Nitish cosies up to Manjhi to keep BJP in check before Bihar Assembly polls

This is being described as JD-U’s reply to its NDA partner, which has been tacitly supporting LJP's demand for more seats

Hindustani Awam Morcha chief Jitan Ram Manjhi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s acceptance of JD (U) leader Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial face may have helped project a united NDA front in Bihar, but the ground reality is that there is a lot of friction between the two main constituents.

Both the BJP and the JD(U) have been shrewdly trying to cut each other down to size and prevent vesting of “absolute power”, setting the stage for an interesting Assembly election in the state.

The behind-the-scenes game has taken a curious turn after Nitish roped in Grand Alliance partner Jitan Ram Manjhi to his side. On August 28, Manjhi who heads the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), met Nitish at the chief minister’s residence to possibly discuss seat-sharing before formally joining the NDA.

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The move is being described as the JD-U’s reply to the BJP, which has been tacitly supporting the demand of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) for more seats under the seat-sharing arrangement.

The peculiar mind game between the two NDA partners began soon after the chief minister started putting pressure on the BJP to adopt the 2010 formula for seat-sharing. During the 2010 Assembly polls, the JD-U had contested 141 seats, while the remaining 102 seats were left for the BJP. The LJP was not part of the NDA then.

Although the NDA won the elections, the JD-U alone had bagged 115 seats, taking it close to the majority mark of 122. The JD-U, however, took its tally to 122 by inducting Independents and other smaller party legislators, ensuring there was no room for the BJP to “dominate” the chief minister.

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But, this time, the BJP doesn’t look in a mood to give Nitish a long rope given his “habit of dumping alliances after winning elections”. It, therefore, wants Nitish to adopt the 2019 Lok Sabha formula that gave both the BJP and the JD-U 17 seats each, leaving the remaining six out of the Bihar’s total of 40 LS seats to the LJP.

If that formula is made the basis for seat distribution now, then both the BJP and the JD-U will get to contest in 100 seats each, and the LJP would get the remaining 43.

The LJP wants this formula to be adopted, as it gives the party more seats, but the JD-U is reluctant, even saying it has no alliance with the party headed by Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan. Interestingly, the BJP has been remained silent over the issue.

“Obviously, the BJP is behind the scene. The LJP doesn’t have the guts to mount attacks on the chief minister without the tacit backing of the BJP,” political expert DM Diwakar said. “The idea is to extract the maximum number of seats from the JD-U by mounting pressure on the chief minister and, thereby, not giving him too much leeway in the seat-sharing discussions,” explained Diwakar.

Sources said the BJP wants to contest at least 143 seats by proxy by fielding its candidates on LJP tickets. “That could be possible only if the LJP is given 43 seats,” a BJP insider said. The LJP has often said that it has no issues with the BJP.

Nitish’s move to rope in Manjhi assumes significance in this context. Poll watchers with Manjhi’s entry into the NDA, seats will have to be distributed among four partners, reducing the quota of the BJP and the LJP. Nitish has assured 10-15 seats to Manjhi’s party.

“Manjhi is not a big player in Bihar politics. Nitish just wants to use him to keep the balance of power in the NDA. Just as the LJP is loyal to the BJP, Manjhi will be loyal to Nitish,” said political commentator Soroor Ahmed.

Manjhi formed the HAM in May 2015 shortly after being expelled from the JD(U) for not vacating the chief minister’s post for Nitish Kumar, who wanted to return to the seat ahead of the Assembly elections that year. Nitish had resigned as chief minister in May 2014 taking moral responsibility for the drubbing the JD-U received in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and replaced himself with Manjhi.

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Since its formation, HAM has contested two elections— the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls and the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, but its performance was disastrous. The HAM could poll only 2.27 per cent votes in the 2015 Assembly polls and 2.39 per cent votes in the 2019 parliamentary elections, prompting the Election Commission to seize its poll symbol, ‘Telephone’. The party won only one seat out of 21 it contested in the Assembly polls, while it drew a blank in the Lok Sabha elections after fielding candidates in three seats.

The BJP is also annoyed by the JD-U inducting party-hoppers ahead of the Assembly elections. So far, six RJD legislators have been inducted into the JD-U. Interestingly, all of them had defeated BJP’s candidates in the 2015 Assembly polls when the JD-U had contested the elections in alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress. The Grand Alliance had served a humiliating defeat to the BJP-led NDA then, restricting its tally to a mere 58 seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly.

Now, it is obvious that the six former members of the RJD will be fielded from the seats the BJP had contested previously. The BJP, however, is not ready to accept this. State BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal said the party will not let go of its traditional seats. He said the party had enough good candidates and, hence, does not need “outsiders”.

“Many people are looking at us with expectation but the time for joining the BJP is over. Those who wanted to be with us, joined the party in November-December itself,” Jaiswal said. He asserted the BJP has 76 lakh dedicated workers and they would all invest their energy to save the party’s traditional seats.

As political wriggling within the NDA continues, two things are certain: the seat distribution within the alliance will be tricky and it won’t be easy for Nitish to dictate terms to the BJP anymore. The problem with Nitish is that he already has shut all his “exit routes” and there is hardly any option left before him if he were to break ties with the BJP.

A loss of credibility due to his frequent dumping of alliance partners does not help his political fortune.

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