Jitan Ram Manjhi became the Chief Minister of Bihar in unusual circumstances. As he himself never tires of saying, he owed his position not to the support of his followers but to the backing of his leader, his predecessor and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar. A member of the backward Dalit community of Mahadalit, Mr. Manjhi is now busy building his political constituency, even if it be at the expense of Mr. Kumar’s own vote base. The Bihar Chief Minister won new followers in his community with his assertive speeches, even if, in the process, he lost some of the goodwill of his leader. From the very outset he seemed to know what he did not want to be: a political tool in the hands of Mr. Kumar, who stepped down as Chief Minister only to lessen the degree of criticism of his political decisions that led to the drubbing that the JD (U) received in the Lok Sabha election. With his latest statement, during an interview to The Hindu , that a Mahadalit should be the Chief Minister of Bihar after the Assembly election later this year, Mr. Manjhi not only succeeded in irritating Mr. Kumar further but also ensured that Mr. Kumar could remove him as Chief Minister only at great political cost. In October last year, Mr. Manjhi had stated that he did not become the Chief Minister on his own but was made the Chief Minister, and that Dalits would be able to choose their own leader if they had greater political awareness.
If Mr. Kumar thought that in Mr. Manjhi he would have a loyalist who would keep the Chief Minister’s chair warm for him till the Assembly election, he was clearly mistaken. Even when he stepped down as Chief Minister, the JD (U) had indicated that Mr. Kumar would indeed lead the party in the next Assembly election. The Manjhi government was meant to be nothing more than a stopgap arrangement. But the Mahadalit leader, who began his political career with the Congress and switched his allegiance to the Rashtriya Janata Dal during the period that party was in power, seems ever-ready to outmanoeuvre his own party leadership. While he does not have much to show in terms of governance during his seven months in power, Mr. Manjhi demonstrated political tact and cunning in carving out an independent political space in the caste-dominated politics of Bihar. The JD (U) is now in the process of merging with the Samajwadi Party, the RJD, the Janata Dal (Secular) and others in a coming together of the Janata Parivar, and there is no guarantee that Mr. Kumar will be the automatic choice as Chief Minister if the combination comes to power. But whatever the changes in the political equations, Mr. Manjhi will be a factor in everyone’s political calculations. And that is no small achievement for this accidental Chief Minister.