Manjhi's HAM quits NDA: Does it affect Bihar's political, caste equations?

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with Ham(S) Chief Jitan Ram Manjhi at a function in Patna. Photo:PTI
The Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM), led by a former chief minister and Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, has quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and joined the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led electoral alliance. What does the move mean in Bihar politics? Does it even matter in Bihar’s complex political and caste equations?

In the old days when Jitan Kumar Manjhi and Nitish Kumar were together in the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), Kumar chose Manjhi as his successor as chief minister. It was a difficult time. The JD-U had performed badly in the 2014 general elections and Kumar knew that unless he managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat, it would be hard to win the assembly elections due in 2015. What he needed was the kind of caste alliance that had sustained him earlier: a massive coalition of extremely backward social and economic forces. By proposing Manjhi as CM, the optics would be that Kumar was empowering these forces.

Kumar was labouring under the mistaken belief that what O Panneerselvam had been to Jayalalithaa, Manjhi would be to him. Momentarily, he allowed himself to forget the political history of the Hindi heartland where loyalties are often sheathed daggers. Manjhi was made the chief minister. 

He, however, did everything that Kumar was opposed to -- "corruption" and "nepotism". At any other time, Kumar's decision to dislodge him might have been cheered but Manjhi's Dalit background insulated him from charges of corruption. In fact, he alleged that Kumar was interfering in day-to-day governance and not letting him work.

Gradually, Manjhi’s disappointing tenure made Kumar push him out. But the disapproval of Manjhi was seen as a stratagem to get back into 1, Anne Marg. Kumar realised the JD-U was losing ground with Manjhi. But having installed him, the decision to abruptly dethrone him was a big mistake. 

Manjhi is a Musahar. Having been thrown out of power, Manjhi quit the JD-U and two years ago, formed his own party, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular). The population of the Musahars, one of the most backward Dalit communities in Bihar, is estimated to be around 2.2 million, according to state’s Mahadalit Commission interim report.

But the HAM knew it could not survive on its own. And when the JD-U allied with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress ahead of the 2015 elections, Manjhi joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA.

Although Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party was already in the NDA, he welcomed Manjhi. Later, Manjhi realised that he had no voice in the NDA -- Paswan’s voice was louder and his appeal among the Dalits wider. It didn’t help that in the 2015 Assembly elections, the HAM put up an extremely disappointing performance. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, Manjhi opted to bide his time: till by-elections (to be held on 11 March) to the Jehanabad and Bhabhua Assembly seats and the Araria Lok Sabha seat.

Manjhi wanted that at least Jehanabad seat is contested by his son. He believed that with the BJP behind him and the JD-U opting to stay out of the contest, he could win the seat. Not only did the BJP not give him the seat, they opted to give it to an upper caste candidate from the JDU!

Obviously, this did not go down well. Manjhi has begun talking about contesting 50 seats in the assembly elections. His mission is to create a common platform of leaders from the extremely backward communities in Bihar.

While this might get only limited traction, no leader likes to be made to look small. So, he has gone to the rival alliance, which has problems of its own but has welcomed him with open arms. Assembly elections are far away but in Bihar, social engineering lives. By turning Manjhi away, the JDU-BJP alliance may have created an unnecessary and entirely avoidable problem.

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