Patna: Even as the game of one-upmanship between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad continues to keep the united Janata Parivar a now on-now off affair in Bihar, former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi has emerged as a crucial player in the electoral calculations of all parties. He may not be a political heavyweight compared to the JD(U) or the RJD top guns but he has placed himself in a unique position where he becomes a bargaining chip all negotiations.

In February this year, RJD chief Lalu Prasad had joined Nitish Kumar’s intensive campaign to remove Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister, blaming the Dalit leader for hobnobbing with the BJP leadership. Barely three months on, he is fighting hard to get Manjhi back in the Janata family at the risk of his friendship with Nitish. The latter is strongly opposed to the Dalit leader’s inclusion in the new formation. Manjhi, meanwhile, has been in constant touch with the BJP, keeping the speculation mill active about his moves.

Jitan Ram Manjhi. PTIJitan Ram Manjhi. PTI

Jitan Ram Manjhi. PTI

The big question now is why has Manjhi become so important for Lalu? Has he really emerged as a major Dalit force in the state that no party can afford to ignore? This may be or may not be the case but political observers here feel he is being used simply as a tool to cut Nitish down to size after he appeared a bit arrogant when he advised the RJD to contest all 243 seats in response to latter demand for 145 seats.

RJD insiders said Lalu had all along been silent when Nitish re-inducted PK Shahi and Lalan Singh, the men who were instrumental in ruining RJD chief’s active political career, allegedly ignoring his objections during his fresh term as chief minister. During his bitter power struggle lasting for a fortnight, former chief minister Manjhi had dismissed the duo from his cabinet and Nitish was supposed to “honour” Lalu’s sentiments but he went his own way. Lalu again kept quiet when his suggestions were brazenly ignored in the transfer/posting of officials. He again went tight-lipped when Nitish cancelled all the 34 key Cabinet decisions taken by the previous Manjhi government without consulting him although the JD(U) government runs with the support of the RJD.

It, however, stung him hard when Nitish reacted impolitely to Lalu’s request, suggesting the state government to move the Supreme Court against Patna High Court’s order annulling the reservation in job promotions for SC/ST, and then publicly reprimanded another senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh for his demand for 145 seats—summarily rejecting his demand with a bitter dose of derision. “Why 145? The entire 243 seats are available,” was how Nitish had reacted to RJD’s demand for seats.

Observers say it is here that the matter went worse between the two leaders. Lalu had not questioned the frequent moves by Nitish to meet the BJP leaders and ministers on one pretext or the other. Nitish had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitely twice since he returned to power. Apart from this, he even had dinner with his old BJP friend Jaitely each time he was in Delhi in connection with his “official parogrammes”. What was strange, each such meeting with the BJP leaders was preceded by the scheduled meetings over Janata family merger.

Raising the BJP fear or in other words showing his proximity with the BJP, Nitish was perhaps constantly pressuring the RJD to project him as the chief ministerial face of the alliance or merged group for the past some time. In fact, the JD(U) wanted to first settle the issue of the chief ministership than anything else before it went to polls in alliance while Lalu was in favour of deciding over the issue post poll outcome.

These all developments apparently provoked Lalu to make a demand to bring back Manjhi. It is an open secret now how Nitish frets at the mere mention of the latter.

Observers say the ‘Manjhi ploy’ is meant to show Nitish his real place in the RJD-JD(U) alliance. Lalu knows JD(U) sans Manjhi is now a very weak force since Manjhi’s ouster has summarily denied it the support of a huge 22-23 percent support base of Dalit class while Nitish will lose his credibility and dent his image further if he joins the leadership of Narendra Modi over whom he had left the NDA two years ago. To make the matter worse, the BJP has already shut its door on him saying there is no question of any alliance with Nitish even if he apologises for his past mistakes.

Nitish has very few options left for him right now. Stitching an alliance with the Congress and Left could be another option but for Nitish this can’t be described as a good idea as both the parties have lost significant ground over the years and are themselves battling hard for survival. Moreover, opting for this alliance may cost Nitish his job since his government now runs with the support of the RJD.

The modern day ‘Chanakya’, as he is described by his followers, is in a tricky situation indeed.

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Bihar: Lalu plays the Manjhi card to cut Nitish to size