Prominent Bihar political leader Lalu Prasad Yadav is continuing to call the shots for his Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance in the north Indian state from a prison cell ahead of general elections to be held next month.

Jailed for 14 years in 2017 over the embezzlement of money from the government treasury in what became known as the fodder scam, Yadav is dictating who will be the alliance’s allies, how many seats his party will be allocated and who should run for office. The elections will take place in phases between April 11 and May 19. The party’s front is Tejaswhi Yadav, but his father is actually in control, Asia Times has learned.

Yadav heads the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a regional party, which was in alliance with Janata Dal-United (JD-U) that is headed by chief minister Nitish Kumar. The alliance made a clean sweep in the 2015 state assembly polls, but the RJD was forced to sit on the opposition benches after Kumar suddenly switched sides in 2017 and formed a new government with the help of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

In an effort to unseat the BJP at the center, RJD is this time creating a “grand alliance” with other opposition parties including the Congress. It is believed the party will soon announce a seat-sharing arrangement with Congress. The RJD will contest 20 of the 40 seats in the state and Congress nine, with the rest distributed among other allies such as the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), and Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAM).

Given Yadav’s influence over caste-based politics, scores of politicians have made a beeline to see him in jail. They are seeking tickets for themselves or other party candidates and quite a few have returned home with smiles on their faces. One of his recent visitors was rebel BJP parliamentarian Shatrughan Sinha, who is likely to contest the next polls on the RJD ticket. Sinha, a veteran Bollywood actor, has met Yadav before.

Caste politics come into play

Other prominent politicians who called on Yadav include Congress leaders Shakeel Ahmed and Subodh Kant Sahay, former federal minister and RLSP leader Upendra Kushwaha, former Bihar chief minister and HAM chief Jitan Ram Manjhi, former Jharkhand chief minister and head of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha Hemant Soren, former federal minister and LJD leader Sharad Yadav, Communist Party of India (Marxist)  general secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Communist Party of India general secretary D Raja.

Yadav remains significant in Indian politics as his party enjoys a huge support base among the politically significant Yadavs — an influential backward caste — and the Muslim community. He also has a hold over the other backward castes.

Political analysts say the consolidation of Muslim voters toward the RJD has become further strengthened under the Narendra Modi government. The BJP-led federal government raised the contentious issues of Ram temple construction at the Babri Mosque site and a uniform civil code and brought in a bill  criminalizing the century-old practise of instant triple talaq. The decision by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to break away from the RJD and return to the BJP also played a part in this.

For obvious reasons, major parties now want the support of the RJD in winning elections against the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar and Jharkhand.

“You may mock him, hate him or show him in poor light, but Lalu Prasad still remains a force to reckon with in national politics,” said Ranchi-based journalist Ashok Kumar. “He commands a huge support base among certain social groups, which is required to win elections, and hence no one has dared to ignore him.”

BJP leaders getting anxious

The BJP has been proven wrong in its poll calculations. The party had thought the RJD would disintegrate after Yadav was convicted in the fodder scam and it would be a cakewalk for them in Bihar. But the RJD has stood firm, and it is the BJP that now appears to be battling hard to retain the seats it won in the 2014 general elections. Experts say BJP’s anxiety is showing, as the party has given away six of its seats to an ally, the JD-U, to ensure the alliance works.

“Corruption charges indeed have dented his (Yadav’s) image but there is a kind of sympathy wave among the masses, especially among his fellow milkmen caste, after he was jailed in the fodder scam and his bail pleas were rejected by the court,” said social scientist S Narayan. “Secondly, Lalu Prasad is the kind of politician who has a personal connection with the masses. We can’t say he is finished.”

Last week the RJD central parliamentary board met in Yadav’s absence at the residence of his wife Rabri Devi in Patna and Yadav was authorized to select candidates and hold parleys with like-minded parties to give final shape to the opposition “grand alliance”. This means Yadav will be selecting his party candidates from jail, something which is quite rare in Indian politics.

In January, Yadav sought bail from the Jharkhand high court on the basis that as RJD president he was the only person authorized to select party candidates for various parliamentary seats. “Without my signature, the Election Commission would not allocate symbols to the candidates, and as per the rules, he could not vest this power in any other person,” the RJD chief argued in his bail petition, filed in the local court. The petition was rejected, but Yadav has now moved the matter to the Supreme Court.

Now almost 71, he is undergoing treatment for numerous health complications under judicial custody  at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences, Ranchi, and has been advised by doctors to have a complete rest. But his hold over Bihar politics remains strong and it does not appear Yadav will be taking a break.