| Laloo Prasad: Light let-off
New Delhi, Jan. 17: The Election Commission today 'severely reprimanded' Union railway minister and RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav for bribing voters and warned him and his party that they could invite 'exemplary action'. But the commission stopped short of taking any measure beyond the censure order.
The commission said it was being lenient because of 'solemn assurances' given by Laloo Prasad that he will not violate the model code of conduct. Laloo Prasad had also pointed out that he had cancelled official public functions as railway minister in Bihar after the announcement of the elections to the Assembly.
'The commission would like to caution the party (RJD) ... that this is the last opportunity to them to honour the model code of conduct and abide by it, both in letter and spirit, and that it would not hesitate to take exemplary action against the party in case of any further violation of the model code of conduct or lawful directions,' the Election Commission said in its order.
The order detailed the investigations of the Election Commission and the deposition of Laloo Prasad after the media showed the railway minister distributing notes of Rs 100 to women in a village in Patna district on December 18, a day after elections to the Bihar Assembly were announced.
Laloo Prasad explained to the commission that he was not bribing voters but admitted he had given cash to four women in Ebrahimpur village. He said he had given them money because the villagers were rejoicing after he was made the railway minister. Moreover, the villagers would not allow his Garib Chetna Rath to pass unless he distributed sweets. Laloo Prasad said the women had also given statements to a judicial magistrate corroborating this when the police investigated the charge of bribery against him.
The Election Commission said that judging a party's and candidate's adherence to the model code was also a matter of public perception. It said that 'it is not the strict rules of evidence that apply; what matters is the general perception in the minds of (the) public, particularly the electorate, political parties and rival candidates as to how they view the acts of commission and omission of other political parties, their leaders and their workers and supporters.
'It is an undeniable fact that the whole nation's conscience felt disturbed on seeing, in the print and electronic media, Shri Laloo Prasad openly holding a wad of currency notes in his hand and distributing them to several ladies, which he himself admits.'
The Election Commission quoted from a Supreme Court judgment and said: 'Any gratification made to the elector 'with the object directly or indirectly of inducing' such an elector to vote, shall be deemed to be 'bribery'.'
The commission order observed: 'Thus, to say that the money in the present case was paid to the ladies concerned for mithai (sweets) and that no offence of bribery was committed is of no avail to Shri Laloo Prasad, as even the gratification in the form of treating, which would include giving of mithai or giving of money for mithai, would also fall within the ambit of the offence of bribery.
'Distribution of mithai when he became the Union minister in May 2004 could have been construed as customary sharing of his happiness with others. But giving money after nearly seven months of his assumption of office in the Union Council of Ministers and that, too, when the election to the Bihar Legislative Assembly is so imminently close' is a matter of serious concern.
The Election Commission order, signed by chief election commissioner T.S. Krishna Murthu and election commissioners B.B. Tandon and N. Gopalasami noted that 'Shri Laloo Prasad Yadav is a senior political leader and president of Rashtriya Janata Dal. He has to set an example by his conduct for other leaders of the party and his followers and supporters to emulate him.'