In his heyday, Lalu Prasad Yadav once said: “I do not rule out the possibility of being Prime Minister of India one day, but there is still time.” For nearly three decades, Lalu cast himself as a messiah of the underprivileged, backward classes and Muslims. As Bihar’s Chief Minister from 1990 to 1997 and then UPA-I’s Railway Minister from 2004-09, Lalu’s rise has closely followed the trajectory of backward class assertion in Indian politics. But even as that brand of politics continues to remain relevant, Lalu was eclipsed.
Long before the Ranchi special CBI court judgment in the multi-crore fodder scam that has effectively ended Lalu’s career in electoral politics, his decline had begun.
For three consecutive elections in 1990, 1995 and 2000 Bihar’s weaker sections cast their lot with Lalu. Over the years, his slogans yielded diminishing returns and the adulation soured and Bihar remained synonymous with backwardness. The failures on the governance and law-and-order front were compounded by rowdy elements among his partymen.
The fodder scam was a symptom of that utter brazenness. Public funds were disbursed among a clique of politicians, bureaucrats and fodder suppliers leaving a wide money-trail. Lalu’s commitment to secularism notwithstanding, his failures on other fronts were too stark to escape scrutiny. To Lalu’s credit, he ensured that a repeat of the 1989 Bhagalpur communal riots did not occur in Bihar.
While the conviction of such a high-profile politician is a momentous occasion for Indian democracy, it is important to revisit the case because of the larger implications. The judgment took 17 years to materialise after the first FIRs were filed. In the interim, Lalu made a farce of norms governing public life. He clung to power, appointing his wife, Rabri Devi, a political novice, as Chief Minister thrice between 1997 and 2005. Despite being implicated, Lalu graced the Union Cabinet from 2004 to 2009.
Since 1997, when the Supreme Court first advocated independence for the CBI while investigating corruption cases involving politicians, little has changed. Recent probes like cash-for-votes, the Mulayam and Mayawati disproportionate assets cases have failed. The Centre is resisting the SC’s recent attempts to free the CBI in the “coalgate” case. Even in the fodder scam, the CBI was accused of attempting to undermine its now-retired official, UN Biswas, who led the probe.
In the light of Lalu’s conviction, the Supreme Court’s wisdom in disqualifying convicted legislators merits appreciation.
Before the monsoon session, political parties cobbled together a consensus to negate this ruling through an amendment bill. When this came undone, the Centre showed uncharacteristic haste in promulgating an ordinance to achieve the same end. It is debatable whether this was intended to save Lalu in particular or politicians in general.
But the backlash against the Centre’s move was undeniable.
While Rahul Gandhi’s outburst has dashed Lalu’s hopes, the danger from the ordinance lurks. The government is yet to withdraw the ordinance from the President who is yet to sign it. It has also been silent about withdrawing the amendment bill from Parliament. The SC judgment offers Lalu another window of hope. If a higher court stays his conviction, it would imply a stay on his disqualification too.
Considering the feeble nature of the laws governing politicians, it is too early to write Lalu off.