Governance in Bihar has been ravaged by a bitter standoff between chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi and his former mentor Nitish Kumar over contending claims on who enjoys a majority in the assembly to derive the right to rule Bihar.
Ahead of a floor test in the assembly ordered by governor Kesari Nath Tripathi on February 20, the two camps are embroiled in an acrimonious war of words in which nothing – no institution or constitutional authority - has been spared.
Underway are “strategic” moves - some may call them shenanigans – by the rivals to stack the dice by putting in place individuals and parties in positions that may give each an advantage during the floor test.
Owning “moral responsibility” for the JD(U)’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, then chief minister Kumar resigned. He and JD (U) president Sharad Yadav chose dalit leader Manjhi to become CM, ostensibly to signal the party’s commitment to the most deprived community.
Manjhi was sworn in on May 20 last year and won a confidence vote three days later with the support of the JD (U), the Lalu Prasad-led RJD, the Congress, the CPI and some independent MLAs.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Matters were fine for the first two to three months after Manjhi took over as he mouthed his commitment to take forward “my leader Nitish Kumar’s development agenda”.
Thereafter, the bonhomie started dissipating as Manjhi began asserting himself to dispel the impression that he was a puppet who acted only at Kumar’s bidding. He started pursuing a markedly pro-Dalit agenda and dropping hints that Bihar would be well served if a Dalit leader continued to be CM even after assembly polls due later this year.
THE BREAKING POINT
Matters came to a head when Manjhi replaced officers perceived to be close to Kumar with Dalit officers he trusts, and posted “uncooperative” officers in departments headed by ministers close to Kumar.
When some JD (U) leaders went public in their criticism of Manjhi, he sacked road construction minister Rajiv Ranjan Singh aka Lalan Singh and forest minister PK Shahi, both close to Kumar, on February 7.
On the same day, two more developments took place – Manjhi, amid a walkout by ministers who backed Kumar, obtained his cabinet’s endorsement to recommend the dissolution of the assembly “at the time of his choosing”, an option he still holds.
About an hour later, a JD (U) meeting convened by Sharad Yadav and attended by 97 MLAs elected Kumar as “JDULP leader” and asked Manjhi to put in his papers. Manjhi reacted by sacking 15 minister while another five resigned to express their support for Kumar.
HOW MATTERS STACK UP NOW
Manjhi has claimed the JD (U) meeting was illegal as only he, as the elected JDULP leader, has the authority to convene any meeting for it to be deemed a “JDULP meeting”. He refused to resign and was expelled from the party.
On the basis of a letter from the JD (U) chief, assembly speaker Uday Narayan Chaudhary “recognized” Kumar as JDULP leader but this decision was stayed by the Patna High Court.
Both Manjhi and Kumar have met the governor and claimed majority support in the assembly. The governor said the floor test ought to be held on February 20 as the House had already been summoned on that day. Kumar said the delay would encourage “horse trading”.
WHY THIS CRISIS
Kumar’s stand: Manjhi triggered the crisis by deviating from the JD(U)’s development agenda and his whimsical statements and actions, putting the party in a difficult position ahead of assembly polls.
Manjhi’s position: My efforts to reach the fruits of development to the poor have arrayed against me party leaders with interests adversarial to those of the downtrodden.
WHO IS TO BLAME
Kumar: I had to step in because if Manjhi is allowed to continue as chief minister, he will continue antagonising people at large with his controversial words and actions, severely undercutting the JD (U)’s support base.
Manjhi: On the contrary, I have created an interest of Dalits and other deprived sections of society in the JD (U). As such, I have done a service to the party by supplementing its existing support base.
MANJHI A MISTAKE?
Kumar: It was an error of judgement – a mistake - to make Manjhi chief minister for we had no clue he would turn out this way.
Manjhi: It was indeed a gargantuan mistake on his part to think that the son of a mahadalit with public life spanning 34 years would remain a rubber stamp of somebody else.
