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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

Bihar: Checkmating the Upsurge of Neo-dalit Politics

Sunday 1 March 2015

by Arun Srivastava

The Manjhi-Nitish break-up in Bihar has indeed come as a surprise as this would dent the “clean” image of Nitish Kumar, the Chanakya of Bihar, and also decimate the tenets of his renunciation of power eight months back. No doubt the relationship between the two was based on purely political compulsions. But it has much wider ramifications/implications. Undoubtedly Nitish had played the biggest gamble of his political life by choosing Manjhi as his successor but it was not a losing proposition. That his move had panicked the BJP was evident from the fact that its leaders were scared of attacking Manjhi, as it could alienate the Dalits and Mahadalits. Naturally in this backdrop Nitish’s move to sack Manjhi has been quite intriguing. Even the seasoned politicians are in stupor.

Though many explanations are doing the rounds in the political circles, the fact is that it was the spectre of emergence of the militant ultra-Dalit politics that made the upper-caste people and politicians scared and skeptic. The images of the nightmares of the 15-year regimented rule of Laloo Prasad started haunting them. Under the eight-and-half-year Nitish rule these people had got the opportunity to assert and reinvent their might. After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections these people had in fact resorted to their old practice of bullying and torturing the Dalits and Mahadalits. Even during Manjhi’s tenure a number of cases of atrocities and torture on Dalits were reported.

What was most significant was the police administration colluded with these forces. In fact during the last couple of years the police abetted the upper- caste goons and criminals and protected them from being sentenced in cases related to genocides and massacres of the Dalits and Harijans by concealing the facts from the trial courts, especially from the High Court. In fact a judge had observed that he knew that he was exonerating the marauders as the prosecutor did not furnish the evidences. During Manjhi’s tenure they had turned quite aggressive. Some Dalits were also killed. For the upper-caste people, especially the landed gentry, it was the right time to crush the Dalit rebel voice forever.

This trend did not go unnoticed. In fact the manner in which Manjhi was addressing the Dalits and Mahadalits to make them realise their relevance in society and politics panicked the upper castes. His statements like “upper castes are foreigners”, “chopping the hands of doctors”, “I am a CM only for a few days”, “Dalits must join politics to have a share in power” and “do not allow the seven Union Ministers from the State to enter into Bihar if they don’t assist Bihar” were interpreted by these people as an act of pitching Bihar on the violent path and destroying the social relations. Manjhi has been a pliable politician but these people looked at him as an ultra-activist. No doubt what Manjhi conveyed to his men were primarily aimed at arousing the political awareness of the Mahadalits and making them feel that they have a participatory role in running the government. His so-called secret meeting with 200-odd Mahadalit officers was an exercise in this direction. Manjhi’s move had started making a dent in the BJP also. One of its senior leaders could not conceal his feelings: “People appreciate his feelings for the Dalits. He has established himself independently. Bhola Paswan and Ramsundar Das depended on others for their survival as the CM, but Manjhi doesn’t.”

The class interest of the upper-caste people was so ethnic and strong that even the barrier of the political colour, Right and Left, did not prevent them from coming together and spearheading a joint crusade against Manjhi. While this brought together the divergent upper-caste politicians under one umbrella, a section of the upper-caste Ministerial colleagues of Manjhi revolted as he was not allowing them to spend the government funds according to their free will. On the night of February 8, just after meeting the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, he blurted out how some of his colleagues were angry with his tight fiscal measures. It is not at all a hidden fact that 80 per cent of the government budgetary allocations and various funds are siphoned with the active connivance of the Ministers and bureaucrats. Manjhi pointed out that his attempt to put a check on this infuriated some of his Ministerial colleagues. Nevertheless what has been happening in Bihar for the last five days is not an unusual sight in its realpolitik. In fact it is the basic character of the political activity and resolutions that ought to be seen in the proper perspective.

Though the recent development appears to be a clash of vested interests and power struggle, in reality it points to the emergence of a new type of Dalit movement in the country. At the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with some senior Dalit leaders joining the BJP bandwagon, it appeared that the Dalit politics had taken a Right turn. In fact some Dalit intellectuals and activists had expressed their anxieties at the alleged degeneration of the Dalit movement though some others had dismissed it. But the recent political developments have once again raised the matter in a forceful manner: Where is Dalit politics heading? While the Dalit assertion or upsurge is still based on the principle of opposing the hegemony of the upper caste and fighting against their dominance, what is significant is that the dynamics of Dalit politics is striving to force the upper castes to accept them as a part of the majoritarian polity.

Jitanram Manjhi has been steadfastly arousing the sentiments and aspirations of the Dalits and exhorting them to assert their identity. During the last eight months of his rule, he talked to the Dalits more than he actually implemented the government projects and programmes at the ground level. This has been the major charge of Nitish against him. After his election as the leader of the JD(U) Legislature Party, Nitish said: “Manjhi was pursuing ultra-Dalit politics and not following the philosophy of good governance.” But the fact of the matter is that he was not speaking from his heart. He was simply echoing the words of other leaders. Nitish said: “The need to remove him (Manjhi) came when people were coming and complaining about his controversial statements every day. People of the State appeared to have lost faith in him. I was not keen to take over as the CM but I am accepting the proposal for the party. After all, a bad atmosphere was being created. Good governance was being compromised for social engineering.” This obviously implied that Nitish wanted Manjhi to win over the Mahadalits and Dalits through execution of the welfare measures and programmes instead of arousing their emotions and sentiments.

