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The return of Amma: Will Karnataka play party pooper?

Last updated on: May 20, 2015 14:25 IST

The Karnataka government is divided over filing an appeal in the Supreme Court against the acquittal of former Tamil Nadu chief minister. N Sathiya Moorthy analyses the possibilities  

A supporter of Jayalalithaa celebrates in Chennai after her acquittal. Photograph: Reuters

The media is abuzz with reports that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo Jayalalithaa is likely to return as Tamil Nadu chief minister on Saturday. But can the state government in neighbouring Karnataka, ruled by the rival Congress, try and stall the process, and thus her progress?

After remaining near-incommunicado for months after being granted bail, and days after Justice C R Kumaraswamy of the Karnataka high court acquitted her in the disproportionate assets case, Jayalalithaa is scheduled to make her first public appearance on Friday -- to garland the statues of Dravidian veterans, her mentor the late M G Ramachandran, C N Annadurai and Periyar E V Ramaswamy Naicker.

As AIADMK general secretary, Jayalalithaa has called a legislature party meeting later in the day. The speculation is that the MLAs would re-elect her chief minister after incumbent O Panneerselvam stepped down.

A former Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, K Rosaiah is one of the few governors appointed by the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government, to have survived in the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance dispensation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ahead of the legislature party meeting, P Vetrivel, AIADMK member of the assembly from R K Nagar constituency in Chennai, has resigned. As coincidence would have it, Vetrivel came to the AIADMK from the Congress, through the now-revived Tamil Maanila Congress, when the late G K Moopanar founded it ahead of the 1996 elections.

According to news reports, Vetrivel resigned on Sunday and interestingly, Speaker P Dhanapal accepted it the very day, despite it being a public holiday. The resignation had triggered speculation that Amma was still keeping her options open about returning as chief minister. According to this theory, she would first contest a by-election and return to power with the attestation of the TN voters even if only in a single constituency, not the entire state. Jaya’s weekend statement that she would return to power at the appropriate time seemed to fuel such a thought.

Vetri’s R K Nagar seat is considered a ‘safe seat’ for the AIADMK, the party having won it five times in recent rounds, three of them in a row. The AIADMK won the seat for the first time in 1977, also the first poll after the creation of the party and the constituency. Film-comedian the late ‘Isari’ Velan defeated Congress veteran T N Anantanayaki at the time.

Either way, the chances of early elections to the state assembly due by April next year may be ruled out.

But the big question remains. Whenever Jayalalithaa tries to return as chief minister, now or later, will the Karnataka government stall her progress by appealing against the high court verdict?

Karnataka CM K Siddaramaiah has been quoted as saying that they would take a decision after considering all factors and after seeking legal opinion from all quarters. Indications are that an active group within the government maybe inclined to appeal, after the Karnataka HC was caught in a series of controversies during the chequered career of the case. There are others in the cabinet who have expressed reservations against the appeal. Senior Minister M K Shivakumar is the most vocal of them.

The Karnataka government acquired locus standi in the case after a three-judge Supreme Court bench unanimously ruled that it alone had the authority to appoint a special public prosecutor in the appeal case before the HC. For the Karnataka government to stall Jaya’s return to power, it has to first decide on challenging the verdict in the top court.  

It would also have to make a specific submission for a restraining order to ensure that the Tamil Nadu governor does not to swear in Jayalalithaa as chief minister until the final disposal of the appeal in the Supreme Court. Given the peculiarity of Karnataka’s involvement in the case, the SC can also consider revisiting the state’s locus standi afresh, particularly in the context of its right to appeal without a specific direction/clearance from it.

The earlier processes of trial and SSP appointment(s) flowed from an SC order when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam sought a transfer after Jaya had returned as state chief minister in 2011. Throughout the case and at every stage and venue, the defence had argued ‘political vendetta’ as among the major causes for the initiation of the investigation and prosecution. Justice Kumaraswamy found substance in the arguments.

Against this background, Karnataka might fight shy, both in legal and political terms, particularly in seeking a stay on Jaya’s return before the final disposal of its appeal, if moved. At the same time, her coming back to power could also provide enough ammunition for DMK General Secretary K Anbazhagan, the original petitioner in the ‘transfer case’, to seek a similar stay.

Anbazhagan’s transfer plea was based on the argument that with Jaya back at the helm and also her holding the all-important home portfolio, in charge of the police investigations in the case, the same person had become both the accused and the prosecutor. The apex court had found substance in the case.

In the more recent intervention by Anbazhagan, challenging the TN government’s appointment of G Bhavani Singh as SPP to argue the appeal case in the high court, the Supreme Court has, in a way, upheld his right in the matter.

On the day Justice Kumaraswamy pronounced his verdict, Subramanian Swamy declared that he would move the appeal if the Karnataka government did not do so.

However, the Supreme Court had cleared Anbazhagan and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, then heading the now-defunct Janata Party who was the original initiator of the TN investigations, only to ‘assist’ the prosecution as ‘interested parties’. This could imply that the two cannot move the SC until the Karnataka government had made its decision known. For that to happen, the state has 90 days from the day Justice Kumaraswamy pronounced the verdict on May 11.

In such a scenario, after the conclusion of 90 days, Anbazhagan and/or Swamy might have to include the state of Karnataka too as an appellant, if by then the state government had not preferred an appeal. Or, can either or both of them move the SC without having to wait for Karnataka’s decision?

Before the Supreme Court takes up the appeal case against Justice Kumaraswamy’s verdict, it might have to rule on maintainability issues. Alternatively, the Supreme Court could rule on Jayalalithaa’s assumption of chief minister’s post, or continuance thereof -- if she had done so already, or intended doing so.

In 2001, after the then TN Governor Fatima Beevi had sworn in Jayalalithaa as chief minister for a second time, pending her conviction and sentencing in the TANSI land deal case, the SC held her assumption of office void ab initio. The court held that anyone disqualified from contesting to become a member of the state assembly by virtue of a pending conviction and consequent sentencing could not be considered to be elevated chief minister or a minister.

It’s another matter that the SC acquitted Jaya in the land deal case not long after. She returned to power only after winning an assembly seat from Andipatti that she had once held -- and so had party founder and her mentor, the late MGR.

The Supreme Court is now on the annual summer recess till June 30. It remains to be seen if a vacation bench, if moved either by the Karnataka government for others, may want to treat such petitions as an ‘urgent matter’ for them to hear, if not dispose of them.

Already, some private citizens have reportedly moved the SC for restraining Jaya from being sworn in as chief minister, particularly in the light of the ‘mathematical error’ perceived in Justice Kumaraswamy’s verdict. Of them, ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy, known better for preferring the public interest litigation on traffic rules and building violations on main thoroughfares, has had his petition against Jaya’s assumption of office, ‘numbered’ and thus readied by the SC registry. He has cited the mathematical error in the acquittal verdict as the main cause for the SC to revisit the case.

Tamil Nadu’s political party leaders, including those from the Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, have submitted memoranda to Governor Rosaiah in the matter. Indications are that the governor’s role too could be sought to be brought under the judicial scanner, if it came to that.

Again, it might be for the SC vacation bench to take a call, but only if the AIADMK legislature party were to take the expected decision early on, and Jaya were then to stake claim to forming a government, as soon as possible.

Whether or not Jaya becomes chief minister now, an early by-poll to the R K Nagar constituency could be a testing ground for the Opposition to see if they could at all unite, to give the ruling party a tough fight in the state assembly polls not very long after.

At sixes and seven until recently, particularly with conflicting ambitions over chief ministerial nominations, the DMK, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the PMK, not to leave out state Congress, Communist Party of India and CPI-Marxist leaders, have all come together on the need for the Karnataka government to go in appeal to the SC.

After hedging and challenging during the run-up to the Kumaraswamy verdict, the divided Opposition seems to be coming closer, if not electorally at least on the sole issue of the verdict.

DMK treasurer and heir-apparent M K Stalin has been meeting Opposition bosses from the PMK, MDMK, Congress, BJP and the Tamil Maanila Congress, to invite them for a family wedding. He did not leave out Subramanian Swamy, an eternal trouble-maker, either.

The state BJP, possibly taking a cue from Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating Jaya on phone on the night of the verdict, has done a quick about-turn, and begun praising her. And Tamil Maanila Congress leader G K Vasan has the fond hope of the AIADMK admitting his party as an electoral ally and help it win a few seats in the state assembly.

In the interim, Jayalalithaa’s sweeping victory in the by-election, if she was to contest one, is assured, however.

The Election Commission may have the freedom to not hold the by-election, if the six-month window falls closer to the time state assembly polls. The chances of this happening would be even more if Jayalalithaa were not inclined to contest any by-election (which in turn would be known conclusively, if and only if the EC notified the by-election in the first place).

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy in Chennai