|Lalu Prasad on his way to the court from the Railway Guest House in Ranchi on Monday. Picture by Hardeep Singh
Ranchi, Sept. 30: Lalu Prasad today faced the toughest challenge of his four-decade-old political career when a CBI court today convicted him with 44 others in a 17-year-old fodder scam case, raising a question mark over who would lead his party in the run-up to next year’s general election.
Lalu Prasad, as then chief minister of undivided Bihar who also held the finance portfolio, has been found guilty of several charges such as getting money unlawfully, criminal breach of trust by a public servant, forgery, cheating and concealment of evidence.
He could be jailed for between three and seven years, legal experts said, when the sentence is awarded on Thursday via video-conferencing.
As judge Prabas Kumar Singh pronounced the verdict in a jam-packed courtroom, Lalu Prasad, who was sitting in a plastic chair, let out a startled: “Yeh kya ho gaya ji! Dekho hakim kya saja tajbij karte hain (What’s this! Let’s see what punishment the judge awards).”
The CBI court convicted him, under various Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act provisions, of knowing about and promoting the mass-scale theft of public money by the animal husbandry department, and shielding those involved.
The case, RC 20A/96, relates to the illegal withdrawal of Rs 37.70 crore from the Chaibasa treasury in West Singhbhum during the 1990s by animal husbandry department officials, fully supported by suppliers and politicians. Lalu Prasad faces several other cases in the fodder scam.
The 475-page judgment, which is divided in seven parts, convicted another former Bihar chief minister, Jagannath Mishra of the Congress, too. He was the leader of the Opposition when the fodder scam broke out.
The other convicts include two former chairmen of the public accounts committee, Jagdish Sharma and Dhruv Bhagat; former animal husbandry minister Vidyasagar Nishad; IAS officers K. Arumugam and Phulchand Singh; and several animal husbandry department officials and fodder suppliers.
|Lalu Prasad arrives at the Birsa Munda Central Jail in Ranchi to be taken into custody. (PTI)
After the judgment, all of them were sent to the Birsa Munda Central Jail in Ranchi. Lalu Prasad requested the judge to announce the punishment today or tomorrow so he had time to move an appeal before Jharkhand High Court before it closed on Saturday for Durga Puja.
Describing himself as a dedicated public servant, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief and former Union railway minister asked the judge to take a lenient view.
“Judiciary me mujhe viswas hai. Humlog apko bhagwan mante hain. Aaj ya kal saja suna dete… ap dekh lete toh achchha tha. Hajoor yeh mera request hai… dekh lete, dekhiye aage Durga Puja bhi hai (I have faith in the judiciary. We consider you God. It would be good if you announce the punishment today or tomorrow. Your Honour, this is a request… Durga Puja is approaching),” Lalu Prasad said.
The judge kept mum.
Forty-two of the 45 accused were present when the judgment was pronounced.
Nishad, who was animal husbandry minister under Lalu Prasad from 1991 to 1997, compared himself to Raja Harishchandra — a mythological king known for his moral integrity — and said he had been framed.
One of Lalu Prasad’s four lawyers, who did not want to be named, said: “He is innocent in this case; it’s he who had ordered the first probe into the scam. We will challenge the verdict before Jharkhand High Court. But I fear Laluji will have to remain in jail at least for 15 days.”
He added: “By the time the CBI court pronounces the sentence, we’ll hardly have time to file a petition as the high court will close from October 5 till Dussehra.”
As Lalu’s son Tejaswi and party supporters came out stony-faced after the verdict to escort him to the car waiting to take him to jail, CBI deputy superintendent A.K. Jha, the investigating officer, told The Telegraph he felt “encouraged and emboldened”.
“Our probe has reached a logical conclusion. I am satisfied,” he said.
All the 45 accused have been found guilty of the following charges, which carry jail terms ranging from six months to
IPC Section 120B
Section 420 (cheating)
Section 467 (forgery
of a valuable security/will or authority to make or
transfer any valuable
security/receive any money)
Section 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating)
or defacing, or attempting to destroy or deface, or
secreting a will)
Corruption Act, 1988