It is said that during this short period of eight months, Manjhi has emerged as the most articulate and vocal proponent of new Dalit politics. Attempts are being made to rate him higher than Dalit icon Mayawati. Manjhi tried to accomplish the task which she did not dare to touch. In her years she had tried to pursue the politics of assimilation of Dalit castes and OBCs but could not succeed as she had to face stiff challenge from these forces. Manjhi was experimenting with the same ideas and truly speaking succeeded to some extent in conveying the message across. Manjhi has been trying to assimilate the fragmented Dalit sub-castes. There is no escaping the fact that Dalit identity is fractured on the issue of conflicting interests. It cannot be denied that mobilisation of Dalits by political parties, especially the Congress, had benefited some Dalit sub-castes but it had no uniform impact.

Those Dalits who could not benefit were feeling let down. This section of Dalits and Mahadalits has been striving to find a new political space under the leadership of Manjhi. While the upper-caste political leaders viewed this move of Manjhi as a potential threat to their hegemony and loosening of their grip on State politics, leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav became skeptical that success of the Bihar model would eventually affect their own fiefdom and change the political equation and contour. The biggest surprise of the latest phase of Bihar politics has been the vertical intervention of Mulayam Singh Yadav. The UP satrap literally asked the Bihar JD(U) leadership to bring in Nitish Kumar again as the Chief Minister! This question has been haunting the political circles of Bihar. Was it the compulsion of the politics of merger and unification or class conflict of the backward castes and Dalits that made Mulayam reach out to the JD(U) chief, Sharad Yadav? Even Laloo Prasad had objected to Manjhi’s speeches and his style of functioning.

 It is an open secret that an experiment of coming together of the OBCs and Dalits in Bihar would have its wide impact and ramification in Uttar Pradesh and shake to some extent Mulayam’s base. Mulayam and Laloo have been surviving on the antagonistic relations between the backward castes and Dalits. In the backdrop of the BJP and RSS’ excercise in exploring the possibility of roping in the OBCs and Dalits, without losing the upper-caste support, this development was undoubtedly a matter of concern for both these leaders. The fact is that the new aspirational social group among the Dalits wishes to be as much a part of the growth story as the traditional upper castes.

Even if one subscribes to what Nitish said, the question arises: what made him to give such a long rope to Manjhi? Did he treat Manjhi as a fool or a political naiveté? Manjhi has been dutifully carrying out his instructions but Nitish ought to have realised the fallout of his brief. Bihar has traditionally been a caste-fragmented State. Though castesim in Bihar had a purely class character, often the politicians and intellectuals of the upper-castes portrayed and camouflaged it as a clash of caste interest. It would be wrong to construe that Manjhi is politically naïve. At a time when from the Prime Minister to the Chief Ministers, everyone has been inviting the Naxalites for dialogue with the government and urging them to join the mainstream politics (and significantly none ever endorsed the Maoists collecting levy from the corrupt engineers and contractors), Majhi did not hesitate for a while in patting them for their daring acts. He said that the loot of the development funds by the engineers and contractors has simply provided strength to Naxalism. His observation had much bigger dimension and dynamics and certainly a political dwarf cannot say such a thing.

Though moves were on for quite some time to ease out Manjhi of the CM’s office, Nitish was taking his own time for the simple reason that he did not intend to antagonise the Mahadalits, Dalits and Scheduled Castes. Manjhi’s recent hob-nobbing with the BJP leaders simply aggravated the situation. A week-old Manjhi’s courtesy call on the Governor, Keshri Nath Tripthi, turned him suspect in the eyes of the JD(U) leaders. It was after this that his claim to provide good governance came under scrutiny. His mingling with the BJP and the impression that he was being prompted by the BJP chief, Amit Shah, considerably weakened his stand. Manjhi further committed a blunder by opting to discuss his problem with Shah and Narendra Modi. This move sent a strong message that he was working at the prompting of the BJP leadership. Although the BJP is keen to exploit the crisis within the JD(U) to consolidate its position in Bihar, it is also wary about propping up Manjhi, whose tenure has been criticised by its State unit for poor governance. Nitrish has been openly accusing the BJP leadership of conspiring to split the party. It was to protect the party and frustrate the evil designs of the BJP that Nitish stepped in. Party leaders maintain that the Bihar crisis was scripted in Delhi. ‘Operation Jitanram Manjhi’ had been engineered by Amit Shah with PM Modi’s blessings.

 At the meeting of the legislature party, Nitish revealed that he had to intervene and reverse his decision to continue with the existing arrangement till the next Assembly elections; this was prompted by the erosion of the USP of the JD(U): providing good governance. He had installed Manjhi in his place with the twin objective of working out a new model of social engineering and also to continue the work of good governance. There is no reason to deny that Manjhi in his enthusiasm created a mess. He continued with arousing the feelings of the Mahadalits, but in the process he ignored the task of good governance.

The media has played the most dubious role in unsettling Manjhi. From the day he became the Chief Minister, it has been trying to pit him against Nitish and also projecting him as anti- upper caste. Manjhi did not hide his disgust with the media: “There is a general perception that the Scheduled Caste people, the Mahadalits, are weak and useless. Look at the way in which the media twists what I say. The media always portrays a wrong image of mine. Many people were sceptical whether Jitanram Majhi could be of any good. Now we are doing such good that the sceptics are forced to accept the reality. I am now playing a 20-20 match and my commitment is to Nitish Kumarji.”

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com