Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi is looking shaky amidst reports of turbulence in his relationship with Nitish Kumar, the leader of the Janata Dal-United party. Some say Manjhi may even be on his way out. Yet merely seven months after assuming his office, Manjhi has succeeded in reinventing Dalit politics in his state, a significant achievement considering the decimation of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party in the Lok Sabha elections last year.

Though Bihar has had two previous chief ministers from the Scheduled Castes, never before has Dalit politics become as  significant as in the months since Manjhi took oath on May 20 last year. The two previous Dalit Chief Ministers of Bihar – Bhola Paswan Shashtri (who occupied the top post thrice between March 1968 and January 1972) and Ram Sundar Das (who was Bihar Chief Minister between April 1979 and February 1980) – had been content to operate within a political structure dominated by the state’s upper caste and other backward classes.

Manji was handpicked for the position by the previous chief minister, Nitish Kumar, after their JD(U) performed poorly in the Lok Sabha elections. Kumar quit on moral grounds and gave Manjhi the job. But he quickly succeeded in breaking out of Kumar's shadow, carving out his own niche among the majority of Dalits – particularly Mahadalits or the poorest among Dalits – in the state. This is despite the fact that many of his actions, including his decision to transfer several senior bureaucrats close to Nitish Kumar and his public statement that a Dalit should be the next state’s next chief minister, have annoyed the JD-U brass – a development that is said to have rendered him extremely vulnerable.

Non-Paswan coalition

Bihar has 22 Dalit castes, which account for nearly 16% of the population. Of these, Paswans, who constitute the core vote base of Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, an ally of Bharatiya Janata Party, are numerically the strongest. They make up around 4% of the state's total population.

For a long time, Nitish Kumar has tried to nurture the non-Paswan Dalit castes, declaring them Mahadalits and announcing a series of benefit package for them. But since he himself belongs to the OBC caste of Kurmis, he was unable to develop a natural bond with the state’s Dalits.

Manjhi, who belongs to a Mahadalit caste called the Musahars, does not suffer from this handicap. Nor does he miss any opportunity to underline his origins. Manjhi's pro-Dalit vocabulary has turned him a symbol of Dalit politics in the state and has successfully allowed him to signal the fact that the ruling combination intends to take the plank of social justice to the lowest strata of Bihar’s society.

Mayawati's decline

The rise of Manjhi as a Dalit icon is significant, especially because Mayawati, the symbol of Dalit politics in the Hindi belt until a few months back, is still not showing any sign of reinventing herself. She has failed to shun the politics of tokenism, and her Bahujan Samaj Party has lost much of its appeal among its core constituency of Dalit voters.

With Manjhi at the helm, the possibility of the JD-U and its ally Rashtriya Janata Dal cobbling up a grand social base consisting of Mahadalits, OBCs and minorities becomes a distinct possibility. In electoral terms, this base would be extremely formidable when Bihar votes in a new assembly later this year.

Conversely, if Manjhi opts to join hands with the BJP, which could happen if the tensions between him and Nitish Kumar reach a breaking point, all efforts of the JD-U and the RJD to widen the social justice plank to check the saffron surge in the state would face the danger of falling apart.

In either case, Bihar has reached the point where Dalit discourse has become the pivot of state politics.