Bihar: Manjhi's quitting might draw Dalit sympathy but Nitish has the advantage

Over the next few days, Nitish is likely to concentrate only on his Mahadalit vote bank to ensure that whatever damage the Manjhi episode has inflicted is repaired.

Sandipan Sharma February 22, 2015 09:51:55 IST
Bihar: Manjhi's quitting might draw Dalit sympathy but Nitish has the advantage

In Indian politics, mythology often turns into a substitute for history. And politicians love to compare themselves with a mythical hero to give their petty games the halo of a legend.

Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who quit on Friday before proving his majority on the floor of the Assembly, is currently being compared with many mythological figures. His politics and plight is open to so many interpretations that Manjhi has become a collage of characters from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Soon after he quit, while addressing a press conference, Manjhi compared his ‘humiliation’ by Nitish Kumar with the ‘cheer haran of Draupadi.’

He claimed that he was being stripped of his honour and dignity at the behest of his erstwhile mentor because he was a Dalit and thus, like Draupadi, helpless in a darbar surrounded by powerful leaders.

In the BJP too, the references are to the Mahabharata, but the comparisons are with a different character. Many within the party feel that their leaders used Manjhi as a shield to attack Nitish, just as the Pandavas hid behind Shikhandi to target Bhishma.

Outside the political circles, Manjhi is a character from the Ramayana. When Nitish abdicated the throne, he chose his Manjhi to rule by proxy. But unlike Bharat, Manjhi decided to usurp it, leading to an ugly fratricidal war within the family.

Bihar Manjhis quitting might draw Dalit sympathy but Nitish has the advantage

Jitan Ram Manjhi in a file photo. PTI

That it is becoming difficult to typecast Manjhi is bad news for both the deposed CM and those shooting from his shoulder. The BJP would have loved to propagate just one legend of Manjhi, that of a betrayed and victimised Mahadalit. But the jury on whether Manjhi is a victim, an opportunist or just a tool used by the BJP is still out. How Bihar votes in the upcoming Assembly election would depend primarily on how people ultimately see Manjhi.

The battle lines in Bihar are almost clearly drawn today. As a snap poll by ABP-Nielsen suggested on Thursday, the Nitish-Lalu combine appears to be way ahead of the BJP and its allies in the state. According to the survey, there is a huge gap of almost 15 percent (56 JD (U)-RJD and 41 BJP+) in the number of people who are likely to vote for the two coalitions. If a 15 percent gap translates into votes on the polling day and Lalu stays in the coalition, the BJP is likely to be wiped out in Bihar and Nitish will become the king again.

Nitish and Lalu seem to be benefiting from the index of opposition unity—a factor that destroyed the BJP in Delhi—and the favourable caste equations in the state. Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) vote bank and the support Nitish enjoys among Kurmis-Koeris is already a formidable joint venture. Over the past few years, Nitish had added Mahadalits—Musahars, Doms and Dusads—to his vote bank.

The BJP is now hoping that the Mahadalits will abandon Nitish because of his ‘unfair treatment’ of Manjhi and vote for the Lotus. If this doesn’t happen, Narendra Modi will face a tough fight in Bihar.

Will the ploy of snatching the Mahadalits from Nitish work for the BJP?

On paper the BJP’s plan to paint Nitish as a tormentor of Mahadalits looks like a masterstroke. But so was its idea to rope in Kiran Bedi before the Delhi election. And this masterstroke could backfire too.

Over the next few days, Nitish is likely to concentrate only on his Mahadalit vote bank to ensure that whatever damage the Manjhi episode has inflicted is repaired.

Like Arvind Kejriwal, he will hit the streets and villages of Bihar to regain what he may have lost.

The BJP’s other problem is that it can’t be seen being too close to Manjhi, whose diatribe against the upper castes have not endeared him to the core BJP support base.

The BJP knows that by appearing too sympathetic to Manjhi, it risks losing the support of the three big Bs-- Bhumihars, Brahmins and Banias-- of Bihar. So, Manjhi is likely to fight his own battle.

But Manjhi is unlikely to give up.  The question will be if he can be tenacious enough to allow the  BJP to bury Nitish.

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