2 ex-leaders convicted of swindling Indian state

PATNA, India (AP) — Two former chief ministers of an Indian state were convicted Monday of embezzling millions of dollars in the 1990s with bogus bills for cattle feed.

The verdict in the 15-year-old “fodder scam” case could make Lalu Prasad, now a member of Bihar’s opposition and India’s parliament, one of the country’s first politicians to face political disqualification under a new Supreme Court order banning convicts from holding public office.

Prasad and 44 others, including his predecessor as Bihar’s chief minister, Jagannath Mishra, are likely to be sentenced Thursday to at least three years in prison, according to lawyers at the special court convened in the neighboring state of Jharkhand, which was once a part of Bihar.

Court officers remanded Prasad into custody after Monday’s court session convened by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation.

“We will appeal in the high court,” said his son, Tejaswi Yadav. “This is a conspiracy against our leader.”

The charismatic Prasad is credited with changing the shape of Indian politics previously dominated by the elite classes by galvanizing low-caste Hindus into a powerful voting bloc.

He served as Bihar’s highest elected official from 1990 to 1997, when he was forced to resign amid allegations that he was pocketing funds meant for farmers in the desperately poor state of Bihar. He spent five months in jail that year, while his wife took over as chief minister. Prasad was also Indian railway minister in 2004-09.

Prasad has maintained he is innocent of the charges, which were filed in 1998. He and his wife, Rabri Devi, were acquitted in a separate case that accused them of accumulating wealth and property beyond their legal incomes.

Prasad could now lose his membership in India’s parliament, as the central government in New Delhi is expected to retract last week’s executive order exempting legislators from a Supreme Court ban on convicts holding office.

Rahul Gandhi, the second most powerful in the ruling Congress Party, broke with the government in calling the exemption “complete nonsense.” Gandhi, a scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is widely expected to be a candidate for prime minister in 2014.

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