Corruption scandal

What's at stake with today's Jayalalithaa verdict

If the sentence is upheld, it would be a catastrophe for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the government in Tamil Nadu.

The clock is ticking for former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. It has been ticking since March 11 when the Karnataka High Court reserved its orders on her appeal against a trial court judgement of September 27, 2014, in what has come to be known as the Disproportionate Assets case. The trial court had sentenced the former chief minister and three others to four years imprisonment, while imposing a fine of Rs 100 crore on Jayalalithaa, and Rs 10 crore each on the other three.

The case goes back to a private complaint filed by Dr Subramanian Swamy in 1996 under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 in a Chennai court, charging Jayalalithaa of having accumulated assets disproportionate to her declared sources of income during her chief ministerial tenure of 1991-''96. A charge-sheet was filed in 1997 after raids conducted onJayalalithaa’s Poes garden residence on the basis of this complaint reportedly led to the recovery of 800 kg silver, 28 kg gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 sarees, 91 watches and other valuables, all totalling Rs 66.65 crore.

The case went on in Chennai till 2003 July and was then shifted to Bangalore by the Supreme Court on a petition filed by the  Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The judgement finally came on September 27, 2014 and Jayalalithaa was sent to Parapanahara jail in Bangalore. After 22 days, the Supreme Court, on October 17, 2014, granted her and three others bail and also directed the Karnataka High Court to dispose of her appeals before April 18. Later this deadline was extended. The verdict is expected today.

Paralysed administration

The administration in the state has been paralysed ever since the trial court verdict on September 27, 2014. Apart from day to day work, the administration has done nothing tangible.

The incumbent Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, while clearly recognised as a proxy for Jayalalithaa, has ensured that no sign appears outside either his residence or his office identifying him as the chief minister. In fact, he has taken pains not to sit in the room allocated for the chief minister and has continued to operate from the chambers allotted to him as finance minister of the state. He does not like being addressed as the chief minister and keeps an extremely low profile, knowing the consequences of being perceived as becoming too big for his boots.  So much so that MK Stalin, the DMK’s treasurer and potential CM-designate, recently taunted him as "CM without an office".

Panneerselvam has not laid the foundation stone for any projects, nor addressed a single press conference. Jayalalithaa, ensconced in her residence ever since returning to Chennai on October 18, 2014 , after her release from the Bangalore prison, is said to be calling the shots through a group of seven officers and even Panneerselvam is said to be a puppet in the hands of this “dirty seven”, as the group is derisively called.

Despite this, several big projects in the state are hanging fire as they are too prominent to allow the incumbent chief minister to be seen to be associated with. The international investor’s conference, aimed at attracting major investments in the state has clearly suffered from Jayalalithaa's legal trouble. This conference was originally planned for September 2014, then postponed to January 2015 and then to May this year before being rescheduled all over again for September.  Apart from this, the Chennai metro rail project is also waiting to get inaugurated. Though the official reasons cited are technical, every one in the corridors of power in the state knows very well that the real reason is the uncertainty caused by Jayalalithaa's political future because of this legal case.

So is the case with hundreds of buses purchased for the state corporations. “We are awaiting orders from above. We have to operate these buses to handle the summer rush, but alas, the political leadership is insensitive and solely concentrating on the court verdict,” said a top transport official on condition of anonymity.

Bad to worse

The signs emanating from the judiciary do not seem propitious for Jayalalitha. On April 15, a division bench of the Supreme Court gave a split verdict on the appointment of Bhawani Singh as Public Prosecutor in the case by the Tamil Nadu government. The DMK had challenged the appointment and argued that since the case had been shifted to Karnataka from Tamil Nadu, the latter had no right to appoint a public prosecutor in this case and only the Karnataka government had the right to do so.

The appointment was not only quashed on April 27 by a three judge bench, but the Karnataka High Court was also directed to not consider Singh's written arguments and was instead told to take into account the written submissions of the DMK, as also those of the state of Karnataka.

After advising the Karnataka High Court that before pronouncing the judgement it should keep in mind the serious charges levelled against all the convicts and that corruption is the biggest malady faced by the country and everyone in the society is affected by it, the Supreme Court asked it to "dispassionately render a judgement which is objectively and resolutely expressed."

“It seems the writing is on the wall," said a former minister and senior All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader. "We are preparing for the worst and we have nothing except to hope against the hope.”

Possible scenarios

If the sentence were to be upheld, it would be a catastrophe of sorts for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the government in Tamil Nadu. Though the affected persons have every right to appeal in the Supreme Court, there is palpable fear and anxiety in the party given the impatience against corruption cases shown by the apex court in recent times.

AIADMK appears set for a period of uncertainty as there are no second rung leaders and the party solely depends on the charisma of its supreme leader. Jayalalithaa is already 67 years old, and there are reports, though unconfirmed, of her deteriorating health.

The anxiety is not limited to the AIADMK and the state government, as the judgement will have wider ramifications on the state and national politics at large. An interesting development last month was a survey conducted by the Thanthi TV, a local Tamil news channel, considered as a pro-establishment media outlet, which showed the principal opposition DMK as commanding 49% support, compared to the 33% support for the AIADMK.

Jayalalithaa's legal troubles are thus certainly an opportunity for the DMK which had been beleaguered and weakened by a slew of corruption cases. The verdict in the 2G case is expected in three to four months from now and a fresh FIR in the same case is expected at any time. The DMK Chief M Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, is one of the prime accused in the case. Karunanidhi’s wife is also as accused in an Enforcement Directorate case. In addition, Karunanidhi’s grand nephews Marans are involved in the Aircel Maxis deal and in a CBI case.

The political stakes are clearly very high for everyone concerned. The government in Tamil Nadu, led by O Panneerselvam, is projecting itself as a “caretaker government” despite a brutal majority and one full year of its term left. The judgement is expected any time before May 12 as that is the time limit granted by the Supreme Court. As the deadline approaches, apprehension is slowly but steadily gripping not only the AIADMK and the government machinery but also every political party and general public in the state.

The case would also have wider national ramifications. The Modi government at the Centre may not need the support of AIADMK's 37 MPs (out of a total of 39 in Tamil Nadu) in Lok Sabha, given its majority there, but the party's 11 Rajya Sabha members are definitely crucial for passage of many bills in the upper house. These numbers would become significant in case of a joint session of Parliament as well.

Her die-hard supporters, however, are still trying to dream of an improbable acquittal for their leader which, they hope, will make it difficult to stop the “Jaya juggernaut” as she could in such an unlikely scenario, call for early elections that are due in the state only in May 2016.  “This may in a way good for the state. I am not passing any value judgment on her legal issues. But a strong leader is good for the state and this will benefit the state,” said a senior IAS officer serving in the Secretariat.

Watch this space.

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