Jitan Ram Manjhi – Sailing against all odds

By Ritesh K Srivastava | Updated: Oct 23, 2015, 16:43 PM IST
Jitan Ram Manjhi – Sailing against all odds

True to his surname, Jitan Ram Manjhi, the former chief minister of Bihar and a popular Dalit leader, is like a sailor (oarsman) who has seen many ups and down in his long political career but has survived against all odds.

Till the time he was handpicked by Nitish Kumar, once his mentor and now biggest political enemy, to take over the reins of the state as chief minister, Manjhi was not much known beyond the geographical boundaries of Bihar.

This veteran politician, who belonged to the most backward Musahar community, was a longtime confidant of Nitish Kumar and considered a meek leader who would pose no threat to him, which was also one of the factors behind his elevation as Bihar CM on May 20, 2014.

With a pledge to “finish the unfulfilled works” of Nitish Kumar, Manjhi began his stint as Bihar CM but he also courted several controversies due to his irresponsible utterances, which caused huge embarrassment to his party Janata Dal (U).

However, things began to turn for worse for Manjhi when the JD(U) decided it was time for Nitish Kumar to return. Manjhi, who was supposed to be a ‘rubber stamp’ CM, refused to step down, forcing the party to throw him out after a trust vote defeat in the Bihar Assembly in February this year.

The blame game over Manjhi’s unceremonious removal and the treatment meted out to a Dalit leader angered the backwards in Bihar and many MLAs in the Janata Dal (U) too voiced their support for him.

While the Manjhi episode showed the JD(U) in a bad light and Nitish Kumar as a ‘power hungry’ leader, the BJP also took advantage of the situation and extended its full support to Manjhi, considering his powerful influence on the 16% Dalit voters.

Manjhi, who floated the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) in the days to come, soon became an important player in BJP’s bigger scheme of things in Bihar. After a series of negotiations and flip-flops over seat-sharing, Manjhi’s HAM finally became part of the BJP-led NDA and was allotted 20 seats to contest.

Manjhi’s entry, though it caused serious heart burns for NDA allies LJP and RLSP, is meant to bring ‘Mahadalits’ to the BJP's table while Ram Vilas Paswan will draw Dalits and Upendra Kushwaha the backward votes. With its traditional upper caste support, BJP succeeded in making a "caste rainbow" for the first time across Bihar's complex demographic spectrum.

Hence, EBCs or the Extremely Backward Castes over which Manjhi has a considerable sway could hold the final trump card in Bihar’s caste cauldron if things work as planned.

Manjhi, whose sole aim is to defeat Nitish Kumar, had served as the 23rd Chief Minister of Bihar.

Born on October 6, 1944 to Ramjit Ram Manjhi and Sukri Devi in Mahakar Village of Gaya district in Bihar, Manjhi graduated from the Gaya College affiliated to the Magadh University, Bodhgaya in 1967. His parents were farmers. Manjhi worked with the telephone exchange in Gaya, before venturing into politics.

As the 23rd Chief Minister of Bihar, Manjhi was the third Dalit who reached up to this post in the state after Bhola Paswan Shashtri and Ram Sundar Das. Earlier till the year 1990, Manjhi was a member of Congress Party, and later he joined the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). On the Congress party ticket, he has been an MLA from 1980 to 1990 and on RJD ticket he was an MLA from 1996 to 2005. In 2005, he joined JD (U) and remained with the party for the next ten years.

During his political journey, he has been minister in various governments and apart from working in the Cabinet of Nitish Kumar, he has worked with several other Chief Ministers including Bindeshwari Dubey, Chandrashekhar Singh, Jagannath Mishra, Satyendra Narayan Singh, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi.

He has also been an MLA from various constituencies of the state. In 2005, he was elected as an MLA from Barachatti and in 2010 from the Makhdumpur constituency.

With Manjhi’s rise, Nitish Kumar’s dream of forming the ‘Mahadalit and EBC’ groupings seems to have fallen flat after his bitter spat with the Dalit leader.

Jitan Ram Manjhi was never a political heavyweight and his politics was restricted to his own constituency before Nitish made him the Chief Minister. It was Nitish's fault that he elevated Manjhi to CM’s chair and gave him enough power to bargain for seats with BJP later.

During his reign, Manjhi did everything to establish himself as the messiah of Mahadalits. Including Paswans in the category of Mahadalits was one such move.

Bihar has seen two Dalit CMs prior to Manjhi - Bhola Paswan and Ram Sundar Das. However, both of them had to contend with a Cabinet dominated by forward castes. They were by-and-large subservient to the upper-caste top leadership.

In contrast, Manjhi defied Nitish's diktats, which sent an important message among the Musahars - that Manjhi is their undisputed leader, who was victimised by Nitish.

Today, they seem to be favourably inclined towards Manjhi, who is in a position to influence the voting in favour of NDA thus giving the BJP every reason to place its bet on him.