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India's master of corruption plots his revenge

  • @peterpopham
India's most scandalously bent politician, Laloo Yadav, Chief Minister of the impoverished state of Bihar, finally got his come-uppance on 27 April, when he was told he was to be prosecuted for his role in a pounds 1.6bn embezzlement scandal.

On 21 July he is likely to be arrested. But he appears to have got partial revenge: the man responsible for the decision to prosecute him, Joginder Singh, Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has been removed without warning from his post. Mr Yadav is the nightmare of Indian caste politics made flesh. The child of illiterate cowherds - Yadav is also the name of the caste, and cowherding their prescribed occupation - he took advantage of the crumbling of the Congress Party and the bitterness of Bihar's poor to become Chief Minister in 1990.

The secret of his appeal is simple: the idea, repeated like a mantra, that I am as you are. He slops about in white pyjamas, betel juice dribbling down his lips, cursing like a rustic roughneck. I am as you are, he says - and so saying he has plundered his home state with such ruthlessness that Indians come away aghast. Roads are disintegrating and bandits roam the countryside; inter-caste violence is endemic. When he came to power, Mr Yadav's mandate was to improve the lot of the poor. So he has done: he distributed pounds 34m of saris and dhotis to them. Once he met a beggar on the roadside and packed him off to a five-star hotel for a bath and meal.

He hates attending to files, so thousands of them gather dust. He fills the bureaucracy with cronies and the better civil servants quit in disgust; he recruits 6,000 Yadavs as policemen to keep order his way.

He is Finance Minister as well as Chief Minister, and the scandals over which he has presided include a pounds 300m theft from the bitumen fund, the transfer of pounds 600m of state-owned land to a handful of builders and a pounds 150m drugs scandal. But they are dwarfed by the siphoning of pounds 1.6bn out of the state treasury through a fund intended to subsidise the purchase of animal fodder.

Although evidence was destroyed in a fire and potential witnesses died in suspicious circumstances, in April Mr Yadav learned he will not cheat justice indefinitely. After blustering and refusing to resign, he has apparently struck back. Mr Singh, who was responsible for the decision to prosecute Mr Yadav, was on Monday kicked sideways into the Home Ministry. That Mr Singh has been sacrificed despite Mr Yadav's waning influence is due to the fact that in his 11-month tenure he alienated nearly all the country's most powerful politicians.

In contrast to the compliant types who held the post in recent years, he went after crooked politicians and businessmen with righteous fury: one source claims he destroyed 43 political careers, though successful prosecutions have been few. Those he has not hurt he angered by his addiction to publicity and apparent contempt for parliament. Now the politicians have got their own back. Since Indira Gandhi's time, directorship of the CBI has been in the gift of the prime minister and Prime Minister IK Gujral has obliged Mr Yadav - who happens to be president of Mr Gujral's own party, the Janata Dal - and many others in his 14-party United Front by removing Mr Singh.

Mr Singh is despised in the capital. But someone had to tell Laloo Yadav where to get off. Whether Mr Singh's successor will have those sort of guts will soon be discovered.