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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 41, October 4, 2014

The Jayalalithaa Case: A Landmark in Reform

Monday 6 October 2014, by Uttam Sen

The Tamil Nadu Chef Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief, Ms J. Jayalalithaa’s conviction by a Special Court under the Prevention of Corruption Act in Bengaluru on September 27 was exemplary. Ms Jayalalithaa was sent to prison for four years, disqualified as an MLA, lost her position as the Chief Minister and was barred from holding public office for ten years, apart from having to pay a fine considered commensurate with the magnitude of her offence. Her three co-accused were sentenced to four years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10 crores each.

Copies of the judgment were not initially in the public domain but Tamil Nadu’s leading daily began processing it for readers. Ms Jayalalithaa’s lawyers wasted no time in filing a petition seeking suspension of her sentence and release on bail, along with those of the others. In Bengaluru considerable importance was attached to the petition being heard by a special vacation Bench of the Karnataka High Court. The conventional wisdom was that it would be rejected, but informed sources did not entirely rule out a surprise. The October 1 hearing was later adjourned to October 7, for Ms Jayalalithaa’s lawyers to state her case before a regular Bench, also giving time to the prosecution to organise itself.

Determining the accumulation of wealth disproportionate to her income, and the verdict, took 18 years to complete. The trial was moved to Bengaluru in 2003 after the Supreme Court “found several attempts to subvert” formal examination of evidence by the judge. Subsequently, Parliament had instituted the anti-corruption institution of the Lok Pal. By then general insistence on a more effective legal framework to prevent the abuse of power and the limitation of the duration of a case had risen to a clamour. With the Special Court’s verdict on this disproportionate assets case, the Law Ministry, in consultation with the Home Ministry, is preparing the outline of criminal justice reform, with particular emphasis on accelerating trials of elected representatives, impelled to boot by the Supreme Court that they should be completed within a year of registration of the case.

 At one level, the proceedings are a big leap in the direction of cleaning up the system. Fast-tracking due process ultimately gives the ordinary citizen justice and remedy in the face of his own representatives’ turpitude in manipulating the state apparatus for private gain. But it is also public knowledge that a competitive spoils system is being carried to bizarre lengths. Legal punishment can be perceived as a tactical setback rather than purely the carriage of justice. Hence the agitation, heart attacks and suicides over Ms Jayalalithaa’s conviction and subsequent incarceration, and the tearful scenes at the swearing-in of her successor. Some of it is doubtless political and conceivably manifestations of vested interests caught at a dead-end. But there is genuine political empathy and loyalty around as well, which can be encashed for a comeback, as in several well-known precedents. There is in addition, the option of recourse to higher courts, which would be important given the number of years Ms Jayalalithaa, now 66, would have to serve in jail under her present sentence. Public memory is still fresh on her previous acquittal and political rebound.

It would take a very discriminating critique to determine the precise degree to which political probity can be validly qualified by mitigating circumstances. Ms Jayalalithaa is still popular among vast sections of the people for providing a measure of governance and personal charisma axiomatically ahead of what others could deliver. She won resounding victories at the Assembly and parliamentary elections. But as important a development as her case also suggests the urgency of standard propriety to temper the misbegotten instinct of some holders of political office to shoot first and ask questions later, whether for personal or collective gain. Fine ethical distinctions can fall by the wayside when wealth and property become the reigning currency and sleight of hand the worldly-wise means of securing it. Due recognition of the classical democratic virtue of functionally relating with people could have rendered some of the latter-day extra-constitutional instrumen-talities superfluous.

Tamil Nadu has one of the most proficient midday meal schemes in the country, apart from being a national leader in traditional industry, and a home to Information Technology. Its socio-economic indices are sound. Ms Jayalalithaa is an iconic thespian and artiste of yesteryear, in a volatile State where she has to contend with formidable rivals in the DMK and its elder statesman, Mr M Karunanidhi, politico-cultural heirs of the Dravidian movement from which she drew sustenance. Redoubtable public figures like P Chidambaram, Subramaniam Swamy and Cho Ramaswamy, among others, are always there or thereabouts in any happening. Ms Jayalalithaa, is, however, Bengaluru-bred, having been a meritorious student of a well-known missionary school. Her reach arguably transcends Tamil Nadu and had at one point made her a runner for the Prime Ministerial Office. In a more enabling environment she could have stood alone (that is, without resort to the more dubious agencies of power). Under the circumstances, the cultivation of an attitude guiding principles of behaviour, ancient or modern, is still important, particularly for public welfare in a largely indigent milieu, of which Ms Jayalalithaa has demonstrated awareness, some-what inconsistently if one will, after providing for herself and her following. Implementing accepted benchmarks of transparency and accountability in governance are the immediate solutions and we are moving towards them.

Politically, observers anticipate rule by proxy as Ms Jayalalithaa, in iron control of her party and an able administrator, guides her chosen successor from jail. In the event of her still being there during the crucial 2016 Assembly elections, and a possible recouping of political capital by the DMK, she could look to the BJP for support, giving it a foothold in the preserve of Dravidian politics. Interestingly, a section of public opinion in Tamil Nadu, alert to the possibility of O. Panneerselvam having to serve a longer term than the previous five-month stop-gap arrange-ment in 2001-2 before Ms Jayalalithaa was acquitted in the Tansi land deal case, are exploring the possibility of a legal status for the former Chief Minister as advisor from outside. This hard-to-believe concurrence of popularity, administrative acumen and legal culpability in one person tells a story of its own, but for the moment is clearly considered secondary to stability and smooth governance in a very important State.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.