Fodder Scam: With Lalu Prasad Yadav verdict, SC has redrawn the equation of national politics

The Supreme Court verdict on Monday reviving criminal conspiracy charges against Lalu Prasad Yadav and others in each of the five remaining cases of the Rs 900 crore fodder scam will have ramifications beyond the boundaries of Bihar politics.

Lalu Prasad Yadav. AFP

Lalu Prasad Yadav. AFP

As an immediate fallout, it takes the wind out of opposition sails just ahead of the presidential polls in July and puts in jeopardy the larger project of a grand, pan-national anti-BJP alliance in 2019. The ruling also gives rise to interesting possibilities in Nitish Kumar's coalition government in Bihar.

In reinstating the criminal conspiracy charges against the RJD chief, the Bench of Justices Arun Kumar Mishra and Amitava Roy on Monday set aside the 2014 Jharkhand High Court order which had spared Lalu Prasad further censure than the five years of rigorous imprisonment that he was already subjected to by a trial court in 2013, leading to his disqualification from Parliament and a ban on contesting elections.

The RJD chief's time in prison, though, was very brief. The Supreme Court granted him bail in December following his conviction in October.

In the 2014 order, the Jharkhand HC had ruled that the veteran politician, who along with 45 others were convicted for fraudulent withdrawals from Chaibasa treasury in connection with the fodder scam, cannot be tried separately in all cases because these are essentially the same under Section 300 and rules of double jeopardy will apply.

The ruling had come as a relief to Lalu because the high court, as a report in The Hindu summarises, "quashed charges of criminal breach of trust by public servant, cheating, various counts of forgery, fraud, falsification of accounts and offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act on the ground that the allegations in this case and the earlier Chaibasa Treasury one were the same."

Allowing CBI's plea opposing the quashing of conspiracy charges by Jharkhand HC, the apex court on Monday ruled 'that the RJC chief and former Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra shall stand separate trial for each of the five cases and criticized the HC for giving "relief to Lalu Prasad ignoring settled principle of law." The Supreme Court also criticized the CBI for laxity and ordered it to complete the trial in nine months.

The restoration of charges comes at a difficult time for the RJD chief who is already battling allegations of graft and 'criminal-politician nexus' after audio tapes emerged of his purported conversation with jailed mafia don Mohammad Shahabuddin.

The veteran politician — whose son Tejashwi Prasad is the deputy chief minister and Tej Pratap is the forest minister in Bihar's JD(U)-RJD coalition government — has been accused of fraudulent land deals and of acquiring a 'mall' in Patna through shell companies.

Lalu has denied all charges leveled by state BJP leader Sushil Modi. However, as Hindustan Times points out, he has admitted to "floating a limited liability partnership (LLP) firm renamed as LARA, acronym for Lalu and Rabri" and divulged that the firm that was developing the mall had as directors his (minister) sons who became "partners… when their mother transferred her shares to them ‘out of love’."

These elaborate rebuttals have raised more questions than answers.

The BJP, sensing blood, has gone for the jugular. Its state unit chief Sushil Modi has flagged the land deals and asked Lalu to explain the purported conversation with jailed don Shahabuddin.

The audio tapes, aired by Republic TV, ostensibly indicate a link between Lalu Prasad and the feared 'Don of Siwan' who can be heard dictating terms from even within the jail. The don-turned-politician is heard saying in the clip that "your SP (Superintendent of Police) is of no use" and Lalu is heard taking instructions from Shahabuddin over riots.

The BJP has demanded that Nitish Kumar start a criminal investigation against his coalition partner. This could have been dismissed as mere political rhetoric. Yet there is a difference. Shahabuddin is a 'star among stars'. He is no ordinary criminal-turned-politician. In a country where criminal-politics nexus is quite commonplace, Shahbuddin still stands out due to his 'marked achievements'.

A known history-sheeter, the Siwan don has been booked under 75 cases, convicted in 10 and is facing trial in 45 cases of involving kidnapping, extortion, murder and nearly every other acts of criminality. In some he has been acquitted for 'want of evidence'.

It is understandable that BJP will cash in on the opportunity. Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has called it the "worst form of criminal-political nexus in the country," and in a news conference, accused Lalu of assisting a "notorious criminal" in running Bihar.

The Supreme Court verdict therefore allows the BJP to go after the lynchpin of opposition unity. In various times and on various platforms, it was Lalu Prasad Yadav who had exhorted BJP's political rivals to settle their differences, consolidate their powers and mount a joint attack against BJP.

We have seen this during Samajwadi Party's alliance with Congress during UP Assembly polls, during Mamata Banerjee's swearing-in for a second term in 2016. For instance, Lalu has been credited for a political impossibility in Bihar when he set aside decades of fierce rivalry with Nitish and joined hands for a mahagathbandhan to defeat the BJP.

With AAP under siege and renewed focus on probity in public life, Congress and other regional powers may now find it difficult to brazen out the optics and shake hands with a tainted politician on a public platform. The Supreme Court has redrawn the equations of national politics.

Updated Date: May 08, 2017 15:57 PM

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