The Congress will decide much closer to next year’s general elections which party – the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Janata Dal (United) – it will ally with in Bihar, if it eventually chooses to acquire a partner in the eastern State.

Monday’s conviction of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad by a CBI court in Jharkhand in the Rs.37-crore fodder scam, Congress sources told The Hindu, does not rule out his party as an ally for the polls in Bihar.

Publicly, party spokesperson Sandeep Dikshit maintained a neutral stance on the issue in the wake of party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s attack on the ordinance on convicted legislators. Asked about the political impact of Mr. Prasad’s conviction, he said, “The court has found him guilty. The Congress does not comment on court judgments. We did not have an alliance with the RJD in the last Lok Sabha elections, but the party has been supporting the UPA.”

To another question on whether the Congress was left with no option but to ally with the JD(U), Mr. Dikshit said, “The Antony Committee [that is working on possible partners for the Congress] will decide that.”

However, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh spoke out strongly in Mr. Prasad’s favour, even going so far as to say that he believed that the RJD leader would be able to provide evidence of his innocence before a higher court. “I am sad that Lalu Prasadji has been found guilty,” Mr. Singh told journalists. “He has been framed. And I am hopeful that he will provide evidence in a higher court to prove his innocence.”

He also stressed Mr. Prasad had been “a trusted and an old partner of the Congress party”.

Interestingly, two senior party functionaries – apart from Mr. Singh – said the Congress unit in Bihar is keener on a tie-up with the RJD rather than the JD(U), as it feels the former is a better bet.

Over the last year, the RJD, they say, has been on an upward curve, while the JD(U)’s standing has diminished. Two, Congress leaders are wary of JD(U) president Sharad Yadav because of his strong anti-Congress views. Three, the Congress is not sure whether if it has a pre-poll alliance with the JD(U); it will stay with the UPA in case the BJP outperforms the Congress in next year’s general elections, and the BJP – to secure the JD(U)’s support – chooses a leader other than its declared prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi to lead the NDA.

For the Congress, one of the key determinants, party sources stressed, will also be which party – RJD or JD(U) — will be willing to part with a larger number of seats. The RJD, out of power and with its top leader in jail, the Congress feels, may give it a larger share than the JD(U) which remains in power in Bihar.

Of course, the Congress, party sources said, will also study the political impact of Mr. Prasad’s arrest in Bihar over the next few months – whether his appeal in a higher court works in his favour and who leads the party in his absence – before taking a final call.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has always had a soft spot for Mr. Prasad, who has been a trusted ally of the party. So much so that the Congress core group – of which both she and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are members – on September 21 had cleared the ordinance on convicted legislators which, had it been promulgated, would have protected Mr. Prasad from immediate disqualification. The question now is whether Rahul Gandhi, who opposed the ordinance strongly last week, and who is known to favour the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar, will have the last word.

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