What constitutes disproportionate assets has been at the heart of many corruption cases in the past, and an appeal in the Supreme Court against the acquittal of the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and three others by the Karnataka High Court could settle the law on this question.
In the Jayalalithaa case, the Karnataka High Court has taken a classic “liberal view” that a marginal excess in income is not punishable under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
But higher courts, in several judgments, have taken a contradictory stand, stressing that judging a disproportionate case is not a mere auditing affair.
The accused cannot be acquitted solely because the disproportionate assets found are less than 10 per cent of their known sources of income. The judgments say courts should instead focus on the impact caused by corruption in society.
If the Jayalalithaa case comes in appeal, the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to settle the question of what is “disproportionate” in the modern scene when the highest judiciary has held repeatedly that corruption in public spheres should be met with “zero tolerance”.
The Jayalalithaa acquittal is based on the Krishnanand Agnihotri case of 1977, which introduces the concept that disproportionate asset to the extent of 10 per cent deserves no punishment. The Maharashtra v. Pollonji Darabshaw Daruwalla judgment of 1987 underlines this view. In this case, the Supreme Court held that when there was only a marginal excess in assets, the accused should be given the “benefit of the doubt”.
Again, in State of Maharashtra v. Wasudeo Ramchandra Kaidalwar of 1981, the apex court said all that the accused needed to show was a “preponderance of probability” that he could come into possession of the assets under question in a legal fashion.
In Anantha Ramulu v. State of Madhya Pradesh of 2005, the Supreme Court dismissed a case of corruption against a government official who was found in possession of Rs. 2.63 lakh in excess of his known income. The Bench, led by Justice Markandey Katju, said if this was the case, every government official would find himself in jail.
But the May 2011 judgment of the Madhya Pradesh High Court in the Kamal Lal Gharde case stated an alternative view.
Quoting the Ramulu and Polloji verdicts of the Supreme Court, a Division Bench of the High Court said the question of disproportionate being meagre or moderate deserved to be ignored as a probable fault of calculation.
Instead, onus should be given to the nature of offence and its social impact. This judgment saw the highest court start a dialogue on corruption as an “enemy of the nation”.