As one who rose from being a humble resident of a peon’s quarters in Patna’s Bihar veterinary campus to become one of India’s best known political faces, Lalu Prasad’s rise was nothing short of meteoric.
It goes to his penchant to survive against heavy odds that the ‘fall’ of Lalu, Bihar’s chief minister almost continuously for seven years (March 1990-July 1997) and railway minister in UPA-1 (2004-09), took so long in coming.
Lalu’s conviction by a Ranchi CBI court in fodder scam case no. RC 20 (A)/96, on Monday, came 17 years after he was named as a suspect in the case. Many think it’s a miracle he remained politically relevant for so long after this.
Even his most bitter critics acknowledge Lalu Prasad’s mettle as a fighter, one who digs in his heel in adversity. This is why many think those writing his political obituary may be jumping the gun.
“The judicial process has still a long way to go. No one knows what will ultimately happen, although decks look stacked against him”, said DM Diwakar, director of Patna think-tank, AN Sinha institute of social studies.
This, to many, will sound like a back-handed tribute to man who made his mark as poster boy of backward classes politics in Bihar, once he beat overwhelming odds to become Bihar’s chief minister in March 1990.
Lalu’s early initiation into politics came when he became president of the Patna university students’ union in the early 1970s. When the late Jaya Prakash Narayan (JP) launched his movement against corruption in 1974, he became an active participant.
Lalu’s first big leap in politics came in the 1977 Lok Sabha election, held in the wake of the unpopular national emergency declared in 1975 by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Lalu, who was regarded as close to kisan leader Devi Lal, debuted in the Lok Sabha with a big victory from the Chapra seat of north Bihar (which he holds even in the present Lok Sabha).
Yet, nobody regarded him as a serious contender for Bihar’s chief ministership when he threw his hat in the ring for the leadership of the Janata Dal legislature party, during its election on March 10, 1990.
“Still known for his veterinary college origins, Lalu outmanoeuvred front runner Ram Sunder Das (now JD (U) MP from Hajipur) and rival claimant Raghunath Jha to win the leadership battle”, recalled a leader present at the time at Patna’s Braj Kishore memorial hall, where the issue was settled in an unexpected fashion.
Lalu’s top ally and friend at the time was Nitish Kumar. So close they were at the time that the slogans raised when Lalu was declared JDLP leader hailed both him and Nitish Kumar for the victory”, recalled another eye-witness.
Still regarded as ‘wet round the ears’ and lacking in majority support in the Bihar assembly, Lalu pounced upon the ‘Mandal revolution’ to counter his upper caste critics and consolidate his hold on the party.
Subsequently, he engineered a vertical split in the BJP legislature party to security majority support for his government.
By 1994, the relations between Lalu and Nitish had deteriorated to such an extent that the latter formed the Samata party with George Fernandes as its leader.
Hailed by the media as Lalu’s likely nemesis, the Samata party contested 315 seats in a house of 324 in the 1995 Bihar assembly poll but ended up winning just seven.
This was Lalu Prasad’s finest hour. He won a clear majority with what his critics described as a ‘genie’ from the ballot box, actually Lalu’s unheralded vote among Muslims and deprived classes.
By halting BJP leader LK Advani’s ‘mandir rathyatra’ at Samastipur (north Bihar) in 1991, Lalu won support among Muslims that help him crystallize the Muslim-Yadav (MY) alliance that paid him rich dividends in later years.
But, in January 1996, the Fodder scam blew into his face. Evidence emerged to show fraudulent withdrawal of crores of rupees from treasuries across the state for animal fodder that was not actually purchased.
Responding to a PIL, the Patna high court, on March 11, 1996, ordered a CBI probe into the scam. Approaching the supreme court backfired for Lalu as the apex court went a step further and directed an HC bench to monitor the CBI probe.
Facing arrest in a fodder scam case, Lalu resigned as chief minister and installed his wife Rabri Devi, a homebody at the time, as chief minister on July 27, 1997 to keep the reins of power with his family.
Three days later, he surrendered in a CBI court and was sent for stint in jail.
Fresh trouble brewed for Lalu in August 1998, when the CBI registered a disproportionate assets (DA) case against him and Rabri Devi. In April 2000, both were chargesheeted. Lalu again went to jail while Rabri got bail.
The same year, Lalu dashed the hopes of the NDA of wresting Bihar from him on the back of the latter’s big victory in the 1999 Lok Sabha poll. He steered the RJD to become the largest single party and a fresh Rabri Devi regime was formed in alliance with the Congress “to keep communal elements at bay”.
Again, when Lalu’s RJD lost office in Bihar in 2004, he bounced back to become railway minister in UPA-1 and retained some degree of eminence even after the Nitish-led NDA was voted to power in November 2005.
Just when his opponents were convinced he had lost the DA case, a CBI court in Patna gave him and Rabri ‘clean chit’ in the DA case on December 18, 2006. Then, on April 1, 2007, the supreme court ‘upheld’ the verdict.
Lalu had survived again, to fight another day.
Apprehending an adverse verdict in fodder scam case no. RC 20 (A)/96, Lalu first moved the Jharkhand HC and then the apex court with the request the case be transferred to another court.
Lalu’s argument was that the CBI special judge hearing his case in Ranchi was related to Bihar education minister PK Shahi. But the plea was rejected by both the courts.
Finally, the dreaded hour came on Monday when the Ranchi CBI court declared him guilty and set the stage for his sentencing on October 3, under sections, which will lead to his incarceration for three years or more.
It is a verdict that may cause the RJD chief to lose the last vestige of office, his Saran Lok Sabha seat.