Bihar Chief Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, does not normally invoke Centre-state discord to prove a point. He is doing it now for survival. When the Patna High Courton March 11 directed the CBI to begin investigations into the multi-crore animal husbandry scam in the state and to take it "to a logical end", it was clear that the most affected politician would be Laloo.
To make matters worse, the court made some pointed observations. For instance, it noted: "The people of this state...have been made to suffer on the specious plea of paucity of funds. The limited funds...were allowed to be systematically plundered (in) unparalleled proportions." The court also noted that the people had a "legitimate expectation" that the guilty be punished.
Laloo hit back the way he knows best—by mobilising public support to show that the people of Bihar were with him. Even before the court verdict, he swung into supervising arrangements for the March 18 garib rally, touted as possibly Patna's biggest ever.
His point is clear. "Why should the CBI probe the scam when I have the mandate to rule? This should be made a test case. If the CBI is brought in for this case, I will insist that the Centre should make a policy that all future scams in any state should be investigated by the CBI," he insists.
Laloo's objection to the CBI is that it takes orders from the Prime Minister and does not function independently. It also tramples on the state government's right to manage its own affairs. Says he: "The CBI is directly answerable to the Prime Minister. (The probe) is a clear infringement on the powers of the state."
Of course, he's careful enough to acknowledge that he accepts the court verdict as final. But, as the chief minister told Outlook: "In a democracy we have every right to go to a higher court. We'll appeal against the judgement." A team of state officials has already filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the CBI probe.
So why is he paranoid about a central agency looking into a scam in Bihar? Rivals claim it would be difficult for Laloo to manipulate the probe with the CBI snooping around. But the chief minister denies this. He insists it was he who took the lead in busting the scam and cites the proposed Justice S. Ali Ahmad Commission as evidence of his sincerity. His detractors are sceptical. Asks Gen S.K. Sinha (Retd): "Just how effective is this commission going to be?"
State administration sources say the Commission may well be toothless. Personnel department officials point out that though it's mandated to probe "the circumstances and causes leading to the scam, fix responsibility and recommend administrative reforms while identifying the direction which the state should take to inquire further", its findings won't be binding on the state government. "The Commission's job is purely a fact-finding one," confides a senior official. In any case, under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, it can be wound up by the state without prior notice.
In addition, the state government has proposed a key nominee to the Commission. The man in question is Phulchand Singh, the state's development commissioner, whose tenure as finance commissioner saw the maximum withdrawals from the Animal Husbandry Department. Also on the Commission will be S.S. Verma, a Cabinet Secretariat official regarded as being close to the chief minister.
The fodder scam has clearly snowballed on Laloo. A simultaneous investigation has been launched by the Income-Tax Department on people building palatial houses and accumulating huge amounts of wealth, by milking the Animal Husbandry Department dry. This is likely to expose people in high places in the Bihar government.
Already, the IT Department has said in an affidavit filed before the high court that the state government is not cooperating. For instance, it states that the Vigilance Department had been intimated about the search against officials of the Animal Husbandry Department, but there was no response.
According to the I T Department, it had conducted raids in 1992 when Rs 99.85 lakh and Rs 52.12 lakh were seized from two officials of the Animal Husbandry Department. The matter, it is claimed, was quietly forgotten by the Vigilance Department of the state government.
Interference from outside agencies notwithstanding, there is little to suggest that Laloo's political clout has declined. On whirlwind tours to various parts of the state, he has been exhorting people to attend his March 18 rally. He has also been consolidating his predominantly Yadav and Muslim base. The two constitute nearly 30 per cent of the total electorate. While he cannot launch a tirade against the court, the chief minister trains his guns at the press at his public meetings. Last week at one such mobilisation rally in Ara, he suggested that people could have better uses for newspapers than reading them. They are capitalist tools, they are against social justice, they should be ignored—such is the tone of his speeches.
Most people agree that to sustain an effective campaign against Laloo, one requires political mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. On the forefront of the anti-Laloo movement is the BJP and its feisty leader Sushil Modi, along with Samata Party's Nitish Kumar, who have announced a gherao of the state assembly on March 25 to counter the garib rally. But no one is optimistic that the gherao will rattle Laloo. Admits C.P. Thakur, former Congress MP from Patna: "Our party is hardly any opposition." Where politicians fail, it may be the courts and the CBI that may find success.