TAMIL NADU

Another legal victory

IN A WAY, Ms. Jayalalithaa could not have asked for more. Her second legal victory, in the coal import deal case, has come less than a month after she was judicially absolved by the Madras High Court in the TANSI and Pleasant Stay Hotel cases. Her acquittal by a Special Court in the coal import case may not have been wholly unexpected, given the twists and turns that took place during the trial proceedings. But the verdict is of considerable political significance in the existing circumstances. An adverse ruling could have posed all manner of problems for Ms. Jayalalithaa who, at this sensitive political juncture, is banking on contesting and winning an Assembly byelection and then reclaiming the Tamil Nadu chief ministership, which she believes is rightfully hers.

With the coal import case out of her way, the path to Fort St. George has been swept almost clear. The awkward and challenging legal obstacles - which have dogged her over the past few months and resulted in her having to relinquish the chief ministerial chair - have vanished. The only remaining hurdle appears in the relatively much less intimidating form of an Assembly byelection. With the Election Commission notifying February 21 as the date on which byelections to three Tamil Nadu Assembly constituencies will be held, the AIADMK chief - who will almost certainly contest from Andipatti, from where her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran stood and won - has only a short wait before attempting to achieve her immediate political goal.

Just as in the TANSI and the Pleasant Stay Hotel cases, the acquittal in the coal case too has been total and unqualified. All those accused in the case - who include one of Ms. Jayalalithaa's erstwhile Cabinet Ministers, two former Chief Secretaries and a clutch of other bureaucrats - have been exonerated, with the court rejecting the basic charge that there was a conspiracy over the coal import. The Special Court upheld the defence's contention that imports were necessary in the public interest and ruled that it was not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had gained pecuniary advantage through illegal or corrupt means. In comparison with the other corruption cases filed against Ms. Jayalalithaa, the coal case has a peculiar or distinctive history. She was discharged in the case as early as mid-1999 by a special judge, a decision which was upheld by the Madras High Court. However, on the basis of appeals, the Supreme Court rejected her discharge from the case and ordered a retrial.

Having already taken such a complex judicial course, the retrial was characterised by the extraordinary spectacle of a string of prosecution witnesses turning hostile after Ms. Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister, following the AIADMK's stunning electoral victory in mid-2001. Most important in this context was the absolute and unreserved volte-face by a former IAS officer, who was the prosecution's star witness in the case. It would be unfair to presume that guilt would have been established or even that the verdict would have been substantially different if it were not for these unexpected twists and turns. Particularly, with respect to Ms. Jayalalithaa who had already been discharged twice before in the coal case. But the string of volte-faces and U-turns do highlight, in a stark and compelling fashion, the abnormality of a situation in which the State was attempting to prosecute an accused who was (then) Chief Minister. Such situations are as dangerous to the cause of justice as persecution and foisting of cases by a political opponent. Both engender cynicism in the public mind about the manner in which justice is rendered.