The Supreme Court revived on Monday criminal conspiracy charges against RJD chief Lalu Prasad in one of the five pending cases in the fodder scam, rejecting his plea that he cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offence.
The court ruling is seen as a big setback to the powerful regional satrap who was disqualified from Parliament and banned from contesting elections after he was convicted of corruption in 2013 in one of the biggest scams in Bihar. He was found guilty of fraudulent withdrawals worth Rs 37.70 crore from the Chaibasa treasury.
On the former Bihar chief minister’s plea, the Jharkhand high court had in 2015 quashed criminal conspiracy charges against Prasad in connection with alleged fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 84.53 lakh from Deogarh treasury, holding he had already been convicted for the offence and cannot be tried again.
An SC bench led by justice Arun Misra set aside the HC verdict.
“Though evidence of general conspiracy has been adduced in cases which have been concluded, it may be common to all the cases but at the same time offences are different at different places, by different accused persons.” It said each transaction was a separate case and could not be clubbed to have a joint trial.
The fodder scam rocked undivided Bihar and came to light in 1996. A CBI probe uncovered that the fraud was part of a racket to bleed more than Rs 900 crore from the exchequer by showing spends for fictitious medicines and fodder for cattle.
The ruling is likely to weaken his position in Bihar, where his Rashtriya Janata Dal is in an alliance with chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and his two sons are ministers.
While political fallout may not be immediate, the cases are likely to strain the alliance before the next Assembly elections in 2020.
Problems for Lalu escalate. SC sets aside Jharkhand HC rose dropping criminal conspiracy charges in one of the fodder scam cases @htTweets— bhadra sinha (@BhadraSinha) May 8, 2017
The judgment will also have a bearing on four more fodder scam cases against Prasad. A petition by him to drop criminal conspiracy charges in one more case is pending before the HC.
The SC order came on an appeal against the HC verdict filed by the CBI, which was pulled up for its lethargic approach in the case. The agency had moved the court much after the limitation period to file an appeal was over.
“It is expected of it (CBI) to be more vigilant. It has failed to live up to its reputation. In the instant case, lethargy on its part is intolerable. If CBI fails to act timely, peoples’ faith will be shaken in its effectiveness,” the court said, asking the agency director to saddle the responsibility on the officer. The top boss cannot escape his responsibility, court said.
The SC verdict would also apply against former CM Jagannath Misra and retired bureaucrat Sajal Chakraborty who too were given relief by the HC. But, in the case of a doctor – also an accused in fodder scam – the HC had rejected his plea for a similar relief.
Taking note of this inconsistency, the SC chided the HC for giving conflicting findings. It ordered the trial court concerned to expedite the trial and conclude the same within nine months. Misra would face criminal conspiracy charges in four cases, while Chakraborty in two.
Pulling up CBI for its laxity, SC said it should have acted with more circumspection and ought to have followed the CBI manual. “In this case, we are surprised at the conduct of the CBI in such important matters how such delay could take place,” the court said, noting government agencies were routinely filing belated petitions in SC.
Monday’s ruling gives his rivals, particularly the BJP, ammunition to target Prasad again. He and his family have recently been under fire for allegedly acquiring a mall in Patna through front companies.
- January: Report on fodder scam appears, alleging crores of rupees have been siphoned off from government treasury in the name of non-existing companies for supply of fodder in districts like Chaibasa.
- March: Patna high court orders Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe the alleged irregularities. Supreme Court upholds high court order.
- June 17: Governor A.R. Kidwai grants permission to prosecute chief minister Lalu Prasad and others in the case.
- June 21: In a major embarrassment to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), CBI conducts raids at Lalu Prasad’s residence.
- July 25: Lalu Prasad, anticipating CBI indictment, steps down and names wife Rabri Devi, who has no political experience, as chief minister.
- July 29: Supreme Court denies bail to Lalu Prasad.
- July 30: Lalu Prasad surrenders before the CBI court.
- December 12: Lalu Prasad released on bail after 135 days in judicial custody.
- August: A case of disproportionate assets registered against both Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi.
- April: Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi charged in the case.
- April 5: Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi surrender. Rabri Devi gets bail.
- June 9: Charges framed against Lalu Prasad in court.
- October: Supreme Court transfers cases to Jharkhand with the creation of the new state.
- November: Lalu Prasad surrenders in Ranchi.
- December 18: Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi given a clean chit in disproportionate assets case by a special CBI court.
- December 17: The special CBI court frames charges against Lalu Prasad in fodder case, over the fraudulent withdrawal of Rs.3.13 crore from Dumka treasury between ecember 1995 and January 1996.
- August 13: Supreme Court refuses to transfer the case from the Ranchi court.
- September 30: CBI court in Ranchi convicts Lalu Prasad in the fodder case that disqualifies him from Parliament and renders him ineligible to contest elections for at least six years. Forty-four others, including former Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra, six politicians and four IAS officers, are also convicted for fraudulent withdrawal of Rs.37.7 crore from Chaibasa treasury.
- Oct 3: Lalu Prasad gets 5 years jail term and Rs 25 lakh fine in this case. The order disqualifies him from Parliament and renders him ineligible to contest elections for at least six years
- November 14: Jharkhand high court drops conspiracy charge against Lalu Prasad in a case related to the fodder scam, on the ground that a person cannot be tried twice for the same offence.
- May 8: The Supreme Court reinstated criminal conspiracy charges against Lalu Prasad in a fodder scam case, and said that the former Bihar chief minister will be tried in each of the five remaining cases against him.