In the biggest legal blow for former Bihar Chief Minister and RJD president Lalu Prasad in fodder scam cases, a special CBI court Saturday sentenced him to consecutive rigorous prison terms of seven years each under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act. This means Lalu, who is nearing 70 years of age, will have to spend 14 years in prison. Fines adding up to Rs 60 lakh, too, have been slapped on him. The matter (RC-38A/96) pertained to alleged fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 3.76 crore from the Dumka treasury by officials of the Animal Husbandry Department of undivided Bihar between 1995 and 1996, when Lalu was chief minister.
Om Prakash Diwakar, then a regional director with the Animal Husbandry Department, too, was sentenced to two consecutive seven-year prison terms under the IPC and PC Act, and slapped with a similar fine.
The court had earlier acquitted another former Bihar chief minister, Jagannath Mishra, and several other accused politicians in the case, including Dhurv Bhagat, Jagdish Sharma, R K Rana and Vidya Sagar Nishad. The court had also acquitted two IAS officials, Beck Julius and Mahesh Prasad. In all 12 people had been acquitted.
Nineteen accused, including Lalu and Diwakar, were convicted on March 19. Ten of the convicts are government servants, including former IAS officer Phool Chand Singh, who was then finance secretary. They have been given consecutive prison terms of three and a half years each under IPC and PC Act sections, and fined Rs 30 lakh each.
The other seven convicts, all suppliers and contractors facing trial under IPC sections, were awarded prison terms of three and a half years, and fined Rs 15 lakh.
In three earlier fodder scam cases, Lalu had been awarded jail terms of between three and a half years and five years, with the sentences running concurrently.
In this case, however, Special CBI Judge Shivpal Singh said the sentences would run “consecutively and not concurrently”. A CBI counsel said: “If the court doesn’t specifically mention that the sentences would run concurrently, it is understood that the sentences would run consecutively. In this case, however, the court has clearly specified that the sentences would run consecutively. We had prayed for maximum punishment.”
Counsel for Lalu Prabhat Kumar said: “This is too harsh a punishment, and we were not expecting it. But we respect the judgment and will approach the Jharkhand High Court after going through the order in detail.”
Lalu has so far got no relief from the Jharkhand High Court. His bail petitions in the Deoghar and Chaibasa treasury cases were rejected. His legal troubles may, in fact, only increase — a separate fodder scam case, pertaining to the fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 179 crore from Doranda treasury in Ranchi, is currently being heard, and a case is ongoing in Bhagalpur as well.
In Patna, Lalu’s family and party reacted to the news of his sentencing by launching an attack on the BJP and JD(U). The RJD chief’s younger son and Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, said: “We will challenge this verdict as we challenged the previous sentencing… But one thing is clear, the way the BJP and (Chief Minister) Nitish Kumar are drunk on power but also terrified of (the mass base of) Lalu Prasad, they can go to any extent… I fear the BJP and JD(U) are conspiring. There is a threat to Laluji’s life.”
Tejashwi said the BJP had sensed that Lalu alone could pose a threat to Narendra Modi’s chances of returning as Prime Minister after next year’s Lok Sabha polls, and they “would not want Lalu Prasad to come out of jail to campaign”. RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tewary alleged: “There is clear-cut political vendetta against Lalu Prasad. But the more they try to finish him off, the harder he will return on the rebound.”
At Lalu’s Patna residence, 10 Circular Road, however, there was silence. Former CM Rabri Devi and former Bihar health minister Tej Pratap Yadav remained indoors. There was no political activity, although a handful of supporters who came to the shut gates had words of solidarity and support for their leader. “Lalu Prasad’s secular credentials are very good. He will always remain our leader,” said Mohammed Wasim of Patna City.
On Tejashwi’s allegations, Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said: “The fodder case verdict for Lalu shows that no matter how much wealth or political clout one accumulates, one cannot escape the rule of law. As for the allegations of political vendetta, when the first fodder case was filed, there was no BJP government… If Lalu faces a threat to his life, he should approach the court.”
JD(U) national spokesperson KC Tyagi said: “It is preposterous to level allegations against the JD(U) and BJP. It was during the Janata Dal government that Lalu Prasad was arrested by the CBI. Courts hand out punishments on the basis of facts.”
On Saturday, Special CBI judge Shivpal Singh, awarding the sentences by video-conferencing, said, “The matter could have been stopped at an early stage, (but) instead of taking concrete steps Shri Lalu Prasad kept justifying the action and inaction of the AHD officials and other bureaucrats and thereby aided and abetted the offence.” The court rejected Lalu’s contention that it was he who had got FIRs registered in the first instance, saying his “malafide intention” was already clear. It also took note of the fact that, during the period under consideration, Lalu was both chief minister and finance minister of the state.
“Politicians namely Lalu Prasad Yadav (through) his wilful omissions and commissions have contributed to this plunder. The accused persons have invariably availed pecuniary gains and hospitality from the AHD officials and suppliers,” the court said.
“Due to this meeting of minds, they had forgotten the provisions of law, constitutional provisions, service law, and the government failed to enquire into the matter of criminal negligence and take drastic steps to prevent the ongoing loot,” it added. Lalu is currently admitted in Ranchi’s Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), where he was met Saturday by rebel BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha and senior Congress leader and former union minister Subodh Kant Sahay.