Just over a year ago, no one in Bihar thought that a time would come when the top BJP leadership would be spending days mollifying Jitan Ram Manjhi, who in May 2014 was catapulted to the chief minister’s chair primarily because he was considered 'pliable, submissive and bereft of a dedicated following'.
The BJP's patience with that ‘docile’ former CM, as seat-sharing talks for the Bihar assembly poll extended to Sunday, made sense.
In a close election, the 70-year-old Dalit leader may well give the NDA an edge over the rival RJD-JD (U)-Congress alliance.
“Manjhi matters. He carries the potential of swaying a larger share of the 13% Dalit votes in Bihar, a lot more than any other leader,” says veteran politician Shivanand Tiwary.
“Jitan Ramji is the first leader to unite them to a large extent under one Dalit umbrella," explains Uday Manjhi, former chairman of the Bihar Mahadalit Commission that oversees dalit welfare schemes.
He thinks the former CM can sway "5-6% of Dalit votes", which can be decisive in the current assembly poll.
But few had credited Manjhi with this kind of clout in May 2014 when the then (and now) CM Nitish Kumar plucked him "out of thin air" as his successor. A few months later, Kumar described that decision as a "mistake".
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"Manjhi was brought in to deflect the attack on Nitish after the drubbing the JD(U) got in the Lok Sabha polls. It was a convenient choice because rivals would hesitate to attack a Dalit,” says Tiwary, a former JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP.
According to BJP leader Nand Kishore Yadav things were fine till Manjhi started his own 'pro-Dalit' agenda. He appointed Dalit officers to key posts, shunting out those seen as close to Nitish.
“Manjhiji showed his commitment by taking decisions that promised to uplift the living conditions of Dalits,” says Devendra Manjhi, the ex-CM’s son-in-law who was appointed his PA but had to quit following an uproar.
These included giving more land to the Dalit landless, providing scholarships benefiting the depressed classes, appointing sanitation employees (mostly Dalits) and by reserving for Dalits government contracts up to a certain size.
As Manjhi’s acrimony with Nitish grew, he was forced to step down after failing to muster the required numbers for an assembly floor test.
“Manjhiji has captured the Dalit imagination as he speaks and works fearlessly for Dalits,” says Ved Prakash, a young journalist, who quit his job to handle Manjhi’s PR.
After quitting, Manjhi went public with the charge that he was hounded out for being a Dalit. But the JD (U) rejects this charge. Spokesperson Niraj Kumar says, “Manjhi had to go because he undermined the party's agenda of good governance.”
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