NEW DELHI: The edge is with the ‘mahagathbandan’ but with two more rounds of polling to go in Bihar, the mandate remains anyone’s guess until the ballot boxes are opened. But no one in Bihar disagrees that the alliance that took some time to get off the ground is now giving a good fight to the increasingly defensive Bharatiya Janata Party, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi now throwing all caution to the winds as he launches into personal attacks on the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav duo in clear recognition of the partnership that seems to have struck a chord with the old ‘social justice’ vote bank.

Those who had raised eyebrows when the Bihar Chief Minister reached out to the Rashtriya Janata Dal for an alliance, questioning the wisdom of joining hands with a party that was anathema to the forward castes, can now see the political wisdom that had prompted the move. Nitish Kumar quietly put up with Lalu Yadav’s initial tantrums and sulks, giving him an equal number of 100 seats, and refusing to be drawn by an excited media into any confrontation with his erstwhile Janata Dal colleague.

Nitish Kumar was prepared to lose the upper caste vote entirely, for this alliance with Lalu Yadav. Even today the forward caste voters make it clear that they are fond of the chief minister, that he has worked hard and done a great deal for Bihar, but cannot vote for him because of his alliance with Lalu Yadav who they openly dislike. The forward castes have left Nitish Kumar as a result, albeit according to them, reluctantly. But as Janata Dal(U) leaders quietly point out, Kumar knew from the time he had split with the BJP in the state that the forwards for him now constituted a fickle constituency in that they would be more responsive to the BJP. And he worked instead to consolidate the ‘social justice’ constituency that had first come together after the Mandal Commission report with highly significant results in both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Lalu Yadav who had spent the last decade almost in Delhi as a junior partner of the ruling Congress party at the centre, is now campaigning with the ardour of the old backward leader. As a senior leader from the opposing Lok Janshakti party pointed out to this writer, “Lalu has come into his own, he is the old Lalu and is making a major mark.” The Yadavs have consolidated behind him, a vote that is transferable to the other partners of the grand alliance, namely the Janata Da(U) and the Congress party that is contesting 40 seats. On its own the Congress remains dead as a dodo in Bihar, but this writer visited several constituencies falling in the Congress share of allocation with the voters aware of the alliance, and willing to wait for the party as a result.

The consolidation of the Yadav, Kurmi and Muslim vote behind the grand alliance is almost certain now, having taken place in the completed rounds of polling. This has benefited all candidates of the grand alliance, with Nitish Kumar clearly optimistic that the Dalits, Mahadalits and the extremely backward castes will be drawn “automatically” to this order, than to the side of the forward castes. This remains to be seen, but the move is significant in caste dominated Bihar where reservations , for or against, remains a major polarising issue.

Lalu Yadav with his mimicry and grandstanding is an ideal foil to the sober, measured chief minister who does not believe in speaking the extra word, and is more comfortable with data than with wild allegations. The RJD leaders does not allow these constraints to curtail his style, and as many who have been with him for decades now say with some wonder, “Laluji has become the Lalu of old. We have not seen him in his elements for a long time.” He has been campaigning in every district, like Nitish Kumar who has decided to cover each district before it goes to the polls, and busting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims wherever he goes. Asked about Lalu Yadav’s statements at a press conference in Patna, the chief minister stood by his colleague stoutly as has been the case through the campaign till date.

A division between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav would have split the social justice vote, perhaps irretrievably. Now the grand alliance is in direct combat with the BJP led alliance, with all other challengers like Asaduddin Owaisi, the so called third front with the Samajwadi party and others, and the Left parties who are contesting all seats in Bihar as well, falling by the wayside. The contest is direct and clear with the Bihar voter rejecting all other groupings for one of the two.

An interesting fact that seems to have escaped notice, or at least media comment, is that the Yadav voter in Bihar is voting as actively for Nitish Kumar now as he is for Lalu Yadav. He is full of praise for the chief minister and the development he has brought to Bihar, even as he looks at the RJD for a consolidation and assertion of Yadav power. The two together have consolidated the vote, that might have otherwise looked at the BJP as well as an option, just as it had during the Lok Sabha polls. The Nitish Kumar factor weighs heavily with this constituency as well, more so as Lalu Yadav had failed to meet many of the promises he had made.

The Muslims too have consolidated behind the grand alliance as a result of this maha gathbandan. Without this, the minority vote would have split into several portions, with Owaisi also emerging as a benefactor. Now he is marginalised, and while listened to, is not likely to be voted for according to Muslim leaders in Bihar. The Muslim voter too was clear that his support was for the grand alliance, and like the rest “because Nitishji has done a lot for Bihar.”