At a time when corruption is being counted in thousands of crores, Rs 66 crore of disproportionate income, 18 years after it was illegally earned, may not seem like much. A four-year jail term and a Rs 100 crore fine, although not too little, may have arrived too late to please a corruption-weary nation.
Moreover, when the person convicted happens to be Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, the bigger question is whether this adversity would, in fact, be turned into a political advantage, earning her greater clout. The charge of corruption appears to pale before the images of people driven to chest-beating, cardiac arrest and worse, self-immolation, on hearing of her conviction.
That there would be high drama on judgment day was a given. Busloads of AIADMK supporters and almost the entire state Cabinet descended at Parappana Agrahara, outside Bengaluru. The Gandhi Bhavan outside the Bangalore Central Prison, which served as the Special Session Court ever since the case was transferred to “neutral” territory in 2001, is about 20 km from the Tamil Nadu border.
The question on the morning of 27 September was not whether there would be a conviction — it was said to be a watertight case — but the degree of the sentence. That her supporters came equipped with posters of Subramanian Swamy — to be beaten with footwear after the verdict — proves that even her hardcore followers did not expect her to walk free. When Special Judge John Michael D’Cunha pronounced the verdict and the crowds at the courthouse threatened to get violent, the police put a quick end to it.
For a moment, it seemed to turn into another Kannada-Tamil issue — since the sentence was pronounced in Karnataka — but soon turned towards DMK leader M Karunanidhi and Swamy, who had initiated the legal proceedings against Jayalalithaa in 1996, and who happened to be in Bengaluru on the same day.
With no provision for a bail plea in the same court (since the sentence exceeds two years), a jail stint became inevitable for Jayalalithaa and the other three accused. On 29 September, her legal team approached the vacation bench of the Karnataka High Court for bail and appealed against conviction. Supreme Court senior advocate Ram Jethmalani would be representing Jayalalithaa. Sources close to Jayalalithaa’s legal advisers indicated that while the appeal was meant to get the sentence reversed, their immediate plea would be for bail.
Meanwhile, O Pannerselvam, a proven loyalist, has assumed office following Jayalalithaa’s disqualification as MLA. Pannerselvam, who was hand-picked for the post earlier in 2001 — when the Supreme Court declared Jayalalithaa’s appointment as chief minister “not legal and valid” in the TANSI (Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation) land scam — for a six-month period, had played the part to perfection. Akin to the mythical Prince Bharath of Ramayana, Pannerselvam even refused to occupy the chair in the chief minister’s office.
With ‘Amma’ at the peak of her powers following her party’s thumping performance in the recently-held General Election (the AIADMK won 37 of the total 39 seats), Pannerselvam is sure to better himself this time, even if his term in office is not as short as the previous one.
The Supreme Court verdict last year on the Prevention of Corruption Act stipulates that a convicted person cannot contest elections for six years from the date of conviction and sentence of imprisonment. If the CBI vs KC Sareen case is any indication, a stay on the special court’s verdict during the pendency of the appeal is a remote possibility.
Meanwhile, much can change in Tamil Nadu politics before the 2016 Assembly election for arch-rival DMK as well. Significantly, the verdict on the 2G scam — involving K Kanimozhi and former Union telecom minister A Raja — is expected in 2015. While there is no doubt that the BJP will take the opportunity to push for influence in the Dravidian political landscape, Jayalalithaa would become all the more indispensable for the AIADMK, if the party has to put up a fight.
Jayalalithaa’s conviction — irrespective of whether a higher court reverses the sentence — would be a watershed in Tamil Nadu politics in general and AIADMK in particular. With a party that depends almost entirely on Jayalalithaa’s image, not to mention the total absence of a second-line of leadership, the AIADMK is playing up Jayalalithaa’s victimhood even as it equates the party with her political survival. This concoction, combined with the goodwill Jayalalithaa earned during her latest — and most mature — terms in office, could make her stronger.
