TN drama unfolds
In a significant development on Tuesday, the Supreme Court convicted VK Sasikala and two of her relatives in a disproportionate assets case that they have been embroiled in with late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for the better part of two decades. The judgement, which set aside the Karnataka High Court verdict acquitting Sasikala, her niece Ilavarasi, nephew VN Sudhakaran and Jayalalithaa, has not come as a surprise to many who have closely followed the case. Legal experts had contended that the High Court's decision to overturn the conviction laid down by a trial court was riddled with glaring errors. Nonetheless, it has created a new twist to the power battle in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam between factions led by Sasikala and caretaker Chief Minister O Panneerselvam. With the apex court upholding the 2014 trial court verdict, which had convicted all the four accused, at this juncture, Sasikala will be unable to contest elections for the next ten years. In addition to being sentenced to four years' imprisonment, she also now stands disqualified from membership of the Tamil Nadu Assembly for a further six years. The disproportionate assets case against Jayalalithaa was registered in 1997 after her first term as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996. Reports are rife of how Sasikala's proximity to Jayalalithaa allowed members of her clan, especially those convicted, to establish control over industries, real estate, and even cinema halls with the ill-gotten wealth. In fact, while sentencing Sasikala and her relatives on Tuesday, the Supreme Court cited several pieces of evidence that established their role in laundering the ill-gotten wealth of Jayalalithaa for purchasing large properties in the names of "masked fronts".
The court order has come as a boost to the Panneerselvam faction, who is currently immersed in a battle with the Sasikala faction to succeed the late Chief Minister and lay claim to her 'legacy'. Nonetheless, the caretaker Chief Minister cannot express too much glee, considering the order also holds Jayalalithaa guilty, without really proceeding to convict her. The appeal against her acquittal by the Karnataka High Court in 2015 stands abated because she passed away late last year. But the judgment clearly establishes her involvement in corruption. "We have analysed the evidence adduced by the parties and we come to the conclusion that A1 to A4 have entered into a conspiracy and in furtherance of the same, A1 who was a public servant at the relevant time had come into possession of assets disproportionate to the known sources of her income during the check period and had got the same dispersed in the names of A2 to A4 and the firms and companies involved to hold these on her behalf with a masked front. Furthermore, the charge of abetment laid against A2 to A4 in the commission of the offence by A1 also stands proved," the judgment read. For the uninitiated, the A1 refers to Jayalalithaa and A4 to Sasikala's sister-in-law J Ilavarasi. Meanwhile, A2 refers to Sasikala. Also, there is Sasikala's nephew, VN Sudhakaran, listed as A3 in the court's proceedings. Essentially, the verdict found the late Chief Minister guilty of amassing illegal wealth, which she tried to hide by distributing it to Sasikala and her two relatives, thereby making them guilty of abetting her crime. Irrespective of what AIADMK loyalists may suggest, the apex court's decision does tarnish Amma's image. Legal experts further contend that if not for her complicity in the corruption, there could not have been a 'conspiracy' by the other three convicted. Amidst all her trials and tribulations, it is impossible to view Jayalalithaa's life through rose-tinted glasses. As a politician, who was extremely conscious of her public image, she had always denied allegations of corruption, calling it a political conspiracy hatched by the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The apex court's verdict has seemingly laid waste to those claims.
Sasikala, however, is not going down without a fight. Soon after the decision, the convicted AIADMK general secretary reportedly consulted with her advisors at the Golden Bay Resorts in the outskirts of Chennai, where legislators supporting her have been holed up for the past six days. From the meeting, news had emerged of the selection of Minister for Public Works, Highways and Minor Ports, Edappadi Palanisamy as the leader of the Legislature Party. At the time of publication, Palanisamy has gone to the Raj Bhavan to meet Governor Vidyasagar Rao and stake his claim to form the government with the support of over 120 MLAs, who have apparently signed letters to affirm that they were not being held against their will. The legislator comes from the influential upper caste Gounder community, who hold sway in the western region of Tamil Nadu. It is a strategic move on Sasikala's part, as the Gounder community contributes 45 of the 135 legislators in the AIADMK. This is an apparent attempt to stem any potential defection to the Panneerselvam camp. In the days leading up the court verdict, some parliamentarians from the community had switched sides. As a former favourite of Jayalalithaa, Palanisamy was part of her core group entrusted with managing all the major political operations of the party. The aim here is clearly to pit one Jayalalithaa loyalist with another and stem any further rebellion among the party's rank and file. Both Sasikala and Pannerselvam belong to the influential Thevar community.
Where does this leave Panneerselvam? The bottom line remains that he still does not have the backing of enough legislators to form a government under his leadership. He needs the support of at least 117 MLAs to harbour any ambition for the Chief Minister's post. Even if he does muster the requisite numbers, many senior political observers have questioned his ability to keep this flock together. In the landmark SR Bommai case, the apex court had explicitly ruled that the question of a majority can only be established on the floor of the house. With Palanisamy pressing his claim, acting Governor Vidyasagar Rao is now bound to give him a chance to prove majority in the Assembly. Any further delay could once again raise questions of the Rao's conduct in the entire affair and open the possibility of horse-trading. There needs to be binding checks and balances for every Governor's decision-making timelines and criteria to prevent any constitutional crisis and governance vacuum. Speculation is rife that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre has played a hand in fomenting this whole crisis to allegedly back Panneerselvam. The Governor, however, could turn around and argue that the legislators were coerced into supporting a candidate backed by Sasikala as the legislative party leader on Tuesday. With the ruling AIADMK barely a few months into its tenure, a split still seems unlikely. The anti-defection law also ensures that legislators have to toe the party line or else they lose their seat. Under these circumstances, the fate of these rival leaders will have to be determined by whoever has the support of the majority of MLAs. A weakened AIADMK may tempt opposing parties to challenge the ruling party often and also call for confidence votes on any sensitive issue. The lack of any political leadership meanwhile, has created a severe crisis of governance that the state can ill-afford. Despite the popular belief in the Tamil Nadu model of governance, where greater emphasis is on health, education, and other markers of human development, recent reports indicate that these indicators have either hit a plateau or in certain aspects dropped. Following the worst North-East monsoon in 140 years, all districts in the state have been declared drought hit. The worst drought in recent memory has claimed more than 100 lives in farmer suicides. There is also a severe shortage of groundwater in vast tracts of the state. The Governor must make up his mind soon for the sake of Tamil Nadu.