Even as the eyes of the nation are focused on Delhi’s elections, we are already seeing the shadows of the next major assembly election – Bihar, due by the last quarter of this year – lengthening across the political landscape.
The exercise has begun with not one, but two sets of farcical moves, both courtesy former Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. It shows how blind hatred (and/or fear) of one man – Narendra Modi – can warp the thinking of even a politician of Kumar’s calibre.
First, Kumar shook hands with his ultimate political rival, Lalu Prasad of the RJD, convicted for corruption in the fodder scam, by proposing a merger of his party (the Janata Dal - United) with the latter’s. So the man behind “jungle raj” is now vital for what Nitish sees as his political future.
Second, the same blind hatred saw Kumar first install a Dalit as Chief Minister, and now seek to uninstall him. After the Janata Dal (United) was trounced in the Lok Sabha elections, Kumar got his party to elect Jitan Ram Manjhi as Chief Minister. Through this sudden switch, Kumar hoped both to capture the high moral ground by quitting after defeat, and also claim virtue by getting a Dalit elected as CM.
The games being played now in Patna show how both manoeuvres were blatantly hypocritical.
Nitish Kumar now wants to eject Manjhi from the Bihar gaddi seven or eight months before the assembly elections. This proves that he essentially saw Manjhi as a stopgap arrangement, or as someone he can run through remote-control.
This shows Kumar in very poor light. If he really hoped to run Bihar from the backseat, clearly the objective of placing Manjhi in front was not about empowering a Dalit. It was tokenism of the worst kind.
If, on the other hand, Manjhi was meant to be a stopgap CM in order to distract attention from his Lok Sabha defeat, it exposes Kumar as a mere manipulator, doing things for the optics.
Luckily for Bihar’s public, Nitish Kumar’s unholy moves are now clearly visible to one and all. Reason: Manjhi has so far refused to play Shikhandi to Nitish’s Arjuna.
He has decided to call Nitish Kumar’s bluff by opposing the party chief’s decision to call a meeting of the legislature party to elect a new Chief Minister. As leader of the house, he says this was his call. To be sure, Manjhi may also be playing hard-to-get in order to get a better deal from Nitish when he finally quits. But the optics have certainly not helped burnish Nitish Kumar's image.
Like Nitish Kumar after May 2014, Manjhi has been using the Dalit card to embarrass his former mentor turned tormentor. The Economic Times today (7 February) says Manjhi has picked up the gauntlet. He was quoted as saying:” The battle has begun and now I will not run away from it. I don’t know why Nitishji is maintaining a reticent posture like Bhishma Pitamaha. I would have gone by his advice, but he has employed people like KC Tyagi to do the talking. Tyagi is a Yamdoot.”
This is a smart move and shows Manjhi is no political novice when it comes to power politics. By earlier holding the veiled threat of recommending the dissolution of the assembly, he had set the cat among the pigeons. But Manjhi has also set another trap for Kumar: by claiming he would have listened to Nitish Kumar and also threatening to fight him, he has shown up Kumar as a power hungry politician who uses devious means to achieve his ends.
Manjhi is essentially saying that he is not clinging to his chair, but fighting for his dignity. By implication, he is suggesting that Nitish Kumar is not playing the game honourably by formally requesting him to hand over power.
Party chief Sharad Yadav’s letter to the Governor, not to implement any recommendations of Manjhi, appears to have incensed the latter. This is the reason he has shown spine.
The BJP, clearly, is enjoying this washing of dirty linen in public by Kumar’s cohorts and Manjhi. However, there will be no gain in it for the BJP if it tries to prop Manjhi and facilitates a constitutional crisis with the help of the Governor.
There is little doubt that Nitish Kumar will win the party’s leadership back at the next legislature party meeting - and even Manjhi will not ultimately seek to damage him. So trying to bat for Manjhi is not a good idea. The BJP may benefit more by staying above the battle and focus its efforts on showing Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav as members of an unholy alliance who unseated a Dalit for no reason at all. Any murky manoeuvres involving the Governor will only recoil on the BJP, and Nitish Kumar will then play victim before the electorate. Creating a crisis just a few months before elections are anyway scheduled would be a disaster.
For Nitish Kumar, trying to become CM again is actually not a great idea. He will not only be accused of acting against Dalit interests, but will face the full brunt of anti-incumbency in the assembly elections. It may be better to replace Manjhi after the election, when legislators anyway have to elect a new CM. Returning to the gaddi earlier may not work as well as he imagines it will. He needs to ponder another issue: Lalu Prasad's RJD, which is now JD(U) partner, will be more suspicious of Nitish if he is CM and is the projected face in the next election.
By seeking to return to power, Nitish Kumar may end up blotting his copybook. He may end up proving that he too is driven by the lust for power and blind opposition to Modi. Not something the Bihar electorate will relish.
Updated Date: Feb 07, 2015 17:10 PM