May 31, 2020
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Chessboard Without A Queen Bee

The Jayalalitha conviction has thrown open the closed universe of Tamil politics

Chessboard Without A Queen Bee
Chessboard Without A Queen Bee

Order, Order

  • Jaya is the first big conviction under the Prevention of Corruption of Act after SC recently struck down a provision that allowed sitting members to continue in power during appeal period.
  • Earlier, a sitting mp/mla was barred for elections for six years only if he or she was not only convicted but also sentenced to more than two years jail.
  • Now, it’s immediate disqualification from House though bar on contesting polls takes effect after the sentence is served out.
  • In 2001, Jaya was not an MLA. But after tansi and Pleasant Stay Hotel case, she was disqualified from contesting.
  • She can get a stay on sentence, but if conviction stays, disqualification will remain.


When someone like J. Jayalalitha is unseated as chief minister, sentenced to four years’ prison and barred from elections for six years thereafter according to the new rules, there are bound to be convulsions. The 66-year-old leader, an exemplar of how Indian politicians can be turned into objects of mass adulation, is out of the reckoning for the next ten years—unless an appeal modifies that. Whether one reads it as a ‘black swan’ event or the natural course of justice, the fact is this has thrown open Tamil Nadu politics at a crucial time.

For now, the ruling AIADMK has put into place its old fallback option, inst­alling hard-core loyalist O. Panneer­sel­vam as a sort of proxy CM and swearing in the same 30-member cabinet in a teary-eyed ceremony. (He all but took the oath in her name, placing her photo on the podium. Not a dry eye in the Raj Bhavan. He has even chosen to work from the chamber he had when Jayalalitha was CM; and it won’t be a surprise if he leaves the CM’s chair vacant whenever the assembly meets.) But it’s difficult to say how the party, which was sitting pretty and had won 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats just four months ago, will cope in the long term. There are two levels at which it will feel vulnerable. The state is itself due for ass­embly elections in 2016. And at least partially, its campaign themes are bound to bleed into national politics, which is itself in a momentous transition.

Tamil Nadu has been a near-autonomous playfield of Dravidian politics for decades. This might prove the juncture at which cracks start to develop in that frozen alphabet soup format where the AIADMK faces off against the DMK, with a rolling cast of smaller parties hitching their wagon to the winning horse. If the AIADMK is hobbled by being deprived of its biggest asset—the natural problem with single-leader parties—its chief rival is in the throes of a  bruising generational change. And though the Congress has been in retreat for years, there is another  national party—an expansionist BJP—which will be looking at this chessboard without a queen with much interest.

However the Amma devout reads this verdict, Bangalore special court judge John Michael Cunha, the last of many who heard this case during its tortuous course of 18 years, said a “heady mix of power and wealth is the bottomline of this case”. Along with Jayalalitha, her aides Sasikala, Ilavarasi and now-disow­ned foster son Sudhakaran too have been sentenced to four years’ prison. Jayalali­tha has been fined Rs 100 crore, her aides Rs 10 crore each—upholding the prosecution case that they were all benami beneficiaries. The said corruption pertains to the period of her five-year rule after a landslide victory in May 1991. It was one of the many unearthed by former Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, a sort of friend-turned-foe-turned friend—he has been close to her afterwards too. The extra-ost­entatious wedding of Sudhaka­ran in 1995, the image that chased her to a defeat less than a year later, is what really put the focus on her wealth.

But loyalists will have none of it. Party protests apart, Chennai’s film fraternity too observed a one-day fast. Even the public response is a little ambivalent; the feeling is Jayalalitha is being made to pay for a crime she committed ages ago (few realise the case dragged on so long precisely because of dilatory tactics). There is a bit of fondness tow­ards her second avatar, admittedly that of an efficient administrator with a gentler mien than before. It’s also an image buffed up of late with freebies like Amma canteen, Amma salt, Amma medicines, Amma water and so on—freebies funded from the Rs 23,000 crore a year income the government gets from sale of liquor to the same poor.

But politics has its ways. The Madras High Court Advocates Association has passed a resolution pledging its solidarity with the ousted CM. When the Karnataka High Court vacation bench listed Jaya­lalitha’s plea for a stay of sentence along with the appeal for hearing after Dass­ehra vacation on October 6, a bunch of AIADMK advocates staged a dharna in the court complex in Bangalore. It recalled the time when Indira Gandhi’s election was set aside by Justice J.L.N. Sinha of the Allahabad High Court on June 12, 1975, and his effigies were burnt by Congressmen, with young lawyer P.  Chidambaram himself leading a band of protesters in the Madras High Court.

When Jayalalitha was convicted in the Kodaikanal Pleasant Stay Hotel case in January 2000, her men had unleashed state-wide violence. One group set afire a college bus in Dharmapuri, leading to the death of three girls. (Jayalalitha has never expressed regret for the incident, though two AIADMK factotums are facing the death sentence for it.) Despite that episode, she managed to parlay successive setbacks—conviction in the tansi case, her nomination being rejected by returning officers—into a winning mom­entum. The people voted her back to power in 2001 assembly elections, partly due to the ‘sympathy’ factor and also thanks to the Congress and Tamil Manila Congress, which supported her on the ground that corruption was a lesser evil than communalism (the DMK, then part of the Vajpayee government at the Cen­tre, was in alliance with the BJP in the state polls.) The then governor, ex-SC judge Fathima Beevi, took the line of least resistance by swearing her in. It was the Supreme Court that, in September that year, ordered her to step down and first get her names cleared in the two cases. That led to the first stint as CM for Panneerselvam, a former chaiwallah.

The Madras High Court acquitted her in the Pleasant Stay case. On the tansi case,  involving purchase of land by a firm in which Jayalalitha and her aide Sasikala were partners, the SC acquitted her, but said though tansi might technically be considered a government entity, she should act according to her conscience. She took the cue by returning the land to the firm. During the AIADMK’s post-2001 rule, she made systematic efforts to scu­ttle the assets case, leading to as many as 66 crucial witnesses turning hostile. An alarmed DMK general secretary K. Anba­zhagan moved the SC, which in 2004 transferred it to Bangalore. That process is what’s culminated now after ten years.

Jayalalitha, an imperious figure who seemed to be near a new crest in her fluctuating career, has become the first serving CM in India to be unseated and jailed. The irony is that the DMK, in its intervening years in power, gained inf­amy for corruption of such scale in the 2G scam and such like that the Rs 53.69 crore disproportionate case against Jayalalitha pales in comparison—it feels very like the anachronism it is.

By S. Murari in Chennai

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