A general election looms next month just as two cases involving Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa enter a crucial phase, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
A criminal court in Chennai has directed Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to appear before it on April 3, 2014 for the framing of charges in an income-tax case.
Meanwhile a court in Bengaluru has directed public prosecutor Bhavani Singh to commence his final arguments in the ‘wealth case’ against her forthwith and without any delay.
The Bengaluru case is closer to the finish technically. But a Supreme Court order of January has directed the Chennai court to finish the long-pending case within four months.
Jayalalithaa’s cases have been heard in fits and starts over the past decade and a half. The Supreme Court has recently set a one-year deadline for trial courts to complete criminal cases against sitting MPs and MLAs in the country.
In Jayalalithaa’s case, the alleged crime dates back to her first term in office (1991-96).
It’s another matter that in the equally sensational TANSI land-deal case, the Supreme Court finally exonerated Jayalalithaa of any wrong-doing, though she had to step down as chief minister pending a judicial clearance in 2001.
On Thursday, March 20, the Chennai judicial magistrate ordered Jayalalithaa and her live-in confidante, Sasikala Natarajan, to appear without fail on April 3, for recording their initial statements in the charges framed against her. The ruling AIADMK promptly re-scheduled her poll campaign, to include a programme for her on that day.
In the past, too, in the Bengaluru court, lawyers for Jayalalithaa had sought adjournments citing her chief ministerial schedule and poll campaigns, as valid reason.
With the Supreme Court mandating a four-month deadline, due to conclude in mid-May, it remains to be seen if either the trial court, or the high court or even the Supreme Court, in that order, will entertain any plea for further adjournments of the case.
In the Bengaluru case, which is at a very advanced stage, the Supreme Court had ordered speedy disposal a decade ago.
The defence had gone in appeal with interlocutory petitions, to the very court, and returned with favourable or not-so-favourable orders.
The case was moved to Bengaluru after the DMK had moved the judiciary against the trial continuing in Tamil Nadu with Jayalalithaa as chief minister (2001-06).
The DMK had initiated the ‘corruption case’ while in power (1996-2001). The proceedings did not move far owing also to the interlocutory petitions.
Three judges have heard the case in the Bengaluru special court, and a fourth one is now hearing the case.
The public prosecutor had stated openly that he was coming under political pressure, and had quit. Bhavani Singh, the present PP, who is the third in a row, was reinstated on the orders of the Supreme Court after the Karnataka Government replaced him. He had been removed after DMK general secretary K Anbazhagan had moved the Karnataka high court seeking his removal for being biased.
It is not unlikely that Bhavani Singh will move the Supreme Court, after the trial judge ordered Rs 65,000 daily fee as for his non-participation in the case recently.
On an earlier occasion, Singh had contested the defence demand for commencing the final arguments, as under the Criminal Procedure Code, the prosecution ordinarily has the right in this regard.
It is unclear if the trial court will countenance what the judge has openly declared as ‘delaying tactics’, unless specifically directed by a higher court to stay the proceedings until the order on Singh’s contesting the penalty levied on him (if he contest it) is cleared
The law does not provide for delays of the kind, intended or otherwise. Hence it is not clear if the trial judge could go ahead and complete the trial, and pronounce the verdict.
The local media has mostly been looking the other way. And so too the otherwise loud national media, which has been more vocal about corruption cases in other states – for example, Lalu Yadav, Mayawati and Congress ministers at the Centre.
With elections throughout the state slated for April 24, it remains to be seen how much attention Jayalalithaa gets as the cases against her reach fruition,
N Sathiya Moorthy is a veteran journalist and political analyst, and is at present Director, Observer Research Foundation (Chennai Chapter)