Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jayaram -- who now has the dubious distinction of being the first person declared guilty under the Prevention of Corruption Act to become the head of a state government -- has a few headaches headed her way during the initial months of her tenure.
Twelve of them, actually -- in the form of 12 cases that have been slapped against her by the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime headed by Muthuvel Karunanidhi.
Besides, Jayalalitha is in one way or the other involved in 33 other cases that have been filed against her various associates, including confidante Sasikala Natrajan.
Upfront on her agenda is the TANSI case, which relates to the purchase of land and buildings belonging to the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation at prices below prevailing market rates. The real estate purchases were in the names of Jaya Publications and Sasi Enterprises, firms in which Jayalalitha and Sasikala were partners. And the estimated loss to the state exchequer was Rs 40 million.
It was Jayalalitha's conviction in the two TANSI cases and her sentencing to three years' rigorous imprisonment in October 2000 that barred her, under the provisions of the Representation of the Peoples Act, from contesting the recent assembly elections. While the Madras high court has suspended the sentence and granted her bail, the conviction stands -- and as long as it stands unchallenged, Jayalalitha cannot contest an election.
"There are many legal ways to get out of this conviction," says leading lawyer M P Gandhi. "She could approach the high court or Supreme Court, stating that the conviction be suspended, or reduced to less than two years. That will enable her to contest, since the act in question mandates that only people who have been sentenced for a period in excess of two years are debarred from contesting elections."
Legal opinion in the state is that Jayalalitha will swing it one way or the other in the TANSI case and clear the decks to enable her to contest a by-election well within the six-month deadline from her date of assuming office as chief minister.
But the same legal experts warn that she will need to expend considerable time and energy fighting the other cases. "The question really is whether having to constantly go to the courts, in one case or the other, will tