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The secret of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s survival in the face of corruption charges

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-07-2017 Nikita Doval

New Delhi: In a political career spanning four decades, Lalu Prasad has been chief minister of Bihar, railway minister at the Centre (from 2004 to 2009) and a five-term member of Parliament (though with some rather notable interruptions) —an impressive resume by any measure.

Equally vast is the number of suspected rackets to which investigating agencies have sought to link Lalu, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The latest one was on Friday when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case against Lalu, his wife Rabri Devi and his son Tejaswi, the current deputy chief minister of Bihar.

The CBI has alleged that the family received land in Patna in exchange for granting a private company the contract to maintain two railway hotels. This allegedly dates back to 2006, when Lalu was railway minister, a post in which he was credited with turning around the state-owned transporter’s finances.

Friday’s case came within a month of the Supreme Court’s ruling in May directing that Lalu will face charges of criminal conspiracy and fraud in a fresh trial related to the 1996 fodder scam.

The scam involved the purchase of fodder, medicine and animal husbandry equipment for fictitious livestock, as also embezzlement of state funds.

In October 2013, Prasad was convicted by a special CBI court in Ranchi and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in one of the cases arising out of the fodder scam. As a result he was disqualified from contesting any election for 11 years. He won bail from the Supreme Court later that year.

Prasad moved the Jharkhand high court challenging the verdict of the CBI court, and won a ruling in November 2014 that quashed criminal conspiracy charges against him but the verdict was set aside by the Supreme Court in May.

The son of a milkman, Prasad, 69, entered politics in 1970 when he became president of the Patna University students’ union. Such was his meteoric rise that by 1977 he was contesting the Lok Sabha election and became one of the youngest parliamentarians. By the start of the next decade he was cementing his position in Bihar and by the time the 1990s rolled around, the socialist Prasad had established himself as the messiah of the lower castes, the Yadav community and the minorities.

“Lalu’s contribution in giving a voice to the OBC (other backward classes) community in the 1990s has been seminal and that is why everything else —development track record, corruption charges etc—is secondary,” says D.M. Diwakar, a Patna-based political scientist.

According to him, no matter how strongly the winds of change blow through the Indian political landscape, caste will always remain a factor and Prasad’s caste-base is more than just strong. “No Yadav leader who has broken away from him has survived. He is the tallest Yadav leader,” Diwakar says.

In 2015, Prasad forged a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) with friend-turned-foe Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the Congress party that stormed to power in elections that year, foiling a determined Bharatiya Janata Party attempt.

The RJD emerged as the single largest party in the Bihar assembly although it was Kumar who became third-time chief minister.

Apart from one poor electoral performance by the RJD in 2010—an aberration—Prasad’s standing in Bihar had never been in doubt. His Muslim-Yadav (MY) vote base never let him down; and to his credit, he never diluted his strong opposition to communal forces.

“Lalu is perhaps one of the only Indian politicians who has not wavered from his position vis-a-vis communalism. In that respect he has been steadfast, it has been his USP (unique selling proposition) and the support of the MY base has been strong,” said Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist and founder member-secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna.

Whether Prasad manages to ward off the latest corruption allegations remains to be seen.

Diwakar, the Patna-based political analyst, downplays the impact of the corruption allegations.

“Corruption has not been decisive in Indian politics since after Bofors,” he says, referring to alleged corruption in a deal with Swedish firm Bofors that brought down the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.

He added: “The MY factor is cemented for Lalu. OBC support is the coating on the base. And CBI raids are not going to make a difference. His base will remain steadfast.”

The future of the alliance with Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, however, is on shaky ground and Prasad’s political future may hinge more on that than the support of just his constituency alone.

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