New Delhi: As Rashtriya Janata Party (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav awaits his sentencing on January 3, 2018, after having been convicted in one of the 53 cases related to the infamous fodder scam during his tenure as the Bihar chief minister, his political future has once again become a talking point.
On December 23, a special CBI court in Ranchi prosecuted Lalu and others for embezzlement of Rs 84.5 lakh from the Deoghar (now in Jharkhand) treasury between 1991 and 1994. In 2013, Lalu was found guilty in another fodder scam case, following which he had to resign from his Lok Sabha seat and was subsequently disqualified from contesting elections for 11 years.
The Rs 950-crore fodder scam came back to haunt Lalu when earlier this year, the Supreme Court set aside the Jharkhand high court’s decision to stay these trials after upholding the former Bihar chief minister’s plea of “double jeopardy” – meaning one accused could not be tried in multiple cases relating to the same crime. The Supreme Court, while reversing the high court’s decision, ordered the CBI to finish the trial in nine months.
Lalu’s role in uniting opposition parties against BJP
The judgement has come at a time when Lalu has been at the forefront of building a united front to contest the formidable Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In November, he was instrumental in getting the opposition parties to unitedly launch a protest against the BJP on the first anniversary of demonetisation. It is believed that Lalu has also been playing a crucial role in trying to convince the different regional parties to bury their mutual differences and mount a concrete opposition to take on the BJP in the 2019 general elections.
It was Lalu who first joined hands with his arch rival, Nitish Kumar, to forge an alliance with the Janata Dal (United) in order to defeat the BJP, which had wrested the most parliamentary seats in Bihar in 2014. The mahagathbandhan, as the RJD-JD(U) alliance came to be called, decimated the BJP in the Bihar assembly elections in 2015 and provided a new formula for opposition unity to stop the BJP’s electoral tide in north India.
Political observers believe that it is because of such efforts that Lalu has been on the BJP’s line of attack. “Suddenly, there is a renewed interest of the government to dig Lalu’s past and corner him politically. The BJP understands his role in influencing the course of national politics. While many of the charges against Lalu could be true, raking those up through institutional means at this political juncture also reeks of some sort of vindictiveness. Why else would the central investigative agencies go after only the BJP’s political rivals and leave aside many other corporate corruption scandals? Why is there no action against scams like Vyapam,” a Patna-based political observer told The Wire on the condition of anonymity.
After collapse of mahagathbandhan, Lalu’s continued opposition of BJP
Earlier this year, a strange turn of events led to Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish, deserting the RJD and forming another government with BJP’s support. The collapse of the mahagathbandhan was preceded by a sustained campaign by the BJP, which accused Lalu and his family of being involved in illegal commercial transactions.
But the RJD maintains that none of these charges can be proven and that Nitish’s move to join its old ally, the BJP, was premeditated. “Why else would Kumar form a government with BJP only hours after his resignation? Of course, it was pre-planned. Nitish Kumar must have been in consultation with the BJP before the campaign against Yadav’s corrupt past started. Politics is a Machiavellian game. Both Yadav and Kumar know it best,” a Patna-based senior journalist, who requested anonymity, said.
However, Lalu’s political activities have only escalated after the failure of the mahagathbandhan. Apart from his efforts to unite the opposition, his party’s attacks on the BJP on issues of communalism, corruption and authoritarianism have reached a pitched high. Lalu has practically anointed his younger son, Tejashwi Yadav, who was also the deputy chief minister in the previous Nitish government, as his successor. He has also formed a socio-cultural organisation, Dharmnirpeksh (Secular) Sevak Sangh, led by his eldest son Tej Pratap, to counter the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In such a context, Lalu’s conviction assumes great political significance. For the BJP, it has come as a shot in the arm while it may prove to be a dampener for the RJD, which is trying to come back to national prominence.
The RJD, therefore, has been quite tactical in its criticism of the judgement. It has primarily targeted the central investigative agencies instead of the judgement itself.
