The RJD-led government in Bihar secures a breather after a court grants bail to Chief Minister Rabri Devi in a case against Laloo Prasad Yadav, in which she was charge-sheeted. The NDA meanwhile pulls out all the stops in its drive against the g overnment.
BARELY three weeks after Rabri Devi was sworn in Chief Minister, the Rashtriya Janata Dal government in Bihar was plunged in crisis. Although still under considerable political pressure, it appears to have weathered the storm for now.
On April 4, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is investigating allegations of corruption against RJD president and Rabri Devi's husband Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ministers in the government he headed in the State, and bureaucrats, filed a charge -sheet against Laloo Prasad in a case relating to alleged possession of wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income. The CBI also charge-sheeted Rabri Devi for allegedly aiding and abetting her husband in the act.
Facing strident demands for the Chief Minister's resignation and the prospect of their imminent arrest, Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi, in a dramatic move, surrendered before the CBI Designated Court at 8 a.m. on April 5 and sought bail. This pre-empted the formal issuance of non-bailable arrest warrants against them.
Justice Sudhanshu Kumar Lal rejected Laloo Prasad's bail application and remanded him to 15 days' judicial custody on the grounds that he was the main accused and that the allegations against him were quite serious. (The charge against Laloo Prasad relat es to accumulation of assets worth Rs.42 lakhs in excess of his known sources of income, between 1990 and 1996 when he was Chief Minister.)
However, Rabri Devi was granted bail on condition that she furnished a bond for Rs.2 lakhs with two sureties for like amounts. In his order granting her bail, the judge said: "The accused person's offence dates back to when she was a housewife. The India n tradition has it that the housewife has to work according to the will of her husband."
The grant of bail to Rabri Devi provided the RJD-Congress(I) government a reprieve; it also provided the Congress(I) high command, which appeared to be considering the option of dissociating itself from the RJD, justification to continue its support to t he government.
The order came as a distinct setback also for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which had hoped to see Rabri Devi and Laloo Prasad arrested: it reckoned that in such an eventuality, the RJD-Congress(I) government would be pushed to the brink and wo uld even collapse. Those hopes were well and truly dashed.
SOON after the court passed its order, Laloo Prasad was taken to the Beur jail in Patna. This is the third time in the past 32 months that he has been lodged there, but unlike on previous occasions he is unlikely to be given any special treatment.
On the two previous occasions that he was remanded to custody in connection with the Rs.950-crore fodder scam or D.A. cases, he spent more time at the Bihar Military Police camp (for security reasons) or at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (for medical attention) than in prison. He virtually ruled the State by proxy from behind bars. Top politicians, Ministers, bureaucrats and police officials, including the then Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police, would call on him to see k his instructions on administrative matters.
But this time, the State administration may not be able to shift him outside the jail except in case of a medical emergency. The Supreme Court issued a directive last year while hearing the fodder scam case that the accused could not be shifted outside t he jail. Following this order, Laloo Prasad, who was granted conditional bail on January 7, 1999, was forced to spend the last few days of his second term in the Beur jail.
Even so, Laloo Prasad was composed - and perhaps even a trifle upbeat - when he was taken to jail on April 5. He had a stream of visitors in jail: over 40 Ministers called on him. Earlier, addressing mediapersons, the RJD president said the CBI was being used as a political tool of the Bharatiya Janata Party. "I have full faith in the judiciary," he said as he proceeded to jail. The voters of Bihar, he said, had given the RJD the mandate to rule but that had not gone down well with the NDA. "They are re sorting to underhand tactics by using the CBI to oust me from power."
Pointing out that Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi had not resigned even after being charge-sheeted in the Babri Masjid demolition case, Laloo Prasad said: "Is this not double standards?"
AFTER the CBI court took cognisance of charge-sheets against Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi, the BJP, the Samata Party and other NDA partners swung into action. A delegation of leaders from these parties met Governor V.C. Pande and demanded the dismissal of the Rabri Devi government. Legal experts, however, pointed out that the Governor had no powers under the Constitution to do so and that Chief Minister could continue as long as she enjoyed the confidence of the Assembly.
Realising that the Rabri Devi government could not be dislodged in this fashion, the NDA leaders changed tack and demanded her resignation on moral ground. Samata Party leader and former Chief Minister Nitish Kumar told Frontline that his party wo uld intensify its campaign for Rabri Devi's resignation. The NDA constituents called a dawn-to-dusk Bihar bandh on April 7, but the call evoked only a lukewarm response.
With Rabri Devi granted bail, Laloo Prasad has been spared the mortifying experience of picking up at short notice a successor to Rabri Devi who will find acceptance among the RJD's allies, particularly the Congress(I) and the Communist Party of India (M arxist). However, it has not eased the pressure on the party over this crucial issue. Even within the RJD, there is a hint of disharmony on this matter. Many party leaders and MLAs are believed to be opposed to appointing anyone from Laloo Prasad Yadav's family as the successor. So strong are these feelings that political observers believe that Laloo Prasad may have to tread carefully.
Thus far, the RJD president has maintained that there was no need for Rabri Devi to resign since the case was a civil matter, not a criminal one. But the problem of simmering dissidence within his party is unlikely to be resolved easily. This is more so because the NDA is pulling out all stops in its effort to widen the rift within the RJD. It has stepped up its agitation to demand that Rabri Devi be replaced by "anyone else" from the RJD or the Congress(I).
NDA leaders Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi told Frontline that they were not seeking to grab power in Laloo Prasad's absence. But, they said, the RJD must find a new Chief Minister and save the State from humiliation. Even though Rabri Devi had been granted bail, she had lost the moral right to stay in office, they claimed.
With the NDA threatening to intensify its campaign and the Congress(I) and the CPI(M) standing resolutely by the RJD, the battle lines have been clearly drawn. The CPI(M) castigated the Centre for "using the CBI" with political motives against Laloo Pras ad. It appears that the Congress(I), which initially seemed to weigh the option of dissociating itself from the RJD, has decided to continue its support to Laloo Prasad's party. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi said that the equation between her party and the RJD had not been altered by the fact that Laloo Prasad was in judicial custody and Rabri Devi stood charge-sheeted. However, the Congress(I) seems keen to cash in on Rabri Devi's political vulnerability and is stepping up pressure on her to allot crucial portfolios for Congress(I) Ministers. Seven Congress(I) Ministers threatened to resign if they were allotted "honourable" portfolios. Under pressure from the Congress(I), Rabri Devi had inducted all 22 Congress(I) MLAs in her Ministry, taking it s strength to a high of 82.
ANOTHER political challenge awaits the RJD-led government: this one relates to the carving out of a Vananchal state. President K.R. Narayanan has referred the Vananchal Bill to the State Assembly for its consideration, and a decision on it must be taken by May 12. Laloo Prasad opposed the bill when it was thus referred the last time - on one occasion, he said dramatically that Vananchal would be created only "over my dead body". But the Congress(I), on which the RJD-led government depends for survival, favours the creation of a (larger) Jharkhand state: in fact, the issue was a crucial campaign platform for the party. The issue also figures on the common minimum programme of the coalition government, and the Congress(I) has said that it reserves the ri ght to resort to agitation programmes at various forums in order to deliver on its "commitment".
Ahead of the confidence vote sought in the Assembly recently by the Rabri Devi government, the RJD, desperate to secure the support of the Jharkhandi parties, appeared to soften its stand on the issue. Laloo Prasad adroitly changed tack and declared at a meeting with MLAs belonging to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha that the Centre could go ahead with the creation of a new state without waiting for the State Assembly's reference. His party's spin doctors stepped in to explain that his "over my dead body" sta tement was made in a specific context and was intended to ensure that a tribal state was created not just by vivifying Bihar but by incorporating the contiguous tribal districts in neighbouring States. This, the RJD argued, was how a Jharkhand state had been originally conceived.
Laloo Prasad opposes the division of Bihar to create a Vananchal state comprising 18 districts in southern Bihar and it is to thwart the move that he presses for a Jharkhand state that will include all the tribal regions of Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. He is only too aware that such a proposal will never find acceptance with the neighbouring States and that the formation of a Jharkhand state will remain a dream.
MEANWHILE, the CBI Designated Court has framed charges against the RJD president and 51 others with the fodder scam cases. Laloo Prasad and former Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra have been charged with having entered into a criminal conspiracy and having provided patronage to scamsters in connection with fraudulent withdrawals from the Chaibasa treasury of more than Rs.37 crores by officials in the State Animal Husbandry Department through forged bills. The framing of charges against the accused, among whom are several MLAs and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, marks the formal commencement of the trial in the case.
With Laloo Prasad Yadav in judicial custody, questions arise as to whether he can break free of the web of criminal cases he is currently ensnared in. There is no denying that he is in deep trouble. The charge-sheet in the D.A. case is the fourth one fil ed against him in connection with the slew of fodder scam cases. Of those cases, the D.A. case perhaps involves the least amount of money. But a CBI officer said: "This case may be the smallest in terms of the size of the amount involved, but it is the m ost concrete." Among the properties and amounts of money listed by the CBI as being part of the assets disproportionate to Laloo Prasad's known sources of income are four plots of land and a sum of Rs.11 lakhs in a bank account. Additionally, the CBI ha s cited a sum of Rs.5 lakhs which was shown as Rabri Devi's earnings from a dairy farm that was run from the Chief Minister's official residence.
However, Rabri Devi stands on fairly firm legal ground. Legal experts note that since the charges against her have not been established and the courts have not pronounced her guilty, she is not required to resign. They point out that Laloo Prasad had to resign in 1997 only because the non-bailable arrest warrant issued against him in a case relating to the fodder scam was endorsed by the Supreme Court since the CBI wanted to interrogate him in judicial custody. In the D.A. case, however, Rabri Devi has submitted all the relevant documents and has already been interrogated. Legal experts further note that more often than not, cases against politicians are used as instruments for launching political witch-hunts. Sadly, the NDA has thus far shown no qualm s about embarking on such an enterprise.