The untold story of the twists and turns in the fodder scam, as seen by Outlook deputy editor Uttam Sengupta, who had a close-range view of things as Patna resident editor, The Times of India
Curiously, in hindsight, not a whiff of scandal touched Laloo Prasad Yadav’s five-year tenure as Union railway minister, from 2004 to 2009. For a politician whose name had become synonymous with the chara ghotala (or fodder scam), his tenure at the Centre remains remarkably spotless. The man himself had told me, possibly tongue-in-cheek, “I have told the prime minister he should get the IB and the CBI to keep an eye on me. There are many who are waiting to trip me up, but I am not going to oblige them.” At the same meeting, I asked him why he was so successful at the Centre but failed so abysmally in the state. His disarming reply: “When I got the time to do something, I was put in jail. What could I have done?”
Laloo’s conviction this week in the fodder scam has brought the curtains down on a politician endowed with remarkable political sense, rustic wit and an uncanny ability to connect with people. It was a career pregnant with promise. The irony is that he stands convicted for something many other chief ministers are probably guilty of. The scam itself, worth Rs 1,200 crore, the bulk of it siphoned off after 1990, but some of it dating back to the time when Dr Jagannath Mishra was the chief minister in the early 1980s, is piffling compared to the scams which have surfaced since. But Laloo has paid the price for being both naive and brazen. He has also been done in by some dogged investigation, fortuitous journalism and computerisation of records. This is the untold story of the unmaking of a man who could have been prime minister.
Rise of Chandragupta, March 1990
Two hours had passed since 6.30 pm, when Laloo was elected leader of the Janata Dal Legislature Party after a three-way contest. The announcement, however, was greeted with deathly silence at the Brajkishore Hall, on the banks of the Ganga. Most MLAs quietly trooped out and left. Yes, dozens of his supporters did also rush inside and hug him, but the mood among legislators was sombre. At the Patna Veterinary College, two hours later, however, there were hundreds of cars and a large, boisterous crowd waiting with garlands for the man of the moment. A small canopy had been hurriedly put up next to the cowshed but there was no sign of the CM-elect. It was well past midnight when he finally turned up. Most of the crowd had melted away but 50-odd die-hard loyalists had stayed back. Laloo Yadav agreed to give an interview even at that hour to me and journalist colleague Anirudh Mukherjee, alias Jhampan, but not before he had seen off each of the supporters.
We sat below the canopy and chatted. The newly elected chief minister had grown up in the peon’s quarters at the veterinary college and claimed he’d continue to live there. Of course, he moved to the sprawling official residence. The most memorable of his replies was to this question: Any misgivings for not having been a minister before? “Let those who want to be Chanakya act like Chanakya,” he said, “All I know is that, in Pataliputra, I’ll emerge as Chandragupta.”
What made Laxman’s statement curious was the timing. Laloo was at the peak of his popularity. The media ate out of his hands and he would imperiously declare that he would rule over the state for the next 20 years and reduce his detractors to dust. His honeymoon with Delhi had just begun and the national media had finally stopped calling him ‘Lalloo’, implying simpleton. And his firm handling of the communal situation after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and arrest of L.K. Advani in Bihar, where his rath yatra was stalled, had given him a halo. “He’s home minister material,” Arvind Narayan Das said, and I believe both Padgaonkar and Harish Khare, a senior editor at Times of India then and media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh later, agreed with that assessment.
It was at Ranchi airport that the first whiff of the animal husbandry department scam surfaced, as early as 1992. The scene was tailored for TV. An Indian Airlines plane bound for Delhi was easing away from the parking bay for take-off when a posse of income-tax officials rushed to the tarmac and asked officials to direct the pilots to stop the aircraft. They had information that a group of animal husbandry officials and their family members were on board and carrying unaccounted-for cash and jewellery. They also had warrants to detain them. The plane was stopped and the group ordered to disembark. Eyewitness accounts claimed that several members of the group took out cash and jewellery from their handbags and briefcases and dropped them as they were led back to the terminal. This sensational report was picked up by local newspapers but never followed up by others. Even the income-tax department soon buried the case and maintained a studied silence.
