For a leader who emerged from the militant Dalit Panthers movement of the 1970s, Ramdas Athavale took a sudden turn in 2009. It came as no surprise that his decision then to forge an alliance with the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine drew so much derision.

“From the mid-1980s, the Shiv Sena began to incite a series of atrocities on Dalits, particularly in the rural areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha. In the agitation for renaming Marathwada University at Aurangabad after Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Shiv Sena had the dubious distinction of being the only political party that consistently opposed the demand,” says Anand Teltumbde, political analyst, in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Hence, many saw Mr. Athavale’s shift as taking the Dalit struggle farthest from the ideals of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

He leads one of the factions of the Republican Party of India, founded by Ambedkar, that still remain politically relevant. The party has splintered into more than 50 factions since Ambedar’s death in 1956. Those led by Prakash Ambedkar, Jogendra Kawade and R.S. Gavai too remain relevant now.

“The problem is that almost everyone feels she or he follows Ambedkar’s ideologies. But in reality, only Prakash Ambedkar is doing that. He has not formed alliances with mainstream parties,” says A. Ramaiah, Professor of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. After Ambedkar’s death, the RPI soon became a largely one-caste party of Mahars or neo-Buddhists, without forming larger social coalitions, even with other Dalit castes such as Matangs and Charmakars.

Mr. Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Ambedkar, accuses mainstream parties of propping up Dalit leaders to divide the movement.

“Athavale, Jogendra Kawade and the likes have been leaders created by people with vested interests. I align only with parties with the same social base and want a Bahujan democracy. In many constituencies, including Nagpur, Amravati, Akola and Hingoli, the Congress has been relegated far behind. The real contest is between us and the BJP,” he told The Hindu.

He got 30 per cent of the votes in Akola in the previous election and was second to BJP candidate Sanjay Dhotre.

Observers feel that till recently, Dalits voted left of centre. But after two prominent leaders, Namdeo Dhasal and Mr. Athavale, allied with saffron parties, the pattern changed. “Most of the RPI (Athavale) candidates lost the elections miserably. While Dalits voted for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, the traditional saffron voters did not return the favour,” writes Harish Wankhede, Professor of Political Science in Delhi University, in an essay titled “Dalit Politics in Maharashtra.”

Mr. Athavale told The Hindu that his pre-election alliances were driven by pragmatism. “The Dalit population is not high enough for us to win if we contest independently. We did not manage to get more than 1.75 lakh votes when we tried to contest elections without an alliance,” he said.

A look at the past few elections shows that some Dalit voters are seeing Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party as an alternative to the RPI.