WHO IS JDULP LEADER
Kumar: I have been elected leader of JDULP at a meeting convened by the party president (on February 7) and attended by 97 (out of a total of 111) JD (U) MLAs. So Manjhi should resign forthwith as CM.
Manjhi: That meeting was illegal in that it should be deemed only a JD (U) meeting, not a meeting of the JDULP, which, being its leader, only I am authorized to convene till such time as proven on the floor of the assembly that I have ceased to enjoy majority support.
ON ‘TRADING HORSES’
Kumar: When Manjhi emerged from a meeting with prime minister Narendra Modi, he announced he intended to expand his cabinet which appeared to be an allurement to MLAs. It sounded as if he had been given a licence for horse trading.
Manjhi: It is the Nitish camp which spent lakhs of rupees on MLAs by flying them to New Delhi and putting them up in posh hotels on the pretext of parading them at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I am a faqir (medicant), I have no money to buy horses.
Kumar: The governor has been acting at the bidding of (the BJP government at) the centre. By delaying the floor test, he has offered Manjhi an opportunity to lure MLAs to his side.
Manjhi: I have accepted the date he has decided in his wisdom for the floor test. I have no doubt I’ll prove my majority.
THE CROSS CURRENTS
*The speaker or presiding officer may play a critical role in determining the outcome of the floor test by guiding its course and by the manner in which he oversees the actual event.
*The Patna High Court has stayed the speaker's decision to recognize Kumar as JDULP leader on the argument who - Manjhi or Kumar - was the rightful claimant to the post would be decided during the floor test.
*However, the Speaker has said he recognized Kumar’s confidant Vijay Kumar Chaudhary as JDULP leader in the assembly and indicated he might notify him leader of opposition (LoO) in the assembly, ahead of the floor test, after an all party meeting he has convened on February 16.
*The speaker told HT he had received a representation signed by 98 JD (U) MLAs requesting the same. As such, Nand Kishore Yadav of the BJP (with 87 MLAs) was set to give way to Vijay Chaudhary as leader of opposition. The BJP has threatened to move court if Yadav is replaced as LoO.
*Experts are of the view that Chaudhary’s recognition as JDULP leader would “materially alter” the situation ahead of the floor test as it would put him in a position to issue a whip to JD (U) MLAs to vote out the Manjhi ministry.
*If, on the other hand, such a decision by the speaker is invalidated or put in abeyance by a court or a competent authority, a whip would be issued on behalf of Manjhi as JDULP leader and all JD (U) MLAs will be expected to vote in its favour.
*Under the latter circumstance, any JD (U) MLA voting against Manjhi’s motion of confidence in his ministry would attract disqualification under the 10th schedule for violating the Manjhi whip, were the same to be issued.
*Manjhi has written to the speaker to appoint Islampur MLA Rajiv Ranjan as chief whip of the JDULP in place of Shravan Kumar, who is in Kumar’s camp. Ranjan claimed Saturday that the matter was still pending.
*Manjhi camp leaders have argued that when the high court had stayed Kumar’s recognition as JDULP leader, the same reasoning went against Vijay Chaudhary’s recognition as JDULP leader and as leader of opposition.
*An independent MLA backing Manjhi has given a notice for moving a motion of no confidence against the speaker for his alleged partisan attitude. The speaker insists the notice does not compromise his authority to chair the floor test.
*The MLA who has given the notice has moved the governor, seeking his intervention in the matter. Media reports said a minister close to Manjhi is set to move the high court on Monday against the speaker’s alleged partisan role.
*While Manjhi wants a secret ballot in the floor test to enable MLAs to vote freely and not under pressure from ‘mahabalis’ (musclemen) backing Kumar, the governor has given the option of either a secret ballot or a lobby division.
*MLAs backing Manjhi fear the speaker will prefer lobby division, which might inhibit some legislators from making a free choice under the pressure of ‘mahabalis’ that Manjhi spoke about.
Much water has to flow down the Ganga ahead of the February 20 floor test.