Disillusionment with Laloo had grown by 1993. His inability to keep his flock under control, lawlessness, corruption, cronyism and his manipulation of the media had given rise to dissatisfaction and a wide range of jokes, which vied with original Lalooisms. As he completed three years in office, I wrote a piece describing him as the clowning glory of Bihar. Within days, someone shot at me in front of the Times of India office but missed. The .315 bullet fired from a countrymade pistol went through the body of the car and got embedded in the front seat. The same night, Laloo arrived at the ToI office and asked if it could have anything to do with property or an administrative action. Well past midnight, when I reached home, Rajesh Pilot, the then minister of state for internal security, called up from Delhi (I had never met him) to inquire if I suspected the involvement of the chief minister. He was audibly disappointed when I replied in the negative. My suspicion was that the attempt was carried out at the behest of a nominated Rajya Sabha MP. But I had no evidence, so I did not air my suspicion.
The PM-in-waiting and the AHD
The general election was barely five months away and a coalition government appeared inevitable in 1996. The buzz was that Laloo could head the next government. He had won a comfortable majority in the assembly election in 1995, defying critics and predictions, had made his first trip abroad as chief minister and had hosted a convention inviting nris to invest in the state. He certainly appeared destined for bigger things when I sought an interview with him. Was there a realistic chance of him becoming prime minister, I asked. He looked at me as if I were retarded and said, “Dada, the next election is going to produce a hodge-podge result. Have I been bitten by a dog that I’d agree to head an unstable coalition? No, it will be the election after the next that I have set my eyes on. That’s when I’ll sweep to power and become the PM.” He mischievously smiled and added, “I’ll then take you to Delhi.”
To answer Ex-CM Jagannath Mishra arrives at a CBI court
It was during this Ranchi visit, I learnt later, when he was first informed of the fodder scam. Amit Khare, an IAS officer posted as deputy commissioner of Chaibasa, had unearthed fraudulent withdrawals by animal husbandry officials from the treasury. The treasury officer, it was found, had opened the treasury at night on several occasions and issued treasury cheques worth crores of rupees. The complicity of senior officials in both Patna and Ranchi, not to speak of Chaibasa, was evident. What should the DC do? Laloo was possibly too euphoric at the time to care; or the celebrations in Delhi were so heady that they clouded his reason. Instead of waiting, he gave the go-ahead to arrest whoever was found guilty.
A week after the campaign was launched, the income-tax commissioner called with an unusual request. Could we publish the photograph of a house under construction in the state capital? His information was that the house belonged to the chief minister or his brothers-in-law but his officials had been assaulted when they went to inquire. They also received threatening calls that their wives and children would be abducted if they persisted with their inquiry. The publication of the photograph, the commissioner said, would make it easier for him to requisition a special team from Kanpur to conduct the inquiry. Times of India photographer Krishna Mohan Prasad was assigned the job with instructions that he should take a top shot from under-construction houses at a distance. The same evening, I received a call from the resident editor of Hindustan Times, Tirthankar Ghosh (TG to friends), who wanted to know what kind of photograph we were planning to carry! The chief minister’s office had got in touch with him with the request that he should not publish any photograph of a house without talking first to the chief minister. Not having a clue what it was all about, he stalled for time and called me to find out if we were up to something. I feigned ignorance and told him that we had several photographs from districts but none from the capital. A few hours later, he called again to ask the same question. This time, a minister had been dispatched to him with the earlier request. Krishna Mohan’s brother Krishna Murari was the photographer for Hindustan Times and someone had obviously mixed up their identities. We had to publish the photograph the same day, which we did with the caption innocently stating that the income-tax department was unable to trace the owner of the house and would welcome information. Several months later, a housewife from Nawadah claimed it belonged to her and that she had built the house with agricultural income left behind by her late father.
An anonymous caller tipped us off about a house being built opposite the Patna museum. Neither the guards nor the caretaker would say who owned the shimmering white, five-bedroom wonder. The architect and the contractor, when they were finally tracked down, fled without answering the question. Records with the revenue department suggested the land had been leased before independence to a Bengali gentleman who had migrated to Calcutta and was dead and gone. But the White House was all marble and red stone, with large bathrooms with fancy mirrors, concealed lighting and bathtubs. The day we tried to contact the architect, I received a dinner invitation from Sudhir Jain, who was the Times of India printer at Patna. He introduced me to the architect and left us alone. The architect said he would have to leave the city if his name was mentioned in any report. But while it was obvious that his client was powerful and under a cloud, he would not name the client. The report and the photograph of the White House eventually led to the High Court taking over the house and converting it into a record room. A few animal husbandry officials later turned up in the court and filed an affidavit claiming that it belonged to a housing cooperative with 81 members! All of them, not surprisingly, turned out to be either animal husbandry department staffers or suppliers.
