‘Policies should focus on educational and economic status rather than caste’

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Jitan Ram Manjhi | 69 Bihar Chief Minister
Jitan Ram Manjhi | 69 | Bihar Chief Minister. Photo: Prashant Ravi

As political parties in Bihar gear up for bypolls in 10 Assembly seats on 21 August, former chief ministers and archrivals Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have buried the hatchet after two decades and joined hands to take on the might of the BJP. How far will JD(U) leader Nitish — whose climb up the political ladder owes much to the RJD’s Lalu — profit from the alliance remains to be seen. Often described as the semi-finals, conclusions drawn from such bypolls have gone awry in the past. The real test for the new alliance will be the Assembly polls slated for next year.

While the entire focus rests on this contest, a third angle has gone largely unnoticed. Lost in the emerging political arithmetic, Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has been typecast as a temporary occupant of the hot seat.

Nitish made Manjhi — a Mahadalit — the chief minister allegedly with Lalu’s support. But whether Manjhi is ready to stay on as a puppet looks doubtful. He wishes to continue as the chief minister and break free of Nitish’s shackles. He accepts Nitish as his leader and considers him a great man, but he is no longer the person who would blindly follow Nitish.

If Lalu and Nitish are described as king and kingmaker, respectively, for their political adroitness, Manjhi has been celebrated as a master strategist. He was with the Congress during the heydays of the party before joining hands with Lalu when the RJD reached its prime. And later when the JD(U) came to power, he allied with Nitish. Manjhi knows that if he has to establish his own identity and step out of Nitish’s shadow, he should carve out a new path. That is why while Lalu, backed by Nitish, is spending all his energies in reviving Mandal politics, Manjhi has started fuelling other debates in the state.

In an exhaustive chat with Nirala, the accidental chief minister explains how the JD(U) government plans to woo Mahadalits as well as other backward classes.

Edited Excerpts from the interview

From being an MLA to chief minister, you have seen it all in Bihar. How has been your experience as chief minister? And what has been the biggest challenge?
Before I became the chief minister, a lot of things were already in place. I have repeated it many times. If Bihar was a badly governed state, I would have faced tough challenges. The issue before me is how to continue the work Nitish Kumar had started. For me, that is the bigger challenge. I believe that Bihar will be a developed state if everyone follows the roadmap prepared by Nitish.

Earlier, Mahadalits were left out of Nitish’s model of development. Being a Mahadalit, would you replace it with a fresh model?
There is a problem. The gap of social inequality is enormous. Even within the backward classes, you will find a lot of inequality. The literacy rate for one caste is 50 percent, for another it is not even 10 percent. The social and economic conditions of illiterates are worse even within their own community. They need special care. The concept of Mahadalit was introduced, keeping this in mind. But now I feel that it should be based on educational and economic status rather than caste. Policies should be made at an economic level for the educationally backward and economically weak.

Some changes have been introduced. There is a scholarship provision for Scheduled Caste students who clear the matriculation exam with first division. There are some parents who cross all limits to get their child a first division. They make arrangements right from the exam centre to checking of copies. But those from castes such as Dom, Musshar, Kharwar, Bhuiyyan, etc are unable to do so and their children don’t get top honours. So, I have decided that a scholarship of Rs 10,000 should be given to those students who come from a caste with a literacy rate less than 30 percent and get second division. Girls from the above mentioned castes who clear the intermediate exam will be given up to Rs 25,000 so that they can pursue higher studies.

Similarly, there are provisions for people with an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh. Those with an annual income more than Rs 5 lakh have other provisions. So, I am focussing on the economic status of the communities.

Another hitch is state-regulated residential schools for Scheduled Caste students. So far, only 28,000 children have been admitted to such schools in Bihar, while the conditions in other states are a lot better. Seven lakh children were admitted in Andhra Pradesh and 3.5 lakh in Odisha. These states are providing facilities to more students despite there being a vast difference between our populations. So, we have decided to provide residential school facilities to 2-2.5 lakh students. The conditions of such schools will be improved. I believe that education is everything.

Your party has allied with the RJD, which relies heavily on Mandal politics. How do you feel about it?
These are ideological ties and they don’t affect governance. It matters only to the parties involved. Lalu proposed the idea and our party considered it. Personally, I have a different opinion. I don’t believe that the issue raised by the Mandal Commission was totally wrong. If it had been followed properly, there would have been special provisions for then the most deprived classes, including the backward and the economically weak members of the upper castes. There was nothing wrong in that. But the Mandal report was analysed with a bias. Caste-based mass hysteria was spread against the report as though it posed a danger to other communities. It wasn’t true; nothing should have happened. I feel there is a need to study the Mandal report again. When it is reread and reviewed, it will prove beneficial for Bihar and the backward classes.