“We have raised the concern in courts that while the investigative agencies accorded very low priority to the defence witnesses, they overplayed the prosecution witnesses. If things do not go haywire, such a judgement will not sustain even for a day in any higher court. Of course, we have a good judicial architecture and we will move a higher court but such partisan investigation by central investigative agencies will be disastrous for democracy,” national spokesperson of the RJD Manoj Kumar Jha told The Wire.
“We think that the most important aspect is all what is happening at present is that the present dispensation in Delhi is redefining the idea of a scam or an accused. A corrupt person of yesteryears (former chief minister of Bihar, Jagannath Mishra, who was acquitted in this particular case. The former Congress politician has been politically inactive for a long time) gets a clean chit because there is a washing machine at 11, Ashoka Road (BJP headquarters in Delhi). This means that people who refuse to succumb to the pressures of 11, Ashoka Road should prepare themselves to face the enforcement directorate or the CBI in future for numerous such cases. The judgement is definitely a result of the selective investigations that the dispensation in Delhi appears to be carrying out at the moment,” he added, pointing out that in the last three years the central government has only gone after his political rivals and not those accused persons who are now a part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
However, while the other opposition parties have frequently attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for selectively using the investigative agencies, they have remained conspicuously silent after Lalu’s conviction.
Why is the opposition silent?
Political observers believe that this is because Lalu has always been treated as an outsider in Delhi. “Allegations of corruption against him is one thing but the silence around his conviction reinforces the perception that Yadav was never accepted wholeheartedly by people who have remained in power. He was never allowed in the Lutyens’ Delhi circle,” said the Patna-based political analyst, suggesting that even in his prime, Lalu was treated as a political untouchable by a section of the elite political class across all parties.
Indeed, throughout his political career, Lalu has trained his guns against the upper-caste political class. While his critics attack him for encouraging caste-based corruption and precipitating an unforeseen lawlessness in Bihar, many are also of the opinion that his social engineering formula to unite historically inimical communities like Yadavs and Muslims ushered in a new age of communal harmony in the state.
Lalu is also credited to have led an assertive movement in which backward classes of Bihar found a political voice. While the fodder scam has become the signifier of Lalu’s corrupt political life, criticisms against him did not hinge only on this. Lalu has always been a soft target for his opposition due to his unrefined persona and unapologetic support for reservation of the other backward classes (OBCs). He was one of the biggest votaries of the Mandal Commission and had been under attack for strongly coming out in support of the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s decision to implement its recommendations which allowed for reservation of the OBCs.
At a time when the fodder scam was unfolding under his government in Bihar, he was also overseeing a greater democratisation of Bihar’s polity. Through the 1990s and early 2000s when the RJD was in power, the upper-caste groups – Brahmins, Kayastha, Bhumihars and Rajputs – frequently voiced their apathy towards Lalu for giving strength to the Yadavs and other marginalised communities.
Indeed, after the former socialist leader, Karpuri Thakur, Lalu is seen by many as the most influential leader in Bihar to have made this political churn in the state possible. When he remained at the helm of affairs, the upper-caste hegemony over politics broke and that remains his greatest achievement.
He also took on the Sangh parivar’s Hindutva politics like no other party did in the early 1990s. His gumption to get Advani arrested during the infamous Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra still riles many in the BJP’s rank and file. Despite a poor administrative record, Lalu also enjoys the credit for diffusing the communal acrimony between the Hindus and Muslims. During the RJD’s rule, Bihar saw negligible communal riots, although, in the same period, caste-based killings increased.
Lalu’s political career is a mixed bag of achievements and failures, almost like any other political leader’s life in India. But he has had to face much greater criticism than others. This, perhaps, shows the selective nature of political attacks in India. With a line of judgements related to the fodder scam expected to come soon, it is unlikely that Lalu will be let off the political hook easily.