Ever since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham regained power in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections of 2011, party chief J Jayalalithaa has seemed unassailable. Her main political rivals from the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham have been in complete disarray over corruption charges in the 2G scam and squabbling within the party. Jayalalithaa’s near-clean sweep of 37 of Tamil Nadu's 39 seats in this year's Lok Sabha firmed up her position as top dog in the state. But her conviction in a disproportionate assets case on Saturday has led many to speculate that this is the end of the road for Jayalalithaa the politician.

Jayalalithaa’s reversal of fortune seems to have come swiftly, though it has been also been 18 years in the making. The disproportionate assets case was one of several corruption cases slapped against Jayalalithaa after she completed her first term as chief minister in 1996. The case was initiated by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramaniam Swamy, who was then with the Janata Party, and pursued by the DMK. They alleged that Jayalalithaa had declared assets worth Rs 3 crore when she took charge as chief minister in 1991, while she was worth about Rs 66 crore when she left office in 1996. She drew a nominal salary of Re 1 a month during those five years. Jayalalithaa, her estranged aide Sasikala, her estranged foster son and Sasikala’s nephew VN Sudhakaran and Sasikala’s sister-in-law J Illavarasi were accused of floating more than 30 shell companies to hide their assets.

A special court in Bangalore on Saturday found Jayalalithaa and her three associates guilty. She was sentenced to four years in prison and fined Rs 100 crore. Jayalalithaa is expected to appeal to higher courts all the way to the Supreme Court both for the sentence to be stayed and for the conviction to be overturned.

Suspended sentence likely

Abhishek Sudhir, assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law School, says that it is likely that Jayalalithaa’s sentence is suspended. “She will go to the High Court and then the Supreme Court and the whole process can take another 10 years," he said. "The high courts on average take about six years to decide a criminal appeal. Her sentence will be automatically suspended because, if not, she will serve four years, and if it’s overturned by the high court she would have already served the time.”

The body blow to Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK comes from an amendment of the Representation of People’s Act last year. The law was changed to strike down a provision that gave convicted members of parliament and legislative assemblies six months time to appeal to a higher court. Instead, the lawmaker is immediately disqualified from holding public office. Furthermore, the convicted MP or MLA cannot contest elections for six years from the date that their sentence ends. “It takes Jayalalithaa out of contesting unless and until there is a stay on conviction or the conviction is overturned,” Sudhir said.

As it stands, Jayalalithaa is looking at a four-year prison term and six-year suspension from contesting elections that keeps her away from the possibility of holding public office for at least ten years. All Jayalalithaa’s privileges of the office of Chief Minister were automatically withdrawn the minute the verdict was announced.

Even with the odds stacked against her, political commentators say that Jayalalithaa cannot be written off yet.

“Jayalalithaa is AIADMK and AIADMK is Jayalalithaa,” said N Sathiyamoorthy, director of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.  "No one will be able to challenge her within the party until her conviction and sentence is confirmed by the highest court in the country."

Journalist R Rajagopalan believes that the conviction will generate a sympathy wave for Jayalalithaa. This, he feels, will bolster the goodwill she has built up through several populist policies in recent years.  “She launched several welfare schemes like Amma canteen and Amma cement and that is going to help her,” he said.

Observers also expect that Jayalalithaa will continue to run the government from behind the scenes. When she had to quit the chief minister’s post in 2001 for another corruption case conviction, she selected O Paneerselvam to be her successor till she was cleared of charges and returned to the post. Paneerselvam is believed to be a frontrunner to take charge from her again.

However, Jayalalithaa will find it difficult to hold on to the reins of government if she is sent to a prison outside Tamil Nadu and tough to maintain her grip on the party till the next assembly elections which are likely to be held in 2016.

Morale booster

Jayalalithaa’s conviction could be the much needed morale booster for the DMK, which as shown a tendency to close ranks in terms of crisis and opportunity. Earlier this month DMK treasurer M Stalin, in a show of party unity, said that his father and DMK supremo M Karunanidhi would be the chief minister candidate of the party in 2016.

Another big question is whether the BJP can move in to any power vacuum that Jayalalithaa leaves behind. The national party, which tried to sway Tamil Nadu voters away from regional powers in the Lok Sabha elections, might use to the opportunity to do so again.

The odds are stacked against Jayalalithaa. Unless her conviction is stayed or overturned immediately she is looking at a decade-long freeze from politics. In her mid-seventies then, Jayalalithaa will face a new generation of voters to whom she will be have been an absent leader.