Is Lalu Prasad a casualty of the pre-2014 elections power game?

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The funny side of the Indian politics post Narendra Modi's anointment is that his shadow is moving even faster than his own whirlwind pre-election trips across the nation. The conviction of RJD chief Lalu Prasad in a 16-year-old fodder scam hints at the chaos that marks the ruling coalition's desperate preparations for the next Lok Sabha polls.

The story would have been predictable had the Congress went ahead with the controversial ordinance to shield convicted lawmakers and bailed out politicians like Lalu Prasad. But Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had other things in mind and his open criticism of the ordinance made the story an interesting one.

There story has two sides. First, the Congress's equations with the RJD and second, the Modi factor.

Congress and RJD

On the first factor, it is not unknown that Rahul Gandhi wants the Congress to re-emerge as a big power in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In 2009, the RJD and Congress parted ways before the Lok Sabha polls after Prasad allowed just four seats to the Congress in the state, which sends 40 MPs to the Lower House of the Parliament. The national party decided to go alone in the state thereafter but never really succeeded in making a mark.

But the RJD was in no great position either. Lalu Prasad himself is well past his prime in the national politics and given its big baggage of anti-incumbency, the Congress would have no business to stick to Prasad, a tainted politician. He reportedly pleaded before the Congress bosses to shield him by saying that his conviction would push all the Yadav votes towards the BJP and harm the secular camp. But it didn't work out finally.

For Rahul Gandhi, a sinking RJD is less important

The RJD leadership must have thought Rahul Gandhi would show sympathy with Prasad but the former seems to be more concerned to revive the poll prospects of his own party and not a weakening ally. The RJD's recent by-poll victory over the ruling JD(U) also did not generate enough excitement in the Congress. The JD(U)'s breaking alliance with the BJP is also a threat to its traditional Yadav-Muslim votebank. For once the JD(U) dumped the BJP, Nitish Kumar's popularity is bound to rise among the minorities.

For Rahul Gandhi, Congress's revival is more important than that of Lalu Prasad

The BJP, on the other hand, is trying aggressively to tap the Yadav votes through community leaders like Hukumdev Narayan Yadav and Nand Kishore Yadav.

This perhaps made the Congress leadership all the more certain about chalking out a new strategy in Bihar where it has been pushed to the margins. A move to shield an exhausted politician like Prasad would have been far more risky for the Congress than sending a signal that it isn't ready to compromise with criminalisation of politics.

With Lalu convicted, road clear for Congress-Nitish alliance?

The divorce between the JD(U) and the BJP excites the Congress more for it gives it a chance to take on the BJP by allying with Nitish Kumar, a more powerful force in the state now than Lalu Prasad.

Bihar's politics, in a unique manner, has become a more bipolar affair now with the JD(U) and BJP emerging as the two competing forces. The Congress can aspire to strengthen the hands of the 'secular' Nitish Kumar to meet the challenge of BJP and its leader Modi in Bihar.

For Nitish Kumar also, sharing the stage with the Congress will be far more convenient than the BJP. With Lalu being convicted and his party facing an uncertain future, the JD(U) will get a breather to redraw its poll strategy. The predictions that the RJD would give the JD(U) a close chase and draw level with the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections could also be in a jeopardy now. Prasad's conviction actually makes all the three other sides happy.

The Modi factor

As far as the Modi factor is concerned, the Congress will hope to repair its dented image after Prasad's conviction and project a cleaner image on the national stage. The conviction just a few days after Rahul Gandhi's open criticism of the ordinance shows how much desperate the Congress leadership is to match Modi's march towards New Delhi. It doesn't even dither to criticise its own government to prove its point.

Even Nitish Kumar supported Rahul Gandhi over his strong position on the ordinance, which clearly indicates that the moral high ground of the 'crown prince' has acted not only as a moral booster for the Congress supporters, but it also helped to glue all those quarters who have been searching a common cause to put up a defence against Modi on the national stage.

The secular camp has been bothered by issues in the recent past (read Muzaffarnagar riots in UP, criticism of the Nitish government's silence over Bhatkal's arrest) and a fresh call for an ethical cause by Rahul Gandhi gave it a moment to rejoice.

For Lalu Prasad and of course, Manmohan Singh, the script was not happy for obvious reasons.

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