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Poes Garden To Prison 

With Jayalalitha finally behind bars in the Rs 8 crore colour TV purchase scam, her worries can only multiply

Poes Garden To Prison 
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A year ago, an AIADMK minus Jayalalitha Jayaram seemed an impossibility. With the arrest of the former chief minister on December 7 in connection with the dubious purchase of 45,302 colour TV sets, the party will now have to learn to live without its leader. The TV purchase itself caused a loss of Rs 8.3 crore to the state exchequer. And with the CBI, CID and the Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption filing six other cases against her, lawyers see no immediate end to the legal wrangles that lie ahead of her. Meanwhile, her political equity, which was already on a downslide, has hit rock-bottom.

The only thing that could have perhaps slowed down the pace of the investigations was public outrage. But when she was finally arrested from her Poes Garden residence at 9.45 am on the fateful day, no riots broke out in Chennai. Neither were there any mass demonstrations. In fact, there are rebel factions within her own party which are secretly welcoming her arrest. They are of the view that with Jayalalitha out of the picture, the AIADMK could regroup and refurbish its image.

It was just a few months ago that the rebels sought her expulsion, or at least a commitment from her that she would keep her live-in confidante Sasikala out of politics. When the going got too tough, the AIADMK chief was forced to give in. She issued a statement that she had severed ties with her friend and her nephews, one of whom was also her foster son.

However, a few days before her arrest, Jayalalitha renewed her friendship with Sasikala with an emotional 14-page statement accusing Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram for being vindictive towards Sasikala. The two, she claimed, were "sadistically harassing Sasikala because she is close to me".

But now that she is lodged in Central Prison, Chennai, as a common prisoner and shares her cell with other inmates (and has the same food), the former chief minister has much to worry about. Apart from the case she has now been booked for, the charges against her include: receipt of $300,000 under the immunity scheme; irregularities in the exemption given to Pleasant Stay Hotel in Kodaikanal; her role in the coal import deal; fav-ours shown to Meena Advertising; purchase of TAMIN property; and amassing wealth disproportionate to her known sources of income.

In the colour television sets case, the key players were Jayalalitha and her local administration minister, T.M. Selvaganapathy. The amount passed on to the latter alone was a mind-boggling Rs 3.93 crore. Officials from various TV companies, including Uptron India, Keltron and other TV suppliers, were involved in the under-the-table payments. Among those who allegedly made the payment was Keltron India Ltd Director Balan Nambiar.

On July 27, 1995, Jaya-lalitha had decided at a cabinet meeting that the TV sets should be purchased. The TV approval committee, which was immediately set up, fixed the cost per set at Rs 14,500. This included the cut that was subsequently paid. The cut per set was also fixed by the committee.

The distribution of TV sets to pan-chayats was part of a grand scheme envisaged by Sasikala and her nephews, who had set up the now defunct satellite channel, JJ TV. The plan was to wire up rural Tamil Nadu by distributing TV sets while simultaneously setting up a dish antenna network which would be tuned to JJ TV. It was believed that this would enable Jayalalitha to reach out to the masses, thereby enabling an AIADMK victory.

HOWEVER, the scheme did not quite take off as the pilot project in Chennai (a central receiving centre was established to distribute signals all over the city) was met with strong resistance from cable operators owing allegiance to the rival Sun TV, which is owned by Karunanidhi’s family. It was feared that the receiving centre would black out Sun TV.

While Jayalalitha’s arrest had seemed imminent in the last few weeks, she did her best to postpone the inevitable by approaching the courts. On December 6, however, Justice C. Shivappa dismissed all the seven anticipatory bail applications filed by the AIADMK chief. The strongly-worded judgement noted that since "the substratum of the case is that offences were perpetrated against the state and its economy, such offences being heinous in nature, it was not proper to grant anticipatory bail, which might have an effect of interference in the investigation. The charge is so serious that investigation had to be done in India and abroad. It would be virtually inapt to grant bail." 

The investigating officials were quick to move in, and in less than 24 hours the once-invincible Jayalalitha was finally in the CID net. In a simultaneous move, Income Tax officials attached four properties in Chennai belonging to Jayalalitha on the grounds that she failed to pay income tax to the tune of Rs 4 crore for six assessment years. The properties are: land and building at number 31A (since merged with number 36), Poes Garden; land and building at no. 36, Poes Garden; land and building at 213-B, St Mary’s Road, Raja Annamalai Puram; and shop no. 18 in Parsan Manre on Anna Salai. With the attachment of these properties, Jayalalitha has been prohibited from mortgaging or disposing of these holdings. The Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption has also frozen her savings and current account in the Abhiramapuram branch of the Canara Bank and fixed deposits worth Rs 70 lakh in Shriram Investments.

In the weeks to come, many heads are likely to roll as investigating offi-cials file further charge-sheets. Virtually the entire AIADMK cabinet is being investigated and, in many of the cases, officials of corporate houses and PSUs are said to be involved. The AIADMK cadres, who were already demoralised by the electoral debacle and by the vertical split in the party, now have enough reason to press for a change of leadership. Today there are four offi-cially recognised AIADMK splinter groups: led, respectively, by Jayalali-tha, her one-time ministerial colleagues S.D. Soma-sundaram, R.M.J. Veera-ppan and Alagu Thirunav-ukkarasu. Now, the school of thought that the factions could come together in a party framework whereby Jayalalitha is no longer the leader is again gaining ground. 

Jayalalitha’s latest defence of Sasikala also invoked the wrath of the cadres. In her December 5 statement, she made it clear that she could not desert her friend. She also absolved Sasikala of any role in the AIADMK electoral debacle. "(Sasikala) is not responsible for the party’s defeat," said the statement. "I was forced to cut off ties with Sasikala when the rebels mounted a campaign. I snapped my relationship with my friend of 12 years who had shared the ups and downs of my life. I did not even visit her in jail for three months." Political observers in Chennai say this sudden change of stance only brought on the AIADMK chief’s nemesis. Sasikala and the extra-constitutional powers she wielded in the party have long been a source of concern. While no one openly protested against the nexus while Jayalalitha was in power, the dissent is now plain to see. A purge in the AIADMK is expected to be launched soon. As for Jayalalitha, there is the tough task ahead of explaining how the crores came to her when her salary was a measly Re 1 a month.

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