The five-year jail sentence he has got in the fodder scam will lead to many writing Lalu Prasad off as a politician. But that would be an over-interpretation. Though he is likely to appeal in the courts, the implications of the sentence are significant - that of the law catching up with the charismatic leader, once a colossus striding Bihar's political landscape. The RJD leader ruled the state directly and through his spouse Rabri Devi for three consecutive terms, from 1990. Thus, he is no stranger to wielding power without holding office; an experience that should come in handy now. Assuming that Lalu gets no relief from the higher court, Rabri Devi in all probability will run the party on his directions. A stay on the sentence by a higher court and a release on bail will give him an opportunity to whip up sympathy among his core constituents - his Yadav clansmen and the Muslims.
Discounting the recent surge in its popularity that helped it win the Maharajganj by-election, the RJD's support on the ground can be gauged from its poll record in recent years. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections the party secured four seats and 19.3% of the votes polled, down from the 30.67% and 22 seats in 2004. That's not the kind of vote base on which one can hazard predicting a political eclipse of a party or a leader who, at his prime, was the country's foremost mass leader. Not the least surprising then that the BJP and JD(U) have been guarded in their comments on the prison sentence. Given the peculiarities of Bihar's caste-driven polity, Lalu's fate will be determined by the popular reaction to his incarceration. Rabri Devi has declared that she'd move the people's court against a "conspiracy hatched to contain a leader who spoke for the poor".
The prime challenge for Lalu will be in engineering back into shape the social alliances that kept the party in power for 15 years. An early indication of his gameplan was seen in his wife's first comments. She labelled the fodder case a joint venture of Nitish Kumar and the BJP whose leader L K Advani "is a free man despite a CBI probe into the Ayodhya case." Having won the trust of minorities by stopping Advani's Ramrath in 1990, Lalu kept it intact by refusing to have any truck with the saffron party. Regardless of the taint of graft and his shortcomings on the governance front, he always was and is a formidable bulwark against the Hindutva forces. The court judgment is a major blow. It remains to be seen how the people's court will judge him.