Jitan Ram Manjhi, protégé who tried to be a man on his own

  • Mammen Matthew, Hindustan Times, Patna
  • Updated: Feb 20, 2015 12:33 IST

Jitan Ram Manjhi was surprised when senior Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar hand-picked him to become chief minister of Bihar after quitting the post last year following the party's poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections. But it didn't take long for relations between the mentor and his protégé to sour.

Manjhi, 70, resigned

at 10.30am on Friday, half an hour before a trust vote that would set up a third term for Kumar as chief minister. His resignation came after his camp realised that, despite the open support extended by the BJP, Manjhi had failed to muster the numbers needed to reach the magic mark of 117 in an assembly of 233 members.

The Mahadalit leader joined the JD-U in 2005 and served as a minister for education and minister for scheduled caste and scheduled tribes before he was surprisingly picked for the top post in May last year. "It came out of the blue to me then," Manjhi had said at the time.

However, Manjhi's relations with the JD-U and Kumar started to turn bitter just two months later.

Manjhi took to public forums, castigating "bureaucrats and ministers" who were not allowing him to work and then trained his guns on "influential and high caste ministers with money power" who, he claimed, were not giving him leeway or acting on his directives.

In forum after forum, he orchestrated a scenario that made it look like he had been choked, before he took on his benefactor directly, saying "Kumar acted like the legendary Bhishma, closing his eyes to corruption and loot and keeping his eyes closed even when Draupadi was disrobed".

He claimed his attempts to act against corrupt ministers were what sparked the move to dethrone him.

Manjhi knew his Mahadalit status gave him the right credential to woo the highly disparate and divided Dalit castes, numbering 23 in all. He also believed that if they were combined into a force, they could provide as much as 23% of the vote bank--a share that no single political formation in Bihar has.

Manjhi's attack on corruption was aimed at building on the perceived powerlessness and helplessness of Dalits, and he pointed to funds that never reached them and the contractor-minister-bureaucrat nexus that apparently kept them out of power.

He took a series of administrative decisions--increasing homestead land grants to the landless from 3 to 5 decimals, a clause to amend works contract procedures to give preference to scheduled caste and scheduled tribe contractors in contracts worth up to Rs 70 lakh, appointing 45,000 safai employees from the weakest classes and an extra largesse of Rs 1 crore to MLAs for local area works--that were all aimed at consolidating his support among Dalits.

Manjhi also carefully created a different aura, praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the bete noire of Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, conspicuously being seen with top BJP leaders in Delhi and drawing praise from BJP president Amit Shah and other leaders.

He was equally known for shooting off his mouth but contended that his repeated faux pas were the result of being a "novice" in politics.

In October last year, Manjhi had warned doctors in state-run health facilities that he would "chop off" their hands if they were found playing with the lives of the poor. Just days before he quit, he said in an interview that "only 2% to 5% of men go on outings with their wives" while others date "other men's wives". Manjhi made the remarks when asked about his son having an affair with a married policewoman.

Born in 1944 to a couple of farmhands in Mahakar village of Gaya, Manjhi entered politics in 1980 and won three successive assembly polls with the Congress. He represented Fatehpur constituency and served as deputy minister and minister in Congress governments.

He may have lost the battle but he has emerged as a potentially polarising force whose presence could be an electoral ace. His plans may work as the slew of decisions he made has mobilised Dalits like never before and put both the JD-U and RJD at a serious disadvantage.

Manjhi's battle for Bihar has just begun ahead of assembly elections in the state later this year. "Abhi to yeh shuru hua hai, ladaai to abhi baaki hai (This has just begun, the war is still to come)," he said recently.

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