Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi appears to have a penchant for getting into trouble. From encouraging alcoholism, endorsing corruption and terming “upper caste” people as foreigners to questioning the “morality” of women whose husbands work outside the state, he has courted one controversy after another.
Last week, he landed in yet another one following the appointment of his personal assistant, a 40-something-year-old named Devendra Kumar. At first glance, there is nothing to indicate that Kumar is more than Manjhi’s secretary. A sombre man with a bulky structure, commanding voice and an air of authority around him, Kumar has claimed that he was an engineering graduate who became Manjhi’s assistant due to his “love for public service”. What he didn’t reveal was that he is also the chief minister’s son-in-law. Born and brought up in Jamshedpur, he is married to Manjhi’s third daughter, Baby Kumari.
According to a state government order issued in May 2000, ministers and persons holding constitutional posts are prohibited from appointing relatives as personal staff. This circular was issued during Rabri Devi’s rule when her husband, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, openly criticised her ministers for appointing their sons and nephews as personal staff who often acted as parallel power centres. Under this rule, every minister has to declare that relatives haven’t been appointed personal staff .
Yet, Kumar was appointed as Manjhi’s personal assistant in 2008. Manjhi was then the social welfare minister in the Nitish Kumar government. Later, Kumar followed him to 1, Anne Marg, Patna, the official residence of the chief minister. The state government notified his appointment on June 4, 2014 and specified that the appointment was for the duration that Manjhi remained chief minister. Besides private secretaries, the chief minister and ministers in Bihar are entitled to appoint personal assistants of their choice. A personal assistant’s salary and perks, paid by the government, work out to around Rs 40,000 per month.
Kumar has always been close to his father-in-law. In early 2006, when Manjhi was forced to resign following charges of corruption, Kumar proved to be his pillar of support, sources close to the family say. When Manjhi was a legislator, Kumar became his private secretary. He hasn’t looked back since. Sources say such is the trust he enjoys that the chief minister places his opinions over those of his senior bureaucrats.
In Manjhi’s office, Kumar’s status was evident. His cabin was bigger than that of the chief minister’s principal secretary, who is usually one of the seniormost officers of the Indian Administrative Service in the state. He had complete access to sensitive and classified files and controlled all movement into the chief minister’s office. Kumar has, in earlier interviews, vehemently denied this. “I was a relative at home, but always maintained protocol in office,” he said. He also asserted that he never took advantage of his status. “I am already the chief minister’s son-in-law. I am already enjoying the facilities that I had never expected to,” he said.
Some analysts say there is more to this controversy than meets the eye. “The timing of this revelation (that Manjhi’s personal assistant is also his son-in-law) is striking,” says a politician from the Janata Dal (United). “A cold war was on between Nitish Kumar and his successor. The former chief minister, it is said, wants to assert his authority, while Manjhi wants to shed the tag of being a rubber stamp. Things came to a point that JD(U) President Sharad Yadav had to act as a referee. Let’s see how long this truce lasts.”
Meanwhile, Kumar, who could not be contacted for comment, has since resigned – but not without doing his share of damage to the chief minister’s reputation.