The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a trial court order finding All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary VK Sasikala guilty in an illegal wealth case that dates back two decades. The verdict, which will mean Sasikala going back to jail and being debarred from public office for nearly a decade, upends political calculations at a time when she is caught in a tussle with interim chief minister O Panneerselvam for control of the party and the government.
A bench of Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Justice Amatava Roy upheld the trial court judgment in which Sasikala and the late Jayalalithaa were found guilty of amassing over Rs 63 crores in assets disproportionate to their known sources of income during the latter’s tenure as chief minister between 1991 and 1996. The proceedings against Jayalalithaa would be abated because of her death on December 5.
In 2014, a trial court in Bengaluru – where the proceedings were moved on the Supreme Court’s orders – had found Jayalalithaa and Sasikala guilty along with the latter’s relatives Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran, and sentenced them to four years imprisonment. The conviction had forced Jayalalithaa to step down as chief minister under rules disqualifying convicted politicians from holding office or contesting elections. But the following year, the Karnataka High Court had acquitted all of them. The Karnataka government, which is the prosecutor in the case, had appealed in the Supreme Court, which will decide Sasikala’s fate at 10.30 am on Tuesday.
Officials of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam told Scroll.in that strategies “for all possible scenarios” had been put in place before the verdict. Sasikala spent the night at the Golden Bay Resorts in Kancheepuram, where 128 MLAs owing allegiance to her have been staying for the past five days. Panneerselvam – who had stepped down as chief minister to make way for Sasikala on February 5, only to rebel against her two days later – has alleged that the MLAs are being held there against their will. He has also said he was coerced into resigning and has challenged Sasikala’s election as leader of the AIADMK’s legislative party by petitioning the governor, Vidyasagar Rao. Since then, at least eight MLAs and 11 parliamentarians have shifted to the Panneerselvam faction.
The plan for a potential conviction on Tuesday – making her ineligible to become chief minister – was to have the MLAs on her side elect a new leader of the legislative party nominated by her. Senior leader KA Sengotaiyan has emerged as the frontrunner in such a scenario.
Sensing the growing support for Panneerselvam in the party, Sasikala made an emotional appeal to MLAs on Sunday, blaming misogyny in Tamil Nadu politics for the attacks on her. Dragging the Union government into the mess indirectly, she said there were forces out to destroy the AIADMK. “But let me assure you, from Chennai to Delhi, there is no one capable of shaking this party,” she said, adding that Panneerselvam was working in collusion with the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
However, Sasikala was aware that a threat larger than Panneerselvam looms that could derail her political career, and that is a negative verdict by the Supreme Court. Since the charges against her are under the Prevention of Corruption Act, conviction means immediate disqualification from contesting elections for six years.
Before the verdict was announced, a senior party official said plans had been put in place to face such a situation, adding, “in case of a conviction, we will elect a new chief minister from among the legislators.”
The leader said this would be done to ensure the governor does not invite Panneerselvam for a floor test in the Assembly using Sasikala’s disqualification as an excuse. “We will make sure the governor knows that majority is with us,” the leader added.
Apart from Sengotaiyan, the party has two other strong options in Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M Thambidurai and state minister Edapadi K Palanisamy. However, a less-known face cannot be ruled out. In 2001, Jayalalithaa, to the shock of party veterans, had picked Panneerselvam, then just an MLA, to run the government in her place when the Supreme Court had forced her to step down over her conviction in criminal cases.
One of the strategies under consideration was to seek Sasikala’s discharge in the case on the grounds of Jayalalithaa’s demise, according to members of her legal team. A crucial aspect of charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act is that illegality flows from the public servant. Thus, the other accused in the case are only co-conspirators. The team analysed whether the charges will abate since Jayalalithaa, the public servant, is dead.
“Whether this could be mentioned to the judges before they deliver the verdict was discussed,” a party official privy to the matter confirmed.
Though Jayalalithaa was alive during arguments in the Supreme Court, the fact that she will no longer be there to defend herself in case of a review petition, a tool available to the team in case of a negative verdict, makes the plea for abatement of charges viable.
If the court accepts this argument, it could summon all parties to argue on this point. This would give Sasikala crucial time to push the governor to invite her to form the government.
However, it is not clear whether the legal team – which left Chennai for Delhi on Monday evening – has decided to go ahead with this strategy.
There were four possible scenarios on Tuesday: acquittal, conviction, remand to the High Court for fresh proceedings, and a split verdict.
The Panneerselvam camp, meanwhile, spent Monday evening deciding on its response in case of Sasikala’s conviction. The dilemma the acting chief minister faces is that a guilty verdict for Sasikala would automatically mean the same for Jayalalithaa. In such a scenario, the team had decided to blame Sasikala for indulging in corruption with her family members and dragging Jayalalithaa into it.
DMK not unaffected
While the AIADMK has been in turmoil over the past week, the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has not been untouched by the political drama in the state. According to party officials, some senior leaders are not happy with the manner in which their working president, MK Stalin, has handled the situation.
Their primary complaint is that Stalin has made statements that have been perceived by the media as pro-Panneerselvam. This, they feel, has bought the interim chief minister some sympathy.
And this could prove dangerous for the DMK in case of fresh elections. At a high-level meeting of the party on Monday, it was decided that the DMK should stay completely non-partisan and, if possible, attack both Sasikala and Panneerselvam for creating confusion and bringing the state administration to a standstill.
The story has been updated to reflect the Supreme Court verdict, at 11 am on February 14, 2017.