Sixteen years after Lalu Prasad lost his Chief Ministership to the Rs. 950 crore Bihar fodder scam, the ghost has returned to deal him a second staggering blow. Ironically, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief’s conviction, along with 44 others, in the Chaibasa treasury case, comes at a time when his political career appeared to be on the mend. The Chaibasa case, which is related to the withdrawal from the State treasury of Rs. 37 crore, is one of six fodder-related cases against Mr. Prasad and the first in which the verdict has been pronounced. The fodder scam was of epic scale, with a plot so byzantine that it took investigators years to comprehend the full extent of the loot, how it was executed and how many people participated in it. What started as a minor case of embezzlement in the mid-1970s, grew in size over the next two decades, and finally burst into the open as a huge scandal involving ministers, bureaucrats and even sections of the Opposition. The conviction of 45 persons in just one of the cases is indicative of the size of the theft and its spread.
The tragedy is all the more for the dazzling start to Mr. Prasad’s political career and the promise his advent held to an underclass crushed by the double burden of poverty and upper caste oppression. Such was the hopelessness in which Bihar was caught that Mr. Prasad was able to make a virtue of just the fact that he had given his people swar (voice). Unfortunately for the State he ruled, that was all he did. Bihar became a basket case even as politicians and bureaucrats exploited its wealth to feather their own nests. In the event, his fall was as dramatic as his rise. By May 1997, the CBI had closed in on him, leading to his arrest and removal from office in July of the same year. What followed was the bizarre drama of Mr. Prasad installing his wife Rabri Devi as Chief Minister with her as his proxy. It was against this backdrop that Nitish Kumar finally dethroned the man whom he once mentored. Today, Mr. Kumar himself is in trouble, having exited his successful alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. For Mr. Prasad, the break-up was just the opportunity he needed to get back into the political reckoning. He would have likely succeeded in the plan had the UPA government pushed through the ordinance aimed at preventing the disqualification of lawmakers. But the past has a way of catching up. With Rahul Gandhi’s public fulminations scuttling the proposed ordinance, Mr. Prasad has been left with no escape but to face up to the reality of the conviction and return to a life of political oblivion.