Leader of India's Bihar axed by party after clashes

NEW DELHI (AFP) - One of India's biggest states was plunged into political turmoil on Saturday when Bihar's chief minister was sacked by his own party leader after street clashes between their rival supporters.

After being booted out of the Janata Dal (United) party by his one-time mentor Nitish Kumar, Jitan Ram Manjhi is almost certain to be ousted as chief minister of India's third most populous state.

Manjhi, who hails from the Musahar caste known for rat-catching, was expelled from the JD(U) after trying to defy pressure to vacate his position and allow Kumar to stage a comeback after his surprise resignation last year.

Soon after Manjhi was formally expelled, Kumar was unanimously elected as leader of his party's assembly faction.

Although Manjhi has requested a dissolution of the assembly, Bihar's governor is more likely to first ask Kumar to form a new administration ahead of elections which are anyway due later this year.

Matters came to a head after Manjhi sacked two Kumar loyalists from his cabinet and then supporters of the two men came to blows on the streets of the state capital Patna on Friday night.

"The entire party supported Manjhi when we decided to make him the chief minister but the people of Bihar are upset with the way he has been functioning," Kumar told party workers in televised comments Saturday.

The 63-year-old Kumar had been chief minister until he resigned in the aftermath of last May's general election when the JD(U) saw its share of seats in the national parliament collapse.

Kumar had been generally popular after presiding over the highest economic growth rates in the country but he made a major error by ending an electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after falling out with its leader Narendra Modi.

The BJP took its revenge by winning 22 of the state's parliamentary seats, while the JD(U) was left with just two. With his nemesis Modi installed as prime minister, Kumar was left to lick his wounds.

Manjhi, who has a history of defecting between parties, was the first member of his formerly "untouchable" class to become chief minister of any state.

Bihar has a population of around 100 million, making it the third largest state after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.