Patna: Assembly polls in Bihar are just about six months away, but three political leaders who were touted as ‘game changers’ not too long ago now find that there are no takers for them.
The leaders — former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha and influential OBC leader Mukesh Sahani — recently wanted to meet Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad in Ranchi, where the latter is serving a jail term for corruption, but their request was turned down.
The BJP’s reaction to them has also been lukewarm. “All the three leaders are trying to regain their political relevance. They can join the NDA, but on the condition that they will accept Nitish Kumar as their leader,” BJP spokesperson Rajni Ranjan Patel told ThePrint.
‘Still with grand alliance, but there’s a war of words’
Sahani, whose Vikassheel Insaan Party had an electoral alliance with the RJD, met the Congress leader in-charge of Bihar, Shaktisinh Gohil, to complain about the cold reception fellow members of the grand alliance were getting from the RJD.
“Gohil advised Sahani to remain silent for now. The Congress is well aware that Sahani is in touch with BJP leaders, but has failed to get any assurance from them,” said a Congress leader who was present at the meeting.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sahani admitted there is a war of words between the grand alliance partners.
“As far as we are concerned, we are still with the grand alliance. But we are five parties, and there is confusion and lack of co-ordination. It has led to a war of words between the allies,” said Sahani, popularly known as ‘Son of Mallah’.
“Our focus should be to avoid split of anti-BJP votes, even if it means bringing in more small parties under the grand alliance.”
Kushwaha silent, Manjhi mending fences?
Rashtriya Lok Samta Party chief Kushwaha has remained silent since criticising the RJD for not honouring its commitment to give a Rajya Sabha seat to the Congress. A senior Congress leader told ThePrint that Kushwaha and Hindustani Awam Morcha chief Manjhi had attempted to form an alliance with the Congress and isolate the RJD for the assembly polls.
“But Congress leaders made it clear that they will not leave the RJD,” the leader said. This has left both Kushwaha and Manjhi high and dry.
Former CM Manjhi caused quite a stir when he met Nitish Kumar on 18 March, given the fractious relationship between the two former JD(U) leaders since Manjhi’s bitter departure in 2015. Manjhi refused to comment on the meeting, but after 18 March, he launched a bitter attack on Lalu Prasad, calling the RJD leaders dictators.
“They are big brothers, but don’t play the role of a big brother,” Manjhi said, pointing out that the grand alliance had failed to form a coordination committee.
Lalu’s son and heir apparent Tejashwi Yadav reacted instantly, pointing out that it was the RJD that had made Manjhi’s son Santosh an MLC. “There was no coordination committee even then,” retorted Tejashwi, clearly resenting Manjhi’s deadline of 31 March to set up the committee in question.
The JD(U), meanwhile, is pleased by Manjhi meeting Nitish. “Manjhi is a recognised face in Bihar politics. Who knows what will happen in the future?” JD(U) spokesperson Sanjay Singh told ThePrint.
There is speculation that Manjhi could ultimately join Nitish by September — a month or so before the assembly polls.
Overplaying their hand
If Manjhi, Kushwaha and Sahani are finding it difficult to project themselves as leaders who can play political games, it’s because their track record is uninspiring.
In the 2015 assembly polls, the three were aligned with the NDA (while Nitish and his party were allied with the RJD and Congress). The NDA lost the election, and while the BJP won 53 seats, the allies won just five of the 86 seats they contested.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Manjhi, Sahani and Kushwaha were aligned with the RJD-Congress grand alliance, and contested 11 of the 40 seats. But not only did they draw a blank, the leaders themselves lost in constituencies which have a sizeable chunk of voters from their respective castes.
“If the caste arithmetic had worked, we should have got at least 10 per cent votes more. But the fact remains that the gap between NDA and the grand alliance (in terms of vote share) was 20 per cent. They failed to pull in their castes,” said a senior RJD leader.
That’s not to say the RJD’s doors are locked for them. “But the seats this time will be given according to the strength of the parties,” said RJD MLA Bhai Birendra.
A BJP leader who did not wish to be identified added: “During the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, these leaders used to run to Ranchi and make huge demands for seats, completely disproportionate to their strengths. If they want to come on board with the NDA, it will be on the seats we are willing to give them.”
In the meantime, Manjhi, Kushwaha and Sahani find themselves the nowhere men of Bihar.