Blackmail by Narasimha Rao
The clamour for a CBI inquiry was growing when I received a call from Laloo, inquiring if I could meet him at 9 am the next day. A notoriously late riser and a night bird, 9 am was far too early for the chief minister to meet anyone. I twice repeated the time to make sure that I had got it right. The next morning I was ushered into the chief minister’s first-floor bedroom. Also present were D.P. Ojha, who headed the vigilance bureau, and Jabir Hussain, chairman of the Bihar legislative council. Laloo seemed irritable and accused me of turning Times of India into a BJP mouthpiece. When I protested, he complained that while the newspaper carried propaganda for the BJP, his own versions were blanked out. I retorted he would find it difficult to cite even a single such instance. Our exchange of words was cut short by the other two, who were clearly anxious to get on with the job at hand. Following a nod from the chief minister, Ojha fished out a document from a file. “This is the truth about the fodder scam; let us see if you can publish this,” the chief minister said sarcastically. I glanced at the document. It was a letter dated some time in 1993, addressed to the chief minister by the then chairman of the public accounts committee, Jagdish Sharma. It pleaded with the chief minister to stall any inquiry by the vigilance or the police into the animal husbandry department. The pac had seized files and documents from the department and since it was already investigating, Sharma wrote, no parallel inquiry should take place. The chief minister had signed and forwarded it to the director-general of police for necessary action. I read through the document and agreed to publish it. But I could not resist the temptation of telling the group that the document actually established that the chief minister was aware of the scam as far back as in 1993.
Somehow it did not seem to have occurred to them. At the same meeting, I asked Laloo why he was resisting a CBI inquiry. I actually told him he should take moral responsibility and resign. “People are suckers for such sacrifice and I am sure you will get back with a thumping majority and become the PM,” I joked. The CM’s reply was revealing. “Why should I allow Narasimha Rao to blackmail me after the election?” he asked. Weeks after this conversation, the Patna High Court ordered a CBI inquiry into the fodder-scam to be completed in four months.
I went away for almost a month on leave and when I returned I found to my dismay that the animal husbandry scam had receded from newspapers. CBI officials were filing progress reports in sealed cover to the chief justice in his chamber, I was told. In short, nobody knew what was happening. The chief justice’s bungalow was at walking distance from the ToI office, and during an impulsive moment, I sought an appointment with Justice D.P. Wadhwa. I pleaded with him for some arrangement to brief the media. Couldn’t he direct a judge, a registrar or a lawyer to brief the media about the contents of the progress report, I asked. Under what law, he inquired with a smile hovering on his lips. The chief justice gave me a patient hearing, asked pointed questions but said there was no provision in the law for such briefing. I left disappointed, after a discussion on the poor quality of court reporting.
The joint director of the CBI at Calcutta was a Buddhist who loved his Shakespeare. A member of the Asiatic Society, Dr U.N. Biswas loved reciting poetry, writing poetry, and not surprisingly, was considered an unlikely police officer. A scholar by temperament, we discovered that he was more at home with books. Also, he professed to be an admirer of Laloo. At our first meeting, he gushed about Laloo’s contribution in empowering the backward classes. My meeting with him actually followed a tongue-lashing he had received from the high court, which had ordered that the joint director would not supervise the investigation. My sources in the police and the CBI, both in Patna and Calcutta, were outraged and felt the court had been unfair. They flooded me with information, leads, contacts and vouched for the officer’s integrity. A report in the Times of India questioning the high court’s conduct led to Dr Biswas seeking me out on his next visit, after the court modified its order. He had rarely found newspapers saying anything positive about officials or standing up to the court.
Found guilty Jagdish Sharma, then PAC chairman; R.K. Rama, friend of Laloo; Phool Chand Singh, an IAS officer. (Photographs: Rajesh Kumar)
Several weeks later, on one of my rare visits to Ranchi, a friend working with Indian Airlines joked that humble reporters in Ranchi flew more often than resident editors from Patna. To my raised eyebrow, he winked and said, “Animal husbandry.” I pressed him for more and he informed that an animal husbandry department staffer from Ranchi was also running a travel agency in his wife’s name and this agency purchased all the tickets required by not only animal husbandry department officials but also of local newsmen, officials and the children of the chief minister, who were studying at Bishop Westcott, a residential school on the outskirts of Ranchi. “And he always pays in cash, whatever the amount,” this friend added.
