As Bihar Assembly election gets nearer, Dalit politics gathers momentum

Former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha recently quit the Opposition Mahagathbandhan
As the Assembly polls are getting nearer in Bihar, politics with the Dalits as the centrepiece has gathered momentum. In keeping with past trends, influential leaders of the community are switching camps.

The Dalits constitute nearly 16 per cent of the vote and 38 seats are reserved for them in the 243-member Assembly.

They have played an important role in the political journeys of both Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad.

Spate of defections

Senior Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] leader and former state industries minister Shyam Rajak has returned to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) after 11 years. Rajak said he was turfed out of the party because he raised uncomfortable questions about atrocities on Dalits and reservations in promotion. “I cannot stay in a party where social justice is denied,” said the former colleague of Nitish Kumar.

On the same day, three RJD MLAs — Maheshwar Yadav, Prema Choudhury, and Faraz Fatmi — crossed over to the JD(U), the ruling party, after expulsion.

The biggest blow to the Mahagathbandhan (the RJD-led alliance), however, came on Thursday, when the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) of former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi walked out of the wigwam.

“How will leaders who don’t listen to their alliance partners listen to the people when they are in power?” asked HAM Spokesperson Danish Rizwan.

Rizwan said Manjhi had been authorised to charter the course of the party. And it’s being speculated that the former CM could career towards the JD(U)-led NDA once again. Many in the ruling party say the return of Manjhi could compensate for the loss of Rajak.

But the biggest worry in the NDA is the tension between the JD(U) and the Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). Paswan’s son Chirag, who is an MP, has made no secret of his ambition and has been asking for “a respectable number of seats”. The young leader is critical of the state government over its handling of the migrant crisis, Covid-19, flood, law and order, etc.

Shyam Rajak, a minister in Nitish Kumar’s government, left JD(U) for RJD
JD(U) leaders, in a like-for-like measure, termed the Jamui MP “Kalidas”. Things degenerated to a point where the BJP leadership had to intervene. Chirag met BJP President J P Nadda last week and spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Sources in the BJP say the young MP was told to tone down his attacks.

Reasons for jumping ship

The central theme is opportunity. Nitish Kumar, it is said, was planning to dump Rajak in the upcoming polls and field Arun Manjhi from Phulwari Sharif, Rajak’s constituency and a reserved seat.

However, JD(U) sources say that it’s not that simple. They point out that the Phulwari Sharif constituency has a sizable number of minority voters. Given the fact that the JD(U) had supported the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) in Parliament, many in the ruling party feel it would have been almost impossible for Rajak to win.

Jitan Ram Manjhi, on the other hand, had fallen out with the Grand Alliance after his demands for setting up a coordination committee and a greater say in seat-sharing got short shrift. According to sources, the HAM wanted to contest 15 seats but Lalu Prasad and his son Tejashwi Yadav were not ready to accede to that. The grapevine has it Nitish Kumar has offered Manjhi 10 seats and one in the Upper House of the state’s bicameral legislature.

The situation is more complex in the case of the LJP. Chirag, sources say, is asking for 41 seats. Nitish Kumar, however, is not keen on more than 25.

The impact

In 2015, the scheduled castes, by and large, had turned their back on the NDA, which could muster just 58 seats. Of the 38 reserved for this community, the RJD bagged 15, the JD(U) 10, and the Congress five.

The situation went into reverse in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, with Nitish Kumar returning to the NDA fold. 

The CM, who was in a comfortable position earlier this year, is facing public anger over his handling of the migrant crisis and the pandemic. According to the state government’s survey, around 66 per cent of the 120,000 victims of this pandemic are labourers, a majority of whom belong to backward communities.

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