The >Karnataka High Court’s judgment absolving Ms. Jayalalithaa of the grave charge that she amassed wealth illegally during her first tenure as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister between 1991 and 1996 is undoubtedly a resounding political victory for her. It removes the taint of corruption that has marred her political reputation repeatedly over the years and at the same time, removes her legal disability to hold public office. It is an unusual feat for any politician in the country to regain her eligibility to hold the post after being unseated twice as Chief Minister. On both occasions, this was possible because a High Court intervened to reverse the conviction recorded by trial courts. In a legal sense, it is an extraordinary triumph, as the case that she possessed unexplained assets worth Rs.66 crore was believed to be the strongest one that she ever faced. It was tenaciously investigated and vigorously prosecuted. The charge sheet was backed by reams of evidence, consisting of a long list of real estate known to be linked to Ms. Jayalalithaa and her associates, the flaunting of wealth during the egregiously opulent wedding of her ‘foster son’, a host of companies with no ostensible business, items of jewellery, clothing, expensive footwear and wristwatches supposedly in her possession and a maze of financial transactions through apparently inter-connected bank accounts. There were attempts to subvert the trial in Tamil Nadu under the AIADMK regime and the Supreme Court was forced to transfer it to Karnataka. After other twists and turns, the voluminous judgment of the Special Court in Bengaluru, >sentencing her and her three associates to a four-year prison term and hefty fines, appeared to have succeeded in bringing to book a political leader who had faced several charges in the last two decades but had overcome most of them.
The Karnataka High Court’s equally voluminous verdict, however, has overturned all the substantive findings of the trial court. In particular, Justice C.R. Kumaraswamy has drastically revised the quantum of ‘disproportionate’ assets from the trial judge’s estimation of Rs.53.60 crore to a mere Rs.2.82 crore. This amount exceeded their known income of Rs.34.76 crore by just 8.12 per cent. And, applying a Supreme Court ruling that permitted a 10 per cent difference between one’s known income and estimated expenditure, the High Court acquitted her of the charge. Several questions arise from the outcome of the appeal, the most serious one of all being the fate of the trial court’s findings that many documents and testimony that the defence relied on were not genuine. A layman is likely to be confused by the acquittal order after it appeared convincingly established that there was no genuine explanation for the maze of bank transactions involving the four accused and their companies. It would take a particularly credulous society to believe that the acquisition spree involving these firms and the ease with which they took loans and foreclosed them, obtained gifts and bought up property and shares were all above board. In view of the huge divergence that is apparent in the findings of the trial court and the High Court, it is vital that this matter be taken to the Supreme Court for an authoritative pronouncement on the issues involved. The highest court’s last word on this issue would be a crucial acknowledgment of the intensity of public concern over probity of politicians in high office.
… and the way forward Now that the conviction is set aside, Ms. Jayalalithaa can return as Chief Minister with complete political and moral authority. Since she stepped down as Chief Minister following the conviction in September last, the Tamil Nadu government has been in a state of total stagnation. Shockingly, the conviction of Ms. Jayalalithaa and the appeal which should have been seen as addressing a question of accountability was turned into a crisis of governance. Under O. Panneerselvam, who was more intent on expressing his loyalty to Ms. Jayalalithaa than on demonstrating his administrative efficiency, the government was directionless when it was not stagnant. Clearances were delayed and projects came to a standstill. Chennai Metro Rail became a metaphor for the inert government, apparently kept waiting for Ms. Jayalalithaa to return as Chief Minister before beginning service. At every level of the government, the effort seemed to be to portray Ms. Jayalalithaa as the super-efficient leader without whom things could not move in Tamil Nadu. What the State witnessed in the last eight months was a deliberately inflicted policy paralysis intended to serve as a daily reminder to the people of the State of the high costs of keeping Ms. Jayalalithaa out of the government. No one expected Mr. Panneerselvam to run the government without any guidance from Ms. Jayalalithaa. After all, the mandate in 2011 was for Ms. Jayalalithaa, and Mr. Panneerselvam was hand-picked by her as a stopgap successor. However, what is regrettable is that the State has lost critical time in meeting development targets and reaching out for investments in key economic sectors. As it turns out, Mr. Panneerselvam appears to have played just a waiting game, losing valuable governing time in his eight months in office.
In her new innings, the AIADMK chief will be expected to fast-track the welfare measures she had begun in 2011, and speed up several long-delayed infrastructure and development projects. While there can be no way to make up for the time already lost, her government still has another year before the next election to implement her election promises and put Tamil Nadu on an upward curve on the growth and development charts. Having said this, we hope that Ms. Jayalalithaa will indeed strive in all earnest to take Tamil Nadu forward to a new stage of development and prosperity.