Over the past month as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar appeared to be considering aligning with the Bharatiya Janata Party and pushing the mahagathbandhan ruling the state to the brink of collapse, his alliance partner Lalu Prasad was also steadily working to prepare for such an eventuality – with a series of steps aimed at rupturing Kumar’s crucial Mahadalit votebank.

The crisis in the mahagathbandhan – a grand alliance of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress that has ruled Bihar since 2015 – began on June 21 with Nitish Kumar breaking Opposition ranks to back the BJP-led Central government’s presidential nominee, Ram Nath Kovind. The rift widened when the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a corruption case against Lalu Prasad and his son, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, and raided their properties on July 7, prompting Nitish Kumar to demand that Tejashwi Yadav “come clean” on the allegations against him.

Though the Janata Dal (United) sought to dispel talk of a breakdown on Wednesday, saying “all is well” in the grand alliance, it may still have to contend with Lalu Prasad’s efforts to shake the unswerving loyalty of the Mahadalits – who are the poorest among the Dalits – towards Nitish Kumar, who has made them the centre of his politics.

The latest such step by Lalu Prasad came on Tuesday when, soon after Bahujan Samaj Party chief and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati announced her resignation from the Rajya Sabha claiming she was not allowed to speak in the House on atrocities against Dalits, he declared, “We support Mayawati-ji and if she wants we will again send her to Rajya Sabha.” He added, “This behaviour of BJP ministers against Mayawati-ji proves that the BJP is an anti-Dalit party.”

Bihar’s caste equation

The Scheduled Caste Mayawati belongs to accounts for a considerable chunk of the Mahadalit population in Bihar. Though Mayawati could never emerge as the focal point of Dalit politics in this state, she commands a great deal of respect among the Schedules Castes there.

Irrespective of whether Mayawati accepts Lalu Prasad’s offer, the Bihar leader’s gesture is widely seen as a move to send out a positive message among the Mahadalits. More so in the face of Nitish Kumar choosing not to comment on the controversy, even as Lalu Prasad called it “a black day when a highly respected Dalit leader was not allowed to raise the voice of the poor in the Rajya Sabha”.

Bihar has a total of 22 Scheduled Castes that account for nearly 16% of the state’s population, according to the 2011 Census. Of these, the Paswans, who constitute the core vote base of Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, are the strongest numerically, making up for around 4% of Bihar’s population. Nitish Kumar has for long tried to nurture non-Paswan Dalit castes, declaring them Mahadalits and announcing a series of packages for their upliftment. Through his efforts, he has greatly succeeded in wooing, and providing a distinct identity to, the Mahadalits.

But his hobnobbing with the BJP – which has been criticised for its alleged lack of response to atrocities against Dalits in several parts of the country – may well have weakened his appeal among the Mahadalits, thus creating an opportunity for Lalu Prasad, who seems to be working with a well thought out strategy to lure them away.

Lalu’s strategy

It is in this context that Lalu Prasad’s meeting with Ramai Ram, the Janata Dal (United)’s most prominent Dalit face, on Monday – a day before the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader scored heavily over Nitish Kumar by standing with Mayawati against the BJP – is being seen in Bihar’s political circles.

Though details of the meeting were not made public, the change in Ram’s tone soon after did not go unnoticed. He had said on July 11 that Nitish Kumar wanted Tejashwi Yadav to step down as deputy chief minister within four days. After his meeting with Lalu Prasad though, Ram denied having ever talked about the chief minister issuing such an ultimatum.

On the subject of presidential candidates, too, Lalu Prasad’s remarks in support of Opposition nominee Meira Kumar were clearly meant to ensure that Nitish Kumar drew criticism from the Mahadalits for not backing one of their own – the daughter of prominent Bihar Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram at that – and for preferring a distant Dalit face of the BJP instead. Lalu Prasad had declared last month that if Nitish Kumar did not support Meira Kumar, it would be “a historic blunder”, adding, “We will meet Nitish Kumar and appeal to him to support Bihar’s daughter.”

Undoubtedly, Lalu Prasad is attempting to shake up a section of Nitish Kumar’s Mahadalit vote base. The extent to which he succeeds in his efforts remains a matter of speculation. As for the chief minister, the developments of the past month show he cannot continue to confidently assume the support of the Mahadalits, but must find new ways to maintain his appeal among this social section.