hard supporters. Though Manjhi dismissed reports of his differences with Nitish (“Nitish and I are deeply attached to each other. He is looking after party affairs and I am dealing with the work of the government,” he said) and blamed the media for triggering an unnecessary controversy, not many Mahadalits believed what he said.