When I reached the Times of India office in the city, I called one of my colleagues at Patna, Sacchidanand Jha, and requested him to convey the details to the CBI joint director, who I knew was camping in Patna. Journalists would not be able to get proof, I felt, and hoped that the CBI might be of some help. There were no mobile phones yet and I had left the number of a friend at whose house I was having dinner that night. Around 9 pm, I received a call from Biswas, who said he had got a garbled account of some travel agency in Ranchi and asked for details. I repeated the information and without saying a word beyond a “thank you”, Biswas put down the phone. The next morning, when I reached the office at Ranchi’s Sainik Bhawan complex, the place was swarming with policemen. An income-tax raid was going on at a travel agency, I was informed.
Forget and forgive
Not surprisingly, my interactions with the chief minister had become limited. When we met in public, he would feign to have forgotten my name. Or sometimes he would seek to embarrass me by loudly asking if I had called him at midnight. At political rallies, he would launch a scathing attack on English newspapers in general and the ToI in particular, accusing them of spreading falsehood. So much so that on the eve of one of his largest rallies in Patna, which he called a “railla’, the director general of police suggested that we shut down the Times of India office. “There is a threat and if a mob attacks your office, there will be nothing we will be able to do,” he explained. My advice to the management was to lodge an FIR and inform police that we anticipated trouble and expected protection. I also took the precaution of calling up the governor and informing him of what the dgp had said. The same night, I received a call from the chief minister. His voice was hoarse and he merely said, “Forget and forgive.” The rally passed off peacefully.
One of the last meetings I had with the chief minister, before he was arrested and sent to jail in 1997, was when he sought a meeting after flying back from Delhi. He insisted on sending Abdul Bari Siddiqui, till recently the leader of the opposition in the Bihar assembly, to pick me up. Siddiqui sahab was ill at ease and I too felt uneasy as the car sped by the chief minister’s residence and took a turn towards the airport. We left even the airport behind and stopped at the PWD guesthouse beyond it. The guesthouse looked deserted and there was not a single car, or for that matter a single soul, to be seen. I thanked myself for having the presence of mind to ask one of our photographers to follow us from a discreet distance. Siddiqui would not even climb the stairs. He pointed to a room at the farthest corner and indicated that I should proceed there. It was unusual to see Laloo alone. He liked to be surrounded by people. But there he was, pensive and reclining on a chair. He straightened up as I entered the room and greeted him. He complained that I had never invited him home even though I knew how fond he was of fish. Surely you have not called me to discuss fish, I said, in an effort to steer the conversation. He came straight to the point.
“I know you and U.N. Biswas are friendly. I would like you to request him so that he looks after my interests. In return, I promise to look after him,” he told me. I protested I had only a professional acquaintance with the CBI official and was in no position to convey any such request. Laloo suggested I could convey the request over the telephone. I refused. When he persisted, I said I could not commit but I would broach it with Biswas if an opportunity arose. But I was even more curious to know how he would help Biswas. The chief minister smiled and said, “There are complaints against him too at the CBI headquarters. Tell him I would sort them out for him.”
Biswas never parted with any information related to the investigation to me, except once. On the contrary, he was the recipient of a lot of information from us. Indeed, once when TV crews pestered him for soundbites, he offered to recite lines from Hamlet. And TV channels went to town. He was served with a showcause notice and an internal inquiry was ordered. The then joint director (south), one Mr Mukherjee, came down to Patna to inquire and I was requested to meet him and answer his questions. The only time when Biswas, to my knowledge, shared his views and evidence was when he called me one morning to his office. When I reached there, he disclosed that he had just finished correcting a draft chargesheet and he wanted me to react to it. Even as we discussed the draft, his personal assistant came in to say that the CBI director, Joginder Singh, was on the line. I stood up to leave but Biswas waved me down. Over the next minute or so, I was privy to a most fascinating but one-sided conversation. The joint director was chirpy at the beginning but grew progressively grim. Starting with a cheerful, “Good morning, sir, all’s well, sir,” the conversation meandered to “No, sir...I’m sorry, sir... I cannot do it, sir...I will not do it, sir....” By the time he put down the receiver, his face had become stony and he was clearly making an effort to maintain his composure. After several seconds, I ventured to ask, “Is anything wrong?”—prompting an explosion from Biswas. He banged his fist on the table and hissed, “What is right? Nothing is right.” When he calmed down, he revealed that the CBI director had asked him not to submit his progress report to the high court. Joginder Singh instead had cleared a parallel report prepared by Ranjit Sinha, the then DIG, CBI, at Patna (and the present CBI director), and ordered Biswas to present it as the official CBI report to the court.
