An Indian court sentenced a powerful ally of the ruling Congress party to five years in jail on Thursday for siphoning off state funds, underlining that a wave of public disgust with rampant corruption is finally catching up with the nation’s politicians.
The sentence means that Lalu Prasad Yadav will lose his seat in the lower house of parliament, making him the first to be hit by a Supreme Court ruling in July – reflecting the popular mood – that convicts may not sit in legislatures even during an appeal.
“Five years is a big one, the message of this will ring across the nation, especially in political circles,” said Sankarshan Thakur, the author of a book on the convicted politician. Yadav shot to power from humble beginnings, championing the cause of “lower castes” in the rigid Hindu social hierarchy.
Arvind Singh, joint secretary of the bar association in the eastern city of Ranchi where the sentence was handed down, said Yadav would serve five years of “rigorous” imprisonment and was fined 2.5 million rupees ($40,000).
Yadav, 65, a former railways minister was convicted along with dozens of others earlier this week for his part in a 1990s animal fodder racket in the poverty-plagued eastern state of Bihar in which millions of dollars went missing. Yadav was the chief minister of Bihar for most of the 1990s and was succeeded by his wife.
His conviction and expulsion from parliament presents the Congress party with a dilemma as it heads into an election, due by next May, whose outcome will most likely depend on coalition alliances.
In a move critics say was designed to shield Yadav and other allies, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet hurriedly passed an executive order last week that would have allowed convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand for election.
Amid the outcry that followed, Rahul Gandhi – a contender for prime minister if the Congress party returns to power in the elections – slammed the cabinet move as “nonsense”, a stunning intervention by the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that embarrassed Singh and made his government look divided.
In a signal that the dynasty still calls the shots – even though Gandhi is not part of the government – the cabinet agreed on Wednesday to withdraw the order.
About 30 per cent of lawmakers across federal and state assemblies in India, the world’s most populous democracy, have criminal charges against them, many of them for serious crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping. Calls for tough action against them have become more strident in recent years.
Yadav’s party said he would appeal against the conviction. “The legal battle has begun. We will fight this to the end to get him freed,” said party leader Raghuvansh Prasad.