The Battle for Bihar

Jitan Ram Manjhi and the politics of caste

01 July, 2015

| ONE |

OUTSIDE 1 ANNE MARG, on a foggy morning last December, employees of the Patna Municipal Corporation swept away dry leaves knocked loose by a mild winter storm the night before. I sat inside the official residence of Bihar’s chief minister, in a waiting area with freshly mopped floors that reeked of phenyl, walls decorated with Madhubhani paintings, and posters of the Buddha. The chief public relations officer to Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was then the chief minister, chattered at me about how “the media misinterprets Mr Manjhi’s statements.” I was the day’s first visitor, but in half an hour a handful of political and social callers had joined the queue.

Suddenly, a small mouse scurried through the hall. A few men laughed, others suppressed giggles—and everyone present immediately knew why. As the chuckles subsided, the joke was whispered around: when Manjhi—who comes from the Musahar Dalit sub-caste, traditionally associated with rat-catching—took his seat in the state capital, “he must have brought the rats from his village.”

Surreptitious caste-based mockery was a constant feature of Manjhi’s nine months as Bihar’s third, and most assertive, Dalit chief minister. He was nominated to the position in May 2014 by the Janata Dal (United) veteran and current chief minister, Nitish Kumar. Kumar had resigned from his third chief ministerial term that month, after the JD(U) was crushed in the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections. With the party’s position weakened, Kumar needed to put someone else in a position of authority to shore up the teetering state government. And Manjhi, a long-time Bihar politician, might also attract Dalit voters to the JD(U) in the state legislative assembly elections, due this coming September or October. He took Kumar’s place, becoming the twenty-third chief minister of Bihar.