Even if the Bangalore court finds Jayalalitha guilty, her political future seems fairly secure in the medium term.
Two days from now, on September 27, Special Judge John Michael Cunha will read out the verdict in a disproportionate assets case against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha that has been going on for more than a decade.
The case relates to the time Jayalalitha was the CM of the state between 1991-1996. The M Karunanidhi government that succeeded hers between 1996-2001, prosecuted Jayalalitha in 12 separate cases. On most of these cases, she was acquitted; but in two cases she was convicted in the 2000 in the lower courts.
In the 2001 elections, the see-saw of TN politics won back Jayalalitha’s AIADMK a thumping majority, but her own nominations were rejected. She had filed nominations to contest from four constituencies, knowing full well that a candidate could stand from a maximum of only two constituencies. Even though she could not contest, her party nominated Jayalalitha for the CM’s post. The Supreme Court however intervened and said a convicted person who couldn’t get herself elected to the assembly could not hold the CM’s post.
O Panneerselvam, her close confidante stood in as the Chief Minister while Jayalalitha set out to clear her name. By 2001, the Chennai High Court, and subsequently the SC in 2003 too acquitted her in both those cases.
There was only one case pending in 2003. That was the disproportionate assets case. Jayalalitha and her aide and companion Sasikala, along with Sasikala’s relatives were found to have assets of nearly Rs 66 crore for which they couldn’t disclose the sources of income. This, like the other cases against her had been going on from 1998. Now, with Jayalalitha as the CM, the opposition DMK contended that a fair trial was not possible in Tamil Nadu. The SC agreed to shift the cases to Karnataka. After 17 years since the filing of the case, and 11 years since it moved to Karnataka, after several judges and prosecutors presiding over the case, it is coming to an end on 27 September.
If Jayalalitha is convicted and is given a sentence of more than two years, she will lose her membership of the legislative assembly instantly, and consequently the CM post. What is not clear is what happens when she is convicted and is given a sentence of less than two years. Babanrao Gholap, a Shiv Sena legislator from Maharashtra was disqualified in July 2014, after he was convicted in March 2014 in an identical case of amassing disproportionate assets. But his sentence was for three years.
Jayalalitha is the unchallenged supremo of her party. She has no spouse or children or other relatives who she could turn to unlike Laloo Yadav. She will do what she did in 2001 — find a pliable person and make him or her the CM and remote control the running of the government from prison or her Poes Garden home. Keeping a tight grip over the party and the state administration will not be difficult for her.
She will then work towards getting her conviction overturned in the higher courts or at least getting her sentence suspended or reduced. She however has more trouble with an income tax case that has come up, related to the disproportionate assets case.
The opposition in Tamil Nadu is in disarray. Karunanidhi’s DMK too is equally, if not more tarred by corruption charges. Elder son Alagiri has been banished from the party, and the household for now. Yet, the nonagenarian patriarch remains reluctant to hand over the party’s leadership to son Stalin who seems to have the popular support of DMK cadres.
The slew of welfare schemes rolled out by the Jayalalitha government over the last three years, keeps her popularity intact, as was evident when the AIADMK won 37 of the 39 seats in the state during the General Elections this year.
No political party is currently in a position to take a moral high ground and wage an aggressive campaign against corruption in Tamil Nadu. BJP’s organizational structure is extremely weak to take on AIADMK and DMK. That much is clear from the recent by-elections to various local bodies.
If Jayalalitha is acquitted, she looks likely to romp home to victory in the 2016 elections. Even if she is convicted and dethroned, her party can just about squeeze through and win a simple majority. It speaks volumes about the paucity of good and creditable alternatives to the corrupt regional parties of Tamil Nadu.
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