New Delhi: Lalu Prasad suffered a setback on Monday after the Supreme Court set aside a Jharkhand high court order and ruled that the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader will have to stand separate trial in four fodder scam cases against him.
The fodder scam relates to the illegal withdrawal of around Rs1,000 crore by the Bihar animal husbandry department from various districts during Prasad’s tenure as chief minister from 1990 to 1997.
Not only does the ruling revive the judicial process against Prasad on charges of corruption in public office, it could potentially strain relations in the ruling alliance in Bihar led by Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United).
The two parties joined hands against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the assembly elections of 2015 in a grand alliance, which won 178 seats in the 243- member assembly.
“The alliance is between JD (U) and RJD, there is no reason for embarrassment. Nitish Kumar is running a clean and transparent government which is working for the benefit of people. There is no charge of corruption against the state government," said K.C.Tyagi, a senior leader of JD(U).
The Jharkhand high court had dropped certain charges on the grounds that a person once convicted or acquitted cannot to be tried for the same offence again. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had appealed against the high court ruling.
The Supreme Court order worsens Prasad’s political problems, coming as it does after media reports about an alleged telephone conversation between him and jailed mafia-don-turned-politician Mohammed Shahabuddin.
The main opposition party in the state, the BJP, has threatened to use the SC ruling to hold state-wide protests against Prasad and his party.
In October 2013, Prasad was convicted by a special CBI court in Ranchi and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in one of the cases arising out of the fodder scam. As a result he was disqualified from contesting any election for 11 years. He moved the Jharkhand high court challenging the verdict of the CBI court.
“BJP welcomes the order of the Supreme Court and this order reinforces public faith in ensuring that unscrupulous politicians do not go scot-free. Lalu Prasad will now have to face the full consequences of his illegal actions very soon," said G.V.L. Narsimha Rao, spokesperson of BJP.
Apart from Prasad, former Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra and a former senior bureaucrat Sajal Chakraborty will also face trial afresh.
There are three cases where the same charges have been made out against Prasad and others in relation to alleged illegal withdrawals from the government treasury, including those of Dumka and Deoghar districts.
The Congress, a junior member of the ruling alliance in Bihar, sought to tread carefully.
“It is a judicial process and it is not a new case, it is an old case. The constitution of our country gives people the right to approach a larger bench if they are not satisfied with court proceedings. This is not a new case," said Congress’ senior spokesperson Shakeel Ahmad.
According to a senior Congress leader, the party feels that even though Monday’s development is a ‘personal blow’ to Prasad, it may not impact the ruling alliance as the former Bihar chief minister is not an elected representative and is barred from contesting polls.
“We always wanted the trial. The usage of words like setback and jolt is mere hype created by the media. Our legal battle will help us combat the political battle as well. We respect and welcome the legal proceedings and have full faith in the apex court," RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha told news agency Asian News International.
“This is a setback for the Bihar government but more so for RJD. Since Nitish Kumar had benefitted from the political clout of RJD in the Bihar elections, he will now have to share the burden in the political embarrassment," said C.P. Singh, a Bhagalpur-based political analyst and political science professor at Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University.