How his conviction will change the political calculus in Bihar and at the Centre
Although Lalu Prasad,the RJD chief and former chief minister of Bihar,was finally convicted by a special CBI court in the multi-crore fodder scam,this does not entail the end of his legal journey,as he will likely appeal his conviction. In the short run,he may get a stay from the higher courts and may even be acquitted in the long run. Nonetheless,the verdict casts a deep shadow over his political career. His conviction has thrown up many questions,many of which could have serious consequences for both state and national politics. But before we consider these questions,it is necessary to examine why they arise,and why they need to be addressed at all.
Lalu Prasad is one of the few politicians of the post-Emergency era to have made an indelible mark in Indian politics. For many,his charismatic persona,brand of politics,style of political communication,rustic yet sharp political jokes and,above all,ability to sail through rough political weather,make him a politician who stands apart. But this does not adequately describe the importance of being Lalu Prasad. One may blame him for allegedly turning Bihar into a dystopian state,but it is also difficult to deny his contribution to the social justice movement and towards the dismantling of old power structures. It is also impossible to ignore his role in raising the political consciousness of hitherto marginalised sections and making them political equals in Bihar. Of course,his political clout has diminished and grip over the masses significantly weakened over time,but unlike other regional political stalwarts,he has continued to be a force in both state and national politics.
For now,the broader questions raised by his conviction are as follows. How is his conviction going to affect the survival of his party? If this verdict leads to greater marginalisation for the RJD in Bihar,what sort of politics will emerge in its absence? Last but not least,what will his exit from politics mean for national politics?
Even if Lalu gets a reprieve from the higher courts,he will cease to be the leader he has been all these years. He will no longer be able to take on his arch rivals with as much confidence as in the past. Successive defeats since 2005 have already left his party in disarray and his conviction will leave it more vulnerable. Also,unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh,Lalu has been unable to successfully launch his scion into politics. Nor has he allowed a second-rung leadership to emerge that would be able to steer the party in his absence. If he remains behind bars,it will be difficult for him to keep the party afloat. In his absence,his party will likely not be able to protect its core constituency of support (especially Muslims and Yadavs) from being poached. Not only has a section of the Muslim vote already shifted to the JD(U),Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has already made significant moves to lure the entire community. If the RJD comes to be viewed as a rudderless party,even the Yadavs could desert. Were that to happen,they would be unlikely to support either the Congress or the JD(U). The Congress is a ramshackle force in the state,and there is little point rallying behind it. The JD(U) is unlikely to be an option because of the long-running political rivalry between the politically powerful Koeris and Kurmis led by Nitish and the Yadavs. The Yadavs are thus more likely to fall in with the BJP,which has already made Nand Kishore Yadav the leader of opposition in the assembly.
Such a restructuring will probably have a significant long-term impact on the politics of the state. Lalus secular credentials have been beyond doubt. The RJD has been instrumental in secularising politics in the state and putting the BJP in its place. But with Lalu exiting politics and the RJD facing the risk of disintegration,the BJP is likely to get stronger and offer a stiff challenge to the JD(U). Bihar might witness competitive religious mobilisation as a result.
Substantial political reconfiguration is also likely to take place at the Centre. For the Congress,its an opportune moment to dump Lalu and ally with Nitish. Although both sides have sent each other signals,they were constrained from making explicit moves. As long as the RJD was part of the UPA,it was difficult for Nitish to jump on the UPA boat. And,had the Congress abandoned the RJD without substantial reason,it would have run the risk of being seen as a rank opportunist. With Lalus conviction,the final roadblock to a JD(U)-Congress alliance has been removed. If this new political alignment becomes a reality,the calculus for 2014 will have to be significantly modified.
The writer is an associate fellow at CSDS,Delhi