Patna: If Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad is in jail, why is Chief Minister Nitish Kumar free?
That is the big question doing the rounds in the political circles in Bihar at the moment. After all, didn’t one of the prime accused in the fodder scandal, Shyam Bihari Sinha, confess to the CBI that he also paid Nitish, (in the Samata Party then), Rs 1 crore of the scam money as election expenditure in 1994? It was finally Lalu’s association with Sinha, the central figure in the scam, which saw him thrown behind bars.
Bihar's opposition parties have started raking up the issue with great energy after the conviction of the RJD chief, particularly after the Jharkhand High Court on 20 September directed the CBI to explain why Nitish and his party colleague Shivanand Tiwari should not be arraigned as accused in the fodder scam.
Tiwari, according to Sinha’s confession, had demanded and received Rs 30-35 lakh from the syndicate of scamsters. The court has asked CBI to file its reply by 22 November, when it is scheduled to be taken up for hearing. If the agency fails to come up with a convincing reply, Nitish could be in serious trouble.
The court was responding to a writ petition filed by a social activist Mithilesh Kumar Singh based on the confessional statement of Sinha obtained via RTI. The statement of Sinha reveals, according to Singh, that the scam money was given to scores of politicians, including RJD chief Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Shivanand Tiwari and others. “If on the very basis (of the confessional statement of Sinha), Lalu Prasad, Jagannath Mishra and others could be made accused in the fodder scam, why did the CBI refuse to include the names of Nitish Kumar and Shivanand Tiwari in the list of the accused?” asked Singh.
According to documents, which Singh claims to be in his possession, Sinha had paid money to Nitish Kumar in two installments—first Rs 1.40 crore for election purposes and then Rs 5.50 lakh for shopping by the leader during his trip to Australia. The air ticket, too, was arranged by the scamsters. He alleged that Shivanand Tiwari was paid money in three installments. “I have sufficient proof against Nitish Kumar and his colleagues,” said Singh.
Smelling blood, the entire opposition – the BJP, the CPI-ML and even the RJD - has virtually ganged up on Nitish, demanding that the CBI also make the Bihar chief minister an accused in the scam. The parties have started hitting the street over the demand and mobilizing public opinion. The development has left the chief minister worried. It partly explains why he has suddenly gone silent, not even reacting to the incarceration of his arch rival in Bihar politics.
“The CBI’s silence over the involvement of Nitish Kumar, Shivanand Tiwari, Lalan Singh and others in the fodder scam is mysterious and we want to know why their names have been left out,” CPI-ML general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said at a press conference in Patna. “Were the leaders let off because they were with the NDA government at the Centre when the CBI started investigating the case? BJP leader Ravishankar Prasad is now saying that there was proof of Mr Kumar’s involvement in the fodder scam case too,” he added.
The fodder scam had surfaced in 1996 and a year latter, Lalu, who was the chief minister of Bihar then, was sent to jail after being chargesheeted. He had hoped for reprieve from the United Front government – of which Lalu’s Janata Dal was a key ally - at the Centre headed by two prime ministers, HD Deve Gowda and then IK Gujaral. However, it collapsed in two years after a shaky existence. It followed the formation of the NDA government headed by AB Vajpayee. It brought more trouble for Lalu and relief to Nitish, who was then a partner in the ruling alliance.
BJP leader Ravishankar Prasad, who was the lawyer for Sushil Kumar Modi, a petitioner who had filed a PIL in the court in the fodder scam, has also gone public, saying Nitish would follow Lalu. “Elder brother (Lalu Prasad) is in jail (in the fodder scam) and it is now the turn of the younger brother (Nitish Kumar). His (Mr Kumar’s) name figures in the fodder scam and hence he too will have to go to jail,” Prasad told a party rally.
Sushil Kumar Modi, former deputy chief minister and one of the original petitioners in the scam, said. “The imprisonment of Nitish Kumar and his colleagues is inevitable,” he told the media.
However, Shivanand Tiwari denies all such allegations. “Such allegations against us are quite old and I will welcome it if the CBI investigates our involvement in the case,” Tiwari has been quoted as saying in a local daily, reacting to allegations against them. Another senior leader and minister in the Nitish Kumar government, Bhim Singh, refused comment.
Senior BJP leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy has attacked the chief minister, saying the latter’s growing closeness to the Congress was possibly an outcome of the apprehension that the CBI could frame him in the fodder scam. “It’s high time Nitish Kumar should tell the masses what forced him to close ranks with the Congress” said Rudy.
All eyes are now fixed on the reply CBI submits to the court. If Nitish also falls prey to the scam, the politics of Bihar would be headed for uncertain times.