Among the numerous corruption scandals dotting the dark horizon of India’s poor governance is the fodder scam. Maverick politician Lalu Prasad has finally been convicted in the scam that had got attached to his name like the famous one-liners and repartees that made him immensely popular and a mass entertainer of sorts. A court in the eastern state of Jharkhand found Lalu and 44 others guilty of illegally withdrawing millions of rupees from the Animal Husbandry Department in the early 1990s.
The case traversed the labyrinthine alleys of the burdened but much-vaunted judicial system of the country till fading public memory started giving way to courtroom ennui.
Along the way, Lalu’s rivals cried themselves hoarse amid allegations that he may get away with the offence unpunished. Numerous protests in Bihar, the state to which Lalu belongs, epitomised the sarcasm, which is the trademark of the wily politician. In a protest rally, cattle were paraded with placards around their necks that said: “Lalu ate up our fodder.”
The verdict against Lalu will go a long way in buttressing the credibility of the judicial system in a country, which has seen a raging debate over judicial activism and where parliamentary supremacy and judicial review seem to run into each other.
After the conviction, all eyes are on the sentencing by the court on Thursday. The folksy temperament of Lalu, however, rides above everything else. Though the leader, who comes from an underprivileged background — codified in the Indian system of affirmative action as OBC or other backward classes —his legion of supporters and fans straddle the deep social stratification characteristic of Indian society.
During his political career, Lalu acquired the infamous reputation of putting self before everything else. The former Bihar chief minister’s nonchalant gait hides a confidence that is a cross between hubris and arrogance. Asked by a foreign journalist once during his better days, if an election he was going to contest would be his Waterloo, Lalu said: “There’s no Waterloo, only Lalu”.
Probably his undoing has been a lack of integrity and an all-defiant attitude. He hoisted his illiterate wife to the Bihar chief minister’s chair when he was sent to jail in the fodder scam. Lalu is known for his political machinations and his desperation to draw votes on caste and communal lines has been dubbed the MY (Muslim-Yadav) factor by the Indian press.
As the then federal railway minister, Lalu was credited with turning around the sick behemoth. However, analysts and experts dispute this. Many US business schools including Wharton, Harvard and Stanford invited Lalu for lectures during his tenure as the railways minister, lending an aura of sophistication to his otherwise rustic personality. The rabble-rouser always has his shock of white hair shaped over his forehead, as a protest at what he claims were ‘upper caste’ people who never let him comb during childhood. But now the rabble-rouser faces jail and would have a hard time keeping his hair unruffled behind bars•