You have issued conflicting statements regarding party matters on several occasions. For instance, while you claimed that talks were on over seat sharing with the RJD, Nitish denied it saying the JD(U) was still considering support from the RJD.
It is important to look at the context in which Nitish made the statement. In the working committee meeting, it was decided that state JD(U) president and Rajya Sabha member Vashisht Narayan Singh will go to New Delhi and meet Lalu regarding the future of the alliance. Our party leader confirmed it later that he has been authorised and is holding talks. Two days ago, Nitish had also said that while in Delhi he would look into the matter. But later he changed the statement saying that the party is still considering a tie-up with the RJD. What can I say? There is need to look at it another way. There is a difference between forming an alliance and taking support for an election. The same is true for the RJD in the upcoming elections. It is a matter that requires the working committees of both parties to sit together and draft a common minimum programme. That is why there is a need for support and not an alliance.

Confidence personified Manjhi says Bihar will be privileged to have Nitish back as the chief minister after next year’s Assembly election
Confidence personified Manjhi says Bihar will be privileged to have Nitish back as the chief minister after next year’s Assembly election. Photo: Sonu Kishan

Along with Nitish, you are also eligible to lead the JD(U) in the 2015 Assembly polls. So, why aren’t you doing it?
I was against Nitish’s decision to resign from the chief minister’s post. He should have accepted the position again in the interest of the party as well as the state. But he resigned on moral grounds, which is good. I don’t think such a thing has happened in the country before. However, some MLAs were so furious at Nitish’s resignation that he had to calm them by saying that he will return before the next Assembly election. It was a strategy to console the MLAs. As far as leadership is concerned, when I am asked about it, I will put forward Nitish’s name as our paramount leader who should return as the chief minister. But there is still a year left. We will see how things develop. It is too early to say anything. I still say that Nitish is eligible. Bihar will be privileged to have him as the chief minister again.

What do you think about Lalu’s demand for reservation in government contracts?
Lalu believes in the media. It is good that he has made that demand now. But we were the first to seek reservations for Scheduled Castes in all such contracts. So, it is good that he is supporting our demand. In fact, Mayawati took an initiative in this regard a long time ago.

But Lalu has not mentioned SCs. He has only made a demand for reservation.
That is alright, it is reservation after all. Scheduled Castes have always led the way. We will experiment with them first.

Are you going to implement reservation in contracts for SCs?
Yes, definitely.

Are Dalits being used as political tools?
Dalits are socially and politically weak. Babasaheb (Ambedkar) used to say that politics is the key to development. We need the political key to unlock development. Our society did not acquire this pattern. But things are changing now. Voting patterns have changed as voting percentage has also gone up. As we grow stronger, the people’s mindset about us is also transforming. After I became the CM, Mahadalits felt as if they had all become the CM. In future, not only will they vote for the JD(U) themselves, but will urge others to do so. The percentage of votes will rise from 10-12 to 25. The leadership of the party will then be handed over to the one who has mobilised all these votes.

So, I cannot say that I have been used. We were deprived of our rights because of our own mistakes. Nowadays, Mahadalits have started to vote as a bloc. When I was with the Congress, Mahadalits supported the party. When I joined the RJD, they voted for it. Now, I am with the JD(U), and they are too. It is a fact. But I repeat, I have no differences with Nitish. Earlier, with Lalu or the Congress, my demands were never met. For instance, neither Lalu nor the Congress paid heed to my demand for reservation in gram panchayats, but Nitish fulfilled it. I thank him. Today there are 1,400 SC village heads. On my demand, Nitish recognised Dalits and Mahadalits as separate entities. It has benefited the community. It means work is really going on and I have not been used.

Won’t Nitish find it difficult to face the voters after allying with someone he has criticised for so long?
The more important question right now is how to save Bihar from the BJP’s clutches. The party wants to spread chaos across the state to gain control. That is why the old question of Nitish-Lalu enmity is not important. We want to build an alliance of anti-BJP forces. We don’t want to discuss the past. As far as Lalu is concerned, he instilled confidence among the poor. We cannot ignore his contribution. Together, we can defeat the BJP.

What do you prefer: social justice or development?
Social justice is more important. It will lead to the development of the backward classes as well as the economically weaker sections of the upper castes. We are also considering the provision of scholarships to upper-caste students who are poor.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman
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