CBI raids in a fresh corruption case against Lalu and son Tejashwi land their party's alliance with Nitish in crisis.
"Bring in the crowds at Gandhi Maidan on August 27, as many people as you can," Lalu Prasad Yadav told his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) legislators, as he sat with them at his 10, Circular Road, residence in Patna on July 10, two days after a 27-member Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team raided his premises and seized property documents and laptops.
In its FIR lodged before the raid, the CBI has accused Lalu of rigging a tender in 2005, while he was Union railway minister, to award the sublease of two railway hotels in Ranchi and Puri to a favoured hotelier in return for transfer of three acres of prime land in Patna to the Yadav family, through a benami company. Charges have been filed under sections 420 (cheating) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Lalu's wife Rabri Devi and younger son Tejashwi Yadav, who is deputy chief minister in the Nitish Kumar government, have also been named accused.
After a marathon meeting of its leaders on July 11, ally Janata Dal (United) conveyed the impression that Nitish expected Tejashwi to quit on his own and explain the corruption allegations against him to the people. "The party expects that those facing allegations must face the public with facts and explain point-wise," said Neeraj Kumar, one of the five spokespersons fielded by the JD(U) to brief the media after the meeting. However, the fact that no deadline was set for Tejashwi to quit is being seen as Nitish's attempt to save the grand alliance in Bihar.
The JD(U)'s advice apparently has failed to have any effect on Tejashwi. Lalu's heir apparent attended a cabinet meeting on July 12 and appeared belligerent. "The FIR is a conspiracy and part of the BJP's vendetta politics," Tejashwi said, making it clear he will not resign. "I have done no wrong since taking over as deputy CM. The CBI case pertains to the time I was a 14-year-old. I am being singled out as I come from a backward caste family."
Though Lalu is putting up a brave front amid the festering crisis, he is aware that the grand alliance in Bihar is at risk. The BJP has muddied the waters by demanding Tejashwi's ouster from the Nitish cabinet and offering 'outside support' to the JD(U) should it end its alliance with the RJD and the Congress. That Nitish is seen as a politician who fiercely guards his image should worry Lalu. "Nitish Kumar will never let an impression build that he, as Bihar CM, tried to save someone on the wrong side of the law," says a senior JD(U) leader. This is evident from past incidents. In November 2005, Nitish got minister Jitan Ram Manjhi to resign within hours of taking oath over a pending vigilance case. In 2011, the CM made cooperative minister Ramadhar Singh put in his papers after being found an absconder in a case.
Tejashwi is under no legal obligation to demit office until convicted. With the RJD ruling out his resignation, Nitish's dilemma is not only about suffering a minister with corruption charges but the critical issue of finding an alternative to the RJD, should the need arise. JD(U) sources say Nitish, who maintained a 17-year-old alliance with the BJP till 2013, is not very confident of going with the present-day BJP, under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Also read: Is Nitish Kumar on a losing wicket?
On the other hand, despite persistent legal troubles, Lalu remains a force to reckon with. Though conviction in a fodder scam case in September 2013 rendered him ineligible to contest elections, he walked out of jail on bail three months later and emerged as the main anti-BJP force in Bihar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The NDA won 31 of the 40 seats and the RJD finished second with four. In the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, Lalu joined hands with the JD(U) and Congress to decimate the BJP.
The RJD's ascent to power came after a long struggle at the political margins since the rout in the 2005 assembly polls. Now, with his party controlling 12 heavyweight portfolios in the 29-member Nitish cabinet and both sons appointed senior ministers, Lalu has moved methodically to establish Tejashwi and Tej Pratap in politics and governance. Lalu, whose party has 80 MLAs, nine more than the JD(U)'s, has been accommodative, sharing power and authority with Nitish and letting the Bihar CM have the final say on most contentious issues. It is clear that the ageing patriarch wants his sons to be groomed under Nitish.
Arguably, Lalu's present crisis could be deeper than what he has faced in the past. For three central agencies-the CBI, the income-tax department and Enforcement Directorate (ED)-are tightening the noose around his children. The CBI has filed an FIR against Tejashwi for allegedly benefitting from a benami property. The I-T department has provisionally attached properties allegedly belonging to Lalu's eldest daughter and Rajya Sabha MP Misa Bharti. She also faces a money-laundering inquiry by the ED. Tej Pratap, Lalu's elder son and Bihar health minister, faces allegations of amassing ill-gotten wealth. While the RJD chief is known to concentrate power within the family, the present developments threaten to upset his succession plan. There are also old cases to contend with - in May, the Supreme Court ordered fresh trials in four of the six fodder scam cases against Lalu.
Sources say the CBI raids in the railway tender case have thrown open documents relating to other questionable transactions by the Yadavs. A CBI official says: "Perusal of the documents seized reveal facts that could implicate the entire Yadav family in bigger corruption deals and send them behind bars along with businessmen involved in the deals."
Whether or not Tejashwi eventually survives in the Nitish government, Lalu appears to be left with the limited choice of playing victim to the BJP's vendetta politics. He has accused Modi and Shah of trying to send him to jail, and will be looking to turn the heat with his August 27 'BJP Bhagao' rally in Patna-for which the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party have confirmed their presence. "I have been fighting the CBI for 20 years. All my strength and youth went in fighting cases. This (railway tender) case is preparation for 2019 (Lok Sabha polls). Lalu may bite the dust but will ensure the BJP meets a similar fate," he said.
The RJD chief can draw some comfort from the fact that corruption charges may not matter much within his support base-while the RJD's total vote share in the 2015 elections was 18.4 per cent, it was 44.4 per cent in the 101 seats it contested. Also, it won't be easy for the NDA to repeat its last Lok Sabha tally of 31 seats in Bihar so long as the RJD and JD(U) stick together. The two parties secured over 35 per cent votes in 2015. The alacrity with which the BJP has recently offered outside support to Nitish only betrays its desperation.
For the JD(U), the case against Tejashwi is a source of potential embarrassment, but the ball is in Lalu's court - he may have to decide between letting his son warm the bench and risking Nitish moving closer to the BJP.
June 2014: Sarla resigns as Delight Marketing director. Lalu's children Tej Pratap, Tejashwi and Chanda become firm's three new directors. The land in Patna is transferred to the Yadav family for just Rs 64 lakh (against the circle rate value of Rs 32.5 crore)