Battle-lines were drawn in Bihar as, in a late evening meeting of its legislature party in Patna on Wednesday, the BJP decided to support beleaguered Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who faces a trust vote in the Assembly on February 20.

While the BJP’s meeting was still under way with central observer Bhupendra Yadav and top State leaders Sushil Modi, CP Thakur, Nand Kishore Yadav et al engaged in prolonged parleys, State party vice-president and spokesperson Sanjay Mayuk told BusinessLine : “A majority of the leaders present in today’s meeting were of the view that Jitan Ram Manjhi should be supported.”

Although the party did not formally announce its support to Manjhi, those present at the meeting said the decision has indeed been taken.

“The intent is to warn those JD(U) MLAs who had been tagging along with Nitish Kumar, to come out openly in Manjhi’s support. When they realise that the BJP is backing Manjhi, they will choose the winning side,” said a BJP MLA from Bihar.

The decision was to be conveyed to the central party leaders later in the night. Another meeting of the legislature party will be convened on Thursday, a day ahead of the trust vote.

From the 243-member Assembly, the strength has dropped to 233 on account of various expulsions. To secure a majority, Manjhi needs 118 legislators on his side.

Nitish, who was elected as leader of the JD(U)’s legislature party after Manjhi was expelled, claims the support of as many as 130 legislators which includes MLAs belonging to Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress and the Left parties.

Seven more members of Manjhi’s Cabinet have been expelled from the JD(U).

The BJP has 87 MLAs and Manjhi claims he has the support of 15 more legislators. The BJP’s covert offer of support on Wednesday is meant to wean more legislators from the JD(U) alliance towards Manjhi’s side.

Earlier during the politically-charged day, BJP legislators stormed out of an all-party meeting, accusing Speaker Uday Narayan Chowdhary of being “biased” in favour of the JD(U) alliance.

Main opposition party

The BJP was fuming at the Speaker’s alleged inclination to grant the JD(U) the status of main opposition party, as it no longer has anything to do with Manjhi’s government.

“We have made a request and think we should be given status of the main opposition party,” Nitish told agencies in Patna.

Such recognition from the Speaker will force the BJP to sit with Manjhi and his supporters on the floor of the Assembly. The move formalises the BJP’s status as a party backing Manjhi’s government and validates Nitish’s charge that the BJP has “backstabbed” with the CM’s support.

The BJP, on its part, is banking on the Mahadalit vote that Manjhi is supposed to represent in Bihar. The party’s estimation is that along with its upper caste support base, which includes the Bhumihars, Thakurs, Brahmins and Kayasthas, the decision to support Manjhi will add 15-22 per cent of the Mahadalit vote to the party’s kitty. Elections are due in the State around October-November this year.