Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has thrown his weight behind the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), giving a shot in the arm to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which faces a united opposition in the upcoming Bihar assembly polls.
The NDA will be looking at Manji to woo Dalits and other underprivileged voters, among whom he has a strong following. Manjhi comes from a community classified as Mahadalit (extremely backward Scheduled Castes) that the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) cultivated as its committed base over the past decade.
Scheduled Castes constitute about 16% of Bihar’s population, and 21 of the state’s 23 Scheduled Castes are Mahadalits.
“We will fight together. Defeating the unholy alliance of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in Bihar is the main issue for us and the BJP,” Manjhi said after meeting with BJP chief Amit Shah in New Delhi on Thursday.
Manjhi, a former protégé of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar guarded about the number of seats his Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) will contest in the polls in September-October but sources said the BJP might leave 20 to 24 seats for his party.
Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) are the BJP’s other partners in Bihar.
The NDA already has a prominent Dalit face in Paswan and the BJP feels Manjhi will add strength to its Dalit outreach programme. Kumar returned as chief minister after ousting Manjhi and the BJP will use him to portray Kumar as an anti-Dalit leader who dislodged a Mahadalit.
Shah has also met Kushwaha, who pressed for early identification of the seats the partners will contest. Kushwaha, an Other Backward Classes leader, cautioned Shah that any delay in seat-sharing arrangements will lead to confusion among cadres of the allies in the NDA.
Kushwaha is learnt to have asked for three legislative council seats as against BJP’s offer for just one, polls for which are scheduled for July 9.
Manjhi was advised by senior members of his party to make haste and strike a deal with the BJP for the assembly polls soon after his gambit to play the RJD versus the BJP as potential suitors fell flat when RJD chief Lalu Prasad pitched for Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial face of the Janata Pariwar.
But till the last minute, Manjhi and leaders of his party kept the BJP and NDA guessing about his intentions. Manjhi himself said: “I am not talking to the BJP yet. Let’s wait and watch.”
That Manjhi was inching closer to the BJP became evident after he had three meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.