Although the conviction does not allow her to contest elections for the next 10 years, it could well see her transforming into a de facto chief minister, a kingmaker a la Bal Thackeray, of Tamil Nadu.
The big ‘if’, however, is whether the AIADMK would refrain from repeating the witch-hunt it launched during Jayalalithaa’s second term in office (2001- 06) against the DMK and its supporters. (Karunanidhi was arrested in a midnight raid on his home and government employees who were seen as DMK loyalists were suspended). At the moment, the AIADMK is screaming for revenge. Prisoner No. 7402 of Bangalore Central Prison, Parappana Agrahara, still holds the key.
The leader can do no wrong
Jayalalithaa may have been convicted, but there is a residue of sympathy as well, reports Thufail PT
The Bengaluru special court’s verdict on AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa could have, in other circumstances, been a good advertisement for the battle against sleaze, but the conviction and the subsequent disqualification of a serving chief minister has evoked extreme responses, including suicides by her supporters.
Jayalalithaa’s downfall has elicited some sympathy even from the general public, leave aside the massive support she has from her own party cadres.
The reason for this transparent sympathy could be many: First and foremost, she is a woman. She is 66 years old. And she is single. However, most of the sympathetic responses were based on her good performance in office.
“She was the best chief minister in the contemporary phase,” was the constant refrain on social media and elsewhere. She introduced some of the most popular welfare schemes in Tamil Nadu during her new tenure. Despite being a regional party, the AIADMK emerged the third largest party in the current Lok Sabha.
Some people have questioned the delay in the judicial process and the timing of the verdict. For some, she was less corrupt than other politicians. Many people from Tamil Nadu believe that if there were an election in the near future, Jayalalithaa’s party would sweep the polls riding on the sympathy factor.
There are, of course, precedents to this kind of Pavlovian groundswell. One only has to look around and see convicted or accused politicians winning elections by huge margins. For instance, former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa scored a spectacular victory, winning the Shimoga seat by 3,63,305 votes in the General Election. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD scored well in spite of his conviction in the fodder scam. In Haryana, the INLD is emerging as a frontrunner in the upcoming Assembly polls in spite of its leader Om Prakash Chautala being convicted in a recruitment scam.
Jayalalithaa’s conviction may be a landmark event, but one that raises serious questions about the way we look at the issue of corruption.
A senior leader of a national party told Tehelka that the Jayalalithaa verdict is a stern warning for all corrupt politicians. However, he admitted that Jayalalithaa got some sympathy as she was at the zenith of her career.
Even though a section of Indians has developed strong aversion towards corruption, people are still influenced by factors such as caste, community and regional sentiments, and are often swayed by emotive reasons.
Advocate Lily Thomas, whose legal battle prompted the Supreme Court to disqualify convicted legislators, said that the Jayalalithaa verdict is a clear case of telling the people that “no one should be allowed to vitiate our governments and administrative system”. However, she is also wary about how to deal with the people’s mindset in this regard. “It is beyond my control,” she says.
CPM leader Prakash Karat said that such things happen mainly because of the shortcomings in our own system. “We still lack an effective system that can speedily investigate and punish the corrupt leaders,” he says. Jayalalithaa’s case took 18 years to conclude.
Atishi Marlena, one of the policymakers of the Aam Aadmi Party, says it is an indication that Indians have accepted “corruption as a way of life”. However, she adds, “It is not a case of forgiving a corrupt politician. It is a case of people being forced to choose between the devil and the deep sea in the absence of a clean alternative. So, they choose the less corrupt.”
The Supreme Court order to disqualify convicted legislators came in 2013. The first casualty of this directive was Lalu in the fodder scam, another case that took 17 years to conclude. However, political feathers will continue to ruffle if investigations in some other cases also reach logical conclusions. So, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati have reasons to worry. Each of them represents a distinct political ideology that has many followers.
One has to think whether the Indian electorate is prepared to engage with the political parties without idolising their corrupt leaders, no matter what role they have played for the growth of their respective parties in the past.