CHENNAI: The three-and-a-half-year sentence handed out to Lalu Prasad in the fodder scam case may give one the impression that the scam is a minor one. But in the annals of corruption in India, it is one of the most convoluted and intricate. The fodder scam is a maze of malfeasance that takes in several chief ministers, political leaders, top administrative officers and a number of low-level staffers in the Animal Husbandry Department of undivided Bihar. The crux of the case is simple enough though: top politicians ate up monies meant for the fodder of cows.
The roots of the case go back to 1985 when the then comptroller and auditor general of India (CAG), T N Chaturvedi sniffed a fraud in the Bihar treasury. He noticed a delay in submission of monthly accounts and warned that there could be large-scale laundering taking place. It was 11 years later, in 1996, that the scam finally came to light when deputy commissioner Amit Khare raided the offices of the Animal Husbandry Department in Chaibasa (now in Jharkhand) and discovered stacks of documents that revealed the siphoning off of government funds in the name of procuring fodder for cattle.
The fodder scam is not one instance of corruption but dozens of them. The CBI has investigated 66 cases relating to fraudulent withdrawals of public money from the Bihar treasury, amounting to Rs 950 crore, by officials in the state's animal husbandry department on the basis of fake bills for fodder, veterinary medicines and artificial insemination equipment.
When the first slivers of the scam came to light in 1996, it was thought to be small-scale embezzlement by low-level government officers but the revelations soon snowballed into a multi-crore scam involving top officials and politicians the then current regime of Lalu Prasad and that of his predecessor, Jagannath Mishra of the Congress.
In March 1996, the Patna High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take up a probe into the matter. Following the High Court order, the CBI requested the then governor of Bihar to grant it permission to prosecute Lalu Prasad Yadav. On June 23, 1997, a charge sheet was prepared naming Yadav and 55 others as accused. Sixty-three cases, under IPC Sections 420 (forgery) and 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy) and Section 13 (b) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, were registered against them.
Soon after the scam broke out in 1996, Lalu Prasad Yadav disassociated himself from the Janata Dal (JD) and formed his own party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). However, the fallout of the scam did not let him hold on to his position for long. In July 1997, Yadav resigned and installed his wife Rabri Devi in the chief minister's chair.Nevertheless, the fodder scam has dogged Lalu Prasad's political journey since then although he has always maintained that he was falsely implicated.
The CBI's case against Lalu Prasad Yadav is that he amassed disproportionate assets out of the proceeds of the fodder scam. The Income Tax Department said Lalu had garnered Rs 46 lakh from the government treasury for personal benefits. His wife, Rabri Devi, too was named as co-accused. Two of his nephews are also among the 56 defendants in the case.
In 2012, a special court judge framed charges against Yadav and two other senior politicians in a case relating to the fraudulent withdrawal of funds by officials from treasuries in Banka and Bhagalpur districts between 1994 and 1996, when he was the CM. In the following year, Yadav and 44 others, including former chief minister Jagannath Mishra, six politicians and four IAS officers, were convicted in another case pertaining to illegal withdrawal of Rs 37.7 crore from the Chaibasa treasury in the early 1990s.
The court also disqualified the two former CMs from contesting elections for six years.
For Lalu Prasad, the fodder scam has been a millstone around his neck, which has hindered his political activity despite his attempts to brazen it out. Although he served a term as Union minister in the UP government of Manmohan Singh while fighting the fodder scam cases in the court, his disqualification from elections since 2012 has limited his political choices. In 2015, when his party in coalition with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (U) won the Bihar election, he could not contest the election and had to instead nominate two of his sons to the cabinet, one as deputy chief minister.
Since the RJD's alliance with the JD (U) broke in 2017, his wife Rabri Devi has had to take up the role of leader of the opposition in the Bihar Assembly. His current prison sentence of three and a half years is sure to make it difficult for him to participate in the opposition unity efforts to take on the NDA in the 2019 general election. As a leading figure in the opposition, his imprisonment is a blow to the effort of forging opposition unity before the 2019 general election.