On Friday, the power warriors of Bihar are going for a floor test to decide who gets the CM’s chair — former chief minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar or Kumar’s rebel protégé and self-declared Mahadalit messiah Jitan Ram Manjhi.
But it’s a curious situation where the usual zero-sum game of politics is not likely to be played out in Bihar, in that it’s likely to be a lose-lose game for both camps. It’s only the BJP which may benefit from all this bloodletting.
It’s difficult to ascertain who began the exchange of pinpricks between the Kumar and Manjhi camps and when. But it became a regular war since February 7, when the JD(U) legislature party re-elected Kumar as its leader and showed Manjhi the door.
The reason: Kumar believes that Manjhi, whom he nominated on May 20, had derailed Bihar’s growth and, more importantly, consorted with the BJP to put the JD(U) in real danger in the 2015 assembly polls. Kumar asked governor Keshari Nath Tripathy on February 9 to swear him in within 48 hours and demonstrated the support of 130 MLAs – his own 97, plus RJD’s 24, Congress 5, CPI one and independent one —in Delhi. He even expelled Manjhi and suspended rebel ministers.
But the ever submissive and grateful Manjhi turned out to be the real rebel, refusing to quit unless defeated in a floor test. Manjhi claims to have mustered the support of at least 43 JD(U) MLAs — 12 more than the 31 required — to add to the 87 BJP legislators. Manjhi camp trying to 'buy' MLAs, say Nitish supporters
In a house of 233 —- with 10 seats vacant —- the magic mark is 117.
But the battle has gone much beyond a numbers game. Here’s why:
The Mahadalits — 21 of the 23 extremely backward castes, constituted by Kumar in 2007 —which helped him come back to power in 2010, are now firmly with Manjhi. For, he is one of their own. Manjhi has also included Dusadhs to the Dalit-EBC vote base, besides winning Lok Janashakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan’s support. So, the other backward castes which, for a long time, kept the Yadav kingdom going in Bihar, will not have the EBC support this time.
In fact, the EBC-OBC split was quite pronounced in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which led to the misery of the RJD, JD(U) misery. It also means that for the first time in post-Congress Bihar, Dalits will join the upper and middle castes of the BJP — a formidable front.
And with at least 60 of the 243 assembly seats being in the reserved category, neither the JD(U) nor the RJD can afford to be seen arraigned against Dalits. And the BJP, naturally, feels supporting Manjhi is a political imperative.
Also, the method in the madness of Bihar has brought out unlikely responses from different players. For instance, former RJD MP and don of Siwan Mohammad Shahabuddin has issued a behind-the-scene diktat to RJD men and Muslim legislators to vote against Kumar.
Even sitting RJD MP of Madhepura Pappu Yadav is openly getting in touch with BJP MPs of the Yadav-dominated constituencies and devising a strategy to beat Kumar.
Both have several bones to pick with Kumar. And Yadav, particularly, is looking for an independent space in Seemanchal districts with the Dalit power behind him, courtesy Manjhi.
Lalu Prasad, who had opposed any move against Manjhi to keep his Dalit vote base, later came up with a qualifier: he will support whoever is picked by the JD(U). Thus, the canny Prasad this time is stuck in his own web. He is now forced to ‘stay’ with Kumar.
If he manages to beat Manjhi on Friday, Kumar may return for the third time as the CM, but without his Mahadalit vote base. What’s more, he’ll have little time to put Bihar back on track.
Manjhi, if he wins, will mobilise the JD(U) fence-sitters and potential deserters and may go all out against the pro-Nitish ministerial group.
With an alliance with the BJP, he could seal Nitish’s political fate forever. It’ll make the merger proposal of the Janata Parivar all that more difficult too.
But for Manjhi, his rise — although meteoric — would ultimately be more to the BJP’s advantage. BJP, for one, may be found laughing all the way to the vote bank.