How Manjhi-Owaisi friendship could be a game-changer in Bihar politics

How Manjhi-Owaisi friendship could be a "game-changer" in Bihar politics

Dalit leader and Hindustani Awam Morcha president Jitan Ram Manjhi has joined hands with All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi, a hardliner, as part of their strategy to form a "Dalit-Muslim" formula and gain more votes.

A new political alignment seems to be in the offing in Bihar ahead of the Assembly elections next year.

In a significant development, which political commentators say could have far-reaching political ramifications, Dalit leader and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) president Jitan Ram Manjhi has joined hands with All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi, a hardliner, as part of their strategy to form a “Dalit-Muslim” (D-M) formula and gain more votes.

Dalits and Muslims together account for roughly 33 percent population in the state. Their aim, thus, is to make it to the third place in Bihar, which has seen a straight contest between the NDA and the Grand Alliance in the past 15 years.

Their first show of strength will be on display on December 29 when they will hold a joint rally against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register for Citizens (NRC) in Kishanganj, a Muslim stronghold. Kishanganj is the only district in Bihar where the Hindus are in minority with the Muslim population roughly over 70 percent.

It was from Kishanganj that the AIMIM made its entry into Bihar two months ago, when its candidate Qamrul Hoda defeated BJP candidate Sweety Singh by over 10,000 votes in the assembly by-elections, pushing the Congress candidate to the third place.

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The victory boosted the morale of Owaisi, and Manjhi’s political ambitions have only given wings to his plan. “The only purpose of joining hands together right now is to register our strong protest over the CAA and NRC. We have no plans to form any front or alliance but in politics, possibilities are always there,” HAM spokesperson Danish Rizwan said.

However, he refused to share more information on his party’s future political plan.

Although the official reason cited by the two leaders behind the December 29 rally is to oppose the newly passed citizenship law and its proposed NRC plan, many say they want to display their political strength at the rally, and that both are hence trying hard to mobilize their respective support groups.

The stronger their presence at the rally, the maximum impact they will have on the state politics. Both leaders need each other to keep themselves afloat in the current political scenario.

In the 2015 Assembly elections, HAM, as part of the BJP-led NDA, had contested in 20 seats in Bihar. However, Manjhi won only one seat. He had contested from two seats.

In the Lok Sabha polls held this summer, Manjhi, whose party was part of the opposition Grand Alliance this time, lost in the three seats it was offered under a seat-sharing arrangement.

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The AIMIM met with a similar fate. The party has been trying hard to expand its base in Bihar without much success. In the 2015 Assembly elections, the AIMIM had fielded its candidates in six seats in the Muslim-dominated border region, but it drew a blank.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it fielded its candidate again from the Muslim-dominated Kishanganj seat with no success.

The AIMIM also drew a blank in the recent Assembly elections in Jharkhand, where it had fielded candidates in eight seats. The noteworthy point was that the party’s candidates got less than two percent votes.

Political experts say that the coming together of Manjhi and Owaisi could have a massive impact on Bihar politics if they were able to convince voters. This statement has not been made without reason — Muslims account for roughly 17 percent and Dalits constitute approximately 16 percent of the total population in Bihar.

Thus, they form a deadly 33 percent vote-bank together, which is enough to affect the state’s politics. The importance of their alliance could be underlined from the very fact that 40 seats out of Bihar’s total 243 seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Similarly, there are 50 Assembly seats in the state where Muslims have a sizeable population. Of these 50 Muslim-dominated seats, 23 alone are located in the border regions from where 10 Muslim candidates emerged victorious in the 2015 Assembly elections.

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The D-M alliance thus could be a “game-changer” in the state if it clicked, but not everyone is convinced about its success. “They are trying to form an alliance of Dalits and Muslims in Bihar to gain politically, but they may not be successful in their attempt, given the continuing anger of the Muslims against the BJP. I think the Muslims won’t do anything which ultimately helps the NDA candidates win in the upcoming elections,” commented political commentator Prof Sachindra Narayan.

According to Narayan, “D-M” could be a deadly formula, but the current scenario is not ripe for the Muslims to split their votes now. They would later end up regretting their fate.

“In the prevailing situation, the Muslims will rather vote for only those candidates who are in a position to defeat the BJP/NDA candidates rather than strengthening the positions of Manjhi and Owaisi,” he explained.

Others say Manjhi doesn’t enjoy his command over the entire 16 percent Dalit votes and in the same way, not all Muslims would love to go with Owaisi, who enjoys a hardline image.

“Manjhi must know that Owaisi’s lone idea has been to help the BJP win by splitting Muslim votes. If that remains to be his ultimate goal, Majhi should better join the company of the NDA,” said RJD vice-president Shivanand Tiwari, adding that their alliance would not have any impact on the opposition.

Yet, what seems to be the silver lining for the Manjhi-Owaisi friendship is that both the RJD and NDA have ruled Bihar for 15 years each, and the masses are piqued with their ruling style.

Keeping in mind the seriousness of the situation, Nitish Kumar’s party has now come out with a new poster where it compared the 15-year-long regime of the RJD to a vulture signifying “fear”, while Nitish’s 15-year-long regime was likened to a dove signifying “trust and hope”.

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