Spoils of Surrender
As Laloo goes to jail again the RJD leadership feels the party will gain politically -- in the short term.
By Sanjay KumarJha
Even Laloo Prasad Yadav, who loves to coin earthy slogans to mesmerise the masses, did not like this one. Last Wednesday, as he was being taken to the Beur Central Jail on the outskirts of Patna in connection with yet another criminal conspiracy case relating to the multi-crore rupees fodder scam, a group of die-hard Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders and workers shouted in chorus: "Desh ka neta kaisa ho/ Laloo Yadav jaisa ho (Country needs leaders like Laloo)." A visibly irritated Laloo admonished them and quickly rolled up the window of his air-conditioned Ambassador.
The next day, when Laloo appeared in the court, CBI Special Judge S.K. Lal brushed aside the defence counsel's plea that the agency had not conclusively established the involvement of Laloo or the other co-accused, including former chief minister Jagannath Mishra, in the scam and that the charges were based on hearsay. The two former chief ministers and others were remanded to judicial custody.
That day the 1 Anne Marg residence of Laloo's wife and Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi wore a deserted look. Rabri did not step out of her home all day and, if officials are to be believed, she didn't see a single file. Only a year ago, when the CBI made a determined bid to arrest him, RJD workers had swamped the place. The atmosphere then was visibly tense with aggressive, slogan-shouting supporters suggesting that they would not allow their leader to be arrested. But on Wednesday, when Laloo came to surrender before the CBI court, the mood was sombre. The surrender of Laloo, Mishra, three former animal husbandry ministers -- Chandradeo Prasad Verma, Bhola Ram Toofani and Vidya Sagar Nishad -- RJD MLA R.K. Rana and former Animal Husbandry Department regional director Shyam Behari Sinha, the kingpin in the scam, followed the September 25 directive of the Supreme Court which rejected their bail petitions.
Though it is Laloo's second stint in jail in less than a year, it didn't appear to dampen his spirits. In the CBI court, when Mishra was talking to his lawyer, Laloo intervened to say, "Kahiye to main hi apke liye behas kar doon (If you want I can argue your case)." Later, while the proceedings were on, Laloo walked out of the court room, picked up the mobile phone of an associate and talked to Rabri, telling her, "Jail jane ka adesh ho gaya hai. Ghabrana mat (The court has ordered my imprisonment. Don't worry)." And when he reached the camp jail -- the journey took 15 minutes compared to the over four hours last time -- his children were waiting there for him.
The journey this time might have been smooth or his supporters subdued, but that did not mean an end to the RJD chief's troubles. The CBI and the judiciary have tightened their grip around him. On October 21, he was grilled for six hours in connection with a disproportionate assets case filed by the CBI on August 19. During the interrogation, Laloo faced questions ranging from the Mamta Kulkarni nite to dozens of gas cylinders at his residence. CBI sources say that Laloo may be summoned again as he was unable to provide a "satisfactory explanation" to several questions.
During his interrogation Laloo might have unwittingly put Rabri in the dock by dissociating himself from the income earned through dairy farming. Laloo reportedly told the CBI that it was incorrect to club his personal income with the earning of his wife from dairy farming. Though Laloo had taken the same plea before the Income Tax Department, it refused to accept the submission. This has paved the way for Rabri's examination say sources, adding that a decision would be taken after Laloo's next round of interrogation. The charge-sheet in this case is likely to be filed by November-end. Laloo, of course, says, "It is part of a sinister design to insult me and the woman chief minister and demoralise the people of Bihar."
Laloo and his supporters felt that if he was arrested again it would become a national issue. They expected the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) and the left parties to launch an agitation against the BJP-led Government at the Centre for its "politically-motivated" moves, especially on the eve of assembly elections. In fact, when Laloo shook hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav, the other Yadav chieftain from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, to form the RLM, he surely had the impending CBI and court actions in mind. And that tie-up seemed to be working to his advantage.
Last month, when the Centre initiated moves to sack the Rabri Government, the RLM backed by the CPI(M) created a nationwide upheaval. The RLM and Mulayam's strong bonds with the CPI(M) is in fact acting as a pressure group at the national level. A section of the RJD leaders also feel that a fresh jail term for Laloo would benefit the party politically. Revenue Minister Ravinder Charan Yadav claims, "It will enlarge our support base and there will be a sympathy wave." Adds RJD Secretary-General Ramkripal Yadav, "Unable to cause any damage to his vote bank, Laloo's opponents are now pinning their hopes on the CBI which is acting like a BJP agent."
Outside the jail or inside it, Laloo continues to be the sole electoral hope of the scam-battered RJD. That there was no alternative to this star campaigner was evident on Wednesday as agitated RJD leaders surrounded Laloo's jail-bound vehicle and shouted slogans against Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP-Samata Party combine. Obviously, what seems to be bothering the senior RJD leaders is the fate of party candidates in the byelections to four assembly seats and biennial elections to four legislative council seats in the state, scheduled for November 28 and November 13 respectively.
To make matters worse for the RJD, former railway minister and Janata Dal leader Ram Vilas Paswan and former Samajwadi Party (SP) MP Pappu Yadav have joined hands to encroach upon Laloo's traditional MYD (Muslim-Yadav-Dalit) constituency. Laloo's prolonged custody would only help them consolidate their position. Already, the new combine is looking for a tactical alliance with the Samata Party to check the division of anti-Laloo votes. Besides, Mishra's Bihar Jana Congress, which boasts of Brahmin support, is also likely to join it. "If this front is formed it will prove to be the last nail in Laloo's political coffin," claims Pappu Yadav, who deserted Mulayam after the SP leader shook hands with Laloo.
While the impact of the Paswan-Pappu Yadav combine on Laloo's support base remains untested, Samata Party leader P.K. Sinha predicts that the RJD "hero" will soon become a "zero" as the MYD was getting disenchanted with him. Laloo has proved his critics wrong in the past. Can he do it again?
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