Ranchi, Oct 3: Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad, for years one of India’s most charismatic politicians, was Thursday sentenced to undergo five years rigorous imprisonment for pilfering the state treasury in the fodder scam, effectively derailing his political career.
The founder leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) claimed innocence when he heard the sentence — he was also fined Rs.25 lakh — over video conference at the Birsa Munda Central Jail. The CBI judge told him to appeal in the higher court.
The sentencing takes away Lalu Prasad’s membership of the Lok Sabha, where he was a familiar face and rubbed shoulders with India’s political Who’s Who. On Thursday, he found himself virtually isolated, other political parties in Bihar rejoicing over his jailing.
“When I have not done any crime, how have I been punished?” a dazed Lalu Prasad, 67, asked CBI judge Pravas Kumar Singh announced the sentence. The judge retorted from the courtroom: “You can appeal in the higher court.”
The judge ignored Lalu Prasad’s lawyer’s plea for a lenient sentence in view of the veteran politician’s age and health issues. Central Bureau of Investigation’s lawyer B.M.P. Singh argued otherwise, saying the corrupt needed to be taught a lesson.
The 37 convicts sentenced Thursday included four politicians, 13 former officials and 20 men who supplied fodder and more to Bihar’s Animal Husbandry Department (AHD), from where Rs.37 crore was fraudulently taken out when Lalu Prasad was the chief minister.
Also jailed were former chief minister Jagannath Mishra and Janata Dal-United leader Jagdish Sharma, for four years each. Mishra, who was admitted to a hospital Wednesday after injuring himself in the bathroom, was fined Rs.2 lakh and Sharma Rs.5 lakh.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which for years was a favourite target of Lalu Prasad, was elated. BJP’s M. Venkaiah Naidu remarked: “Though justice has been delayed, it has not been denied.”
In Patna, Lalu Prasad’s wife and former chief minister Rabri Devi alleged that her husband was a victim of a “conspiracy” and blamed both the BJP and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Although RJD leaders claimed that Lalu Prasad would continue to guide them from prison, the former railway minister would not be able to contest elections for six years from the date of his release.
Thursday’s jailing marked, for all practical purposes, the derailment of a man who catapulted from Patna’s student politics of the 1970s to MP, and then the chief minister of Bihar, where he created waves by arresting then BJP star L.K. Advani amid the Ayodhya tumult in 1990.
Over the years, Lalu Prasad became a household name both for his politics and theatrics. He played a key role in the formation of the first Congress-led UPA alliance in 2004.
He was Bihar’s chief minister when the CBI filed a charge sheet June 23, 1997 accusing 56 people of fraudulently taking out Rs.37 crore from the Chaibasa treasury in 1994-95 using forged and fabricated documents.
Of the accused, seven died and two were pardoned after they turned approvers. Another man confessed while the then deputy commissioner of West Singhbhum district was discharged for his role in another case.
A former RJD legislator, R.K. Rana, got five years’ jail and was fined Rs.30 lakh.
Seven former officials — Kirti Narayan Jha, Krishna Mohan Prasad, Braj Nandan Sharma, Mukesh Kumar Srivastva, Gaya Prasad Tripathi, Arjun Sharma, and Braj Bhusan Prasa were fined Rs.1.5 crore each. They were each jailed for five years too.
Two of the fodder suppliers were fined Rs.30 lakh each and two others Rs.20 lakh each.
On Sep 30, the CBI court sentenced eight of the 45 convicts to three years in prison and slapped them with fines up to Rs.50 lakh.
Lalu Prasad became the second politician this week to lose membership of parliament in line with a Supreme Court ruling. On Tuesday, Congress MP Rasheed Masood was jailed for four years for his role in illegally giving MBBS seats to undeserving medical students.
Lalu Prasad stepped down as chief minister in 1997 when his name figured in the CBI investigation in the fodder scam. Rabri Devi succeeded him. But while his first stint in prison did not really halt his political career, this one is widely expected to, at least for a decade.