Nobody believed Laloo would ever get convicted. Chief ministers leave neither a paper trail nor direct evidence to link them with scams. He did benefit from the scam and, wittingly or unwittingly, could do nothing to control the greed of people around him. When the scam started in the 1980s, the scamsters would overdraw a few crores of rupees and nobody seemed to pay any attention. During Laloo’s term, the fraudulent over-withdrawals skyrocketed to Rs 100 crore in one year and Rs 150 crore in another.
The Ins And Outs
Laloo turned adversity into advantage always. But even his Houdini-like skills at extracting propaganda from crises may fall flat this time.
The Mechanics Of The Scam
Anatomy Of An Official Tour
A crucial piece of evidence came the CBI’s way vide the tour record of a clerk posted at the secretariat in Patna in the Animal Husbandry Department.
Boards a night bus for Ranchi Arrives at Ranchi in the morning and boards the afternoon flight for Delhi. Lands at Delhi late in the afternoon and boards the Magadh Express bound for Patna. This cycle would repeat itself every two months or so. There was no variation whatsoever. Computerisation of accounts enabled the Accountant General to detect the pattern. The input was passed on to the CBI, which interrogated the man, who spilled the beans. His job was to collect treasury cheques from Ranchi and deliver them to suppliers at Delhi.
Budgets presented by Laloo Yadav as finance minister truthfully reflected the figures. But no questions were raised by legislators, bureaucrats or the media. The oddity, however, stared out of the budget documents related to the animal husbandry department. An illustrative example :
Curiously, the glaringly high expenditure, much beyond the expenditure approved by the assembly, escaped attention of even economists and budget pundits.
Apropos of The Unmaking Of Laloo Yadav (Oct 14), the author should be proud of himself. Wish we had more journalists today who produced stuff like this.
Hemanth Raj, Gloucester, UK
This is good journalism. But I don’t see much evidence linking Laloo Yadav to the scam itself. In fact, other reports harp about the judge’s verdict and about the theft of public money. There is a lot of political commentary on governance but not much solid evidence.
Rajesh, Phoenix, US
It’s good the courts made an example of Laloo. It should also be made mandatory by amendments in laws to recover the huge amounts misappropriated. Appeals to higher courts must be allowed only by recovering/depositing a substantial amount of the sum allegedly misappropriated, as proved by local courts or at least 50 per cent of the amount.
Yuvraj Shinde, Solapur
The weakening of both the JD(U) and BJP after the end of their alliance had raised hopes of a Laloo Yadav and RJD resurgence in Bihar. With Laloo barred from politics for 13 years, chances of that are slim now.
K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad
Well done, Outlook! One just cannot find such articles in other newsmagazines anymore.
M. Kumar, Delhi
Reading Mr Sengupta’s story was like reliving the moments when we heard the story from his own lips at the ToI Calcutta newsroom. Bravo Uttamda!
S. Bandyopadhyay, Calcutta
The ex-CM ruined the state for a decade with his misrule and ineptitude. This is a salutary lesson to all corrupt netas.
Manoj Kumar Bhagat, West Sikkim
One thing became clear through the story—one can brazenly loot the people and then stifle all probes as long as one is in power. But the long arm of our law is measured in decades, it ultimately gets the offender!
M.A. Raipet, Secunderabad
The fodder scam was unique —a nexus between politicians, babus and businessmen. Another feature was the direct/indirect involvement of the three pillars of our democracy—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Despite all efforts to derail the judicial process, Laloo and co couldn’t prevent the case from reaching its logical end. The Thirukkural says: “The fruits of evil deeds follow their doer, even as his shadow follows him wherever he goes.”
S. Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur
Laloo shouldn’t be alone in jail. All those out and about facing such charges must be jailed as well.
Jab tak rahega Samosa mein Aaloo tab tak rahega Tihar (Birsa Munda jail) mein Laloo.
The resident of most sic state can never leave crab mentallity....His sic mentality & frustation on can be clearly made out of his statement.... Laloo Prasad has been finally put behind the bar for stopping the Rath yatra of advani.... leachers always envy state which enables it people to be propserous & live happy life ....
Mr SenGupta should be very proud of himself. Wish we had more journalists today who produced stuff like this.
Good journalism. But I don't see any evidence linking Laloo Yadav to the scam. In fact other reports including judge's verdict meander about the theft of public money. There are lot political commentry on the governance but not a single pience of evidence. Given the secretive CBI and court I am if it is available to the public at all.
When is Modis turn?
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