Giving long, sit-down interviews and sound bites is not former Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s style. But he was doing precisely that in the wake of the Jitan Ram Manjhi-led putsch, which has seriously put him on the back foot.
This is a battle that Kumar may well win, given the numbers, unless there is the unexpected. Manjhi, the incumbent chief minister, has the support of 84 BJP MLAs and only 12 of the JD(U) in the 232-member Bihar assembly. The ‘secular’ front, led by Kumar, is claiming the support of 130 MLAs. It is unlikely the JD(U) will split further, contrary to Manjhi’s calculations.
Manjhi knows the odds are stacked against him. In his press conference recently, he said, “I am poor, I cannot afford horse-trading.” Reports indicate that the BJP will not push his case. They can’t be seen to be power-grabbers so close to the assembly elections later this year while President’s rule at this stage would be a political suicide.
Manjhi has never had the party behind him. Only seven JD(U) MLAs supported his decision to recommend the dissolution of the assembly. His declaration of sops — like free electricity to small farmers — has remained only that — declaration.
Kumar, by all accounts, is upset with Manjhi for ‘stabbing him in the back’. But he has, instead, trained his guns on the prime minister, alleging that Narendra Modi is the author of ‘Bihar’s political script’, in an obvious bid to rally the ‘secular’ forces behind him. Kumar should know better. It was Modi’s landslide win in Bihar in May last year that forced him to commit one blunder after another. First he resigned as chief minister, misreading the rout of the JD(U) as a verdict on his governance. And he then put Manjhi, who belongs to the ‘musahar’ caste, a ‘lowly’ caste of rat eaters and the most backward among the Mahadalits, in the saddle. What appeared to be a win-win strategy then — Manjhi has the experience and he belongs to a politically ‘non-threatening’ caste — has turned out to be a nightmare for Kumar. Matters were precipitated after a wholesale transfer of Kumar’s team of officers, including those attached to two upper-caste ministers’ considered close to the former chief minister, jeopardising his caste arithmetic.
In Bihar, the BJP, which is largely an upper-caste party, has been working to augment its OBC support. Since last year it has incrementally added smaller castes to its fold — whether it is Koeri leader Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party or Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party. The BJP also made inroads into Lalu Prasad’s constituency.
For the moment Kumar appears as the biggest loser. The JD(U) has split, his social coalition is under severe strain, and Manjhi’s recent decision to include the Paswans in the Mahadalit category could seriously undermine Kumar’s politics of social engineering. Amid all this the former Bihar CM is saddled with a dissidence-ridden RJD and Lalu Prasad — somebody the people of Bihar are not willing to forgive so easily — as his alliance partner. Remember his daughter lost her seat from a Yadav-dominated constituency?
Despite setbacks, Kumar, riding on his plank of ‘good governance’, remains Bihar tallest leader. But will governance stack up against old-style cow-belt caste politics?
Sandeep Bhushan is project fellow, Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal