Lalu vs NDA, again

Print edition : May 20, 2005

The NDA has once again started a campaign against its favourite target, Lalu Prasad, on the assumption that the Railway Minister is weakened by the election debacle in Bihar.

in New Delhi

THE Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad locked horns in the last week of April, both inside and outside Parliament, over issues such as the Sabarmati train accident, the alleged attack on the Minister in Gujarat and the filing of fresh charge-sheets in the fodder scam. Even so, they seemed to agree on one point. Both defined the confrontation in the larger national political context.

Lalu Prasad on the day he assumed office as Railway Minister in May 2004.-V. SUDERSHAN

Lalu Prasad, who is also the president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), termed the Opposition moves against him as the "second offensive". Leaders of the NDA, including the Janata Dal(U)'s Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad's main rival in his home State of Bihar, also described the campaign for Lalu Prasad's removal from the Union Cabinet as the "second offensive".

The agreement ended there. Talking to Frontline, Lalu Prasad said he was certain that the "second offensive" would fail like the first had done. The NDA leadership was equally convinced that this time it would achieve its objective.

The "first offensive" was launched nearly a year ago, indeed barely a couple of hours after the swearing-in of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh. At that time, the NDA called for a national campaign demanding the "removal of tainted Ministers" from the Union Cabinet, and Lalu Prasad was among those it categorised as tainted. The NDA even said that it would not allow the government to function until the Ministers were dropped.

That campaign failed to gather momentum or evoke mass support, though it was pursued aggressively for some time and interrupted the Paliament session then under way. The only face-saver for the NDA came when the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha's Shibu Soren - another Union Minister branded as tainted - had to resign following the revival of a criminal case against him in Jharkhand. But the overall failure of the offensive compelled the NDA to soft-pedal on the issue and move on to other concerns. But on April 26 this year, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in the Lok Sabha: "If the House has to function smoothly, there should not be a Minister like Lalu Prasad Yadav." In an echo of last year's campaign, this statement was preceded by unruly scenes and repeated adjournments of both Houses of Parliament. The NDA followed up Vajpayee's statement with a three-day boycott of Parliament, underlining the seriousness of its intent to pursue the new campaign.

Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 28 with other NDA leaders after submitting a memorandum demanding Lalu Prasad's resignation.-

However, it is not yet clear exactly what dimensions this offensive will take. But, there is little doubt that the NDA will carry on the campaign vigorously until at least May 13, when the Budget session concludes.

The immediate reasons for the NDA's renewed offensive are the Sabarmati train accident, the controversy over the attack on Lalu Prasad during his visit to Gujarat after the accident and the framing of charges against him by the Central Bureau of Investigation's special court in Ranchi in the fodder scam case. According to a senior NDA Member of Parliament, the fodder scam case was a "timely boon", coming so soon after the train accident. "More than anything else, it has added meat to the campaign, which would have been pushed ahead anyway on the basis of the train accident and the controversy on the attack," he said.

The fodder scam case has accentuated the NDA campaign in more ways than one. It not only gave ammunition for Opposition propaganda but also helped the NDA to attribute motives to Lalu Prasad's allegations on the assault on him. The NDA claims that the Railway Minister "cooked up" the assault story and launched a diatribe against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal in order to detract attention from the fodder case.

Lalu Prasad had accused Modi of instigating the attack and said that "it was a pre-planned conspiracy by the communal and fascist Chief Minister to eliminate" him. He also alleged that government protocol was not followed during his visit to the hospital where he was allegedly attacked, and demanded the dismissal of the Modi government.

Lalu Prasad's response to the demand for his resignation after the train accident was equally aggressive. He asked why NDA leaders such as Vajpayee did not demand the resignation of Modi when thousands of people were killed in the Gujarat riots. He said that with the kind of background that the BJP had, it had no moral right to ask him to step down after an accident in which some 20 people were killed.

Charges have been framed in the fodder scam case relating to the fraudulent withdrawal of Rs.37 crores from the Chaibasa treasury in 1996 against another former Chief Minister from Bihar - Jagannath Mishra, who is now with the Janata Dal(U), a constituent of the NDA. Charges have also been framed against 68 others under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) - Section 420 (cheating) and 120 B (criminal conspiracy). The NDA leadership, of course, focusses on Lalu Prasad alone.

The NDA campaign has also consistently tried to differentiate between the charges in the fodder scam and the criminal charges filed against some of its leaders, including former Home Minister L.K. Advani and former Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, in the Babri Masjid demolition case. The contention of its leaders, including Vajpayee, has been that the Ayodhya incident was the consequence of a mass Hindutva movement, while the fodder scam is a plain case of corruption.

Some NDA leaders believe that the larger national political situation is now favourable to the success of the "second offensive". To start with, they say, the NDA, particularly the BJP, is in a much better position now than it was during the first offensive. The party was then demoralised after the electoral defeat and its leadership was in disarray owing to power struggles between its second-generation leaders such as Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Uma Bharati and Sushma Swaraj. The power struggle is now less intense. The return of the NDA to power in Jharkhand as well as the not-so-bad performance in the Bihar Assembly elections seem to have added weight to the new offensive.

More important, in the NDA's perception, the UPA is not as united and cohesive as it was some time ago. On the whole, the UPA leadership has put its weight behind the RJD leader with Union Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj stating categorically that ``mere framing of charges is not reason enough for dismissal of the Minister" and that "disqualification can come only after conviction''. The Left parties, which support the UPA from outside, have also rallied to Lalu Prasad's defence, saying it was ``ridiculous'' on the part of the BJP to ``demand Lalu Prasad's dismissal'' when several of its leading lights like Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati had held on to their ministerial jobs despite being legally framed. But despite this overall support, sections of the UPA, particularly Lalu Prasad's rivals from his own State, like Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan, are quietly enjoying the RJD leader's discomfiture in the face of the new campaign. This was not the case during the first offensive.

Above all, the NDA calculates that Lalu Prasad's "fighting potential" has been weakened after the loss of power in Bihar. "It is this changed national context that gives us the confidence that we will win this second offensive," Nitish Kumar told Frontline. The battle is certain to hot up in the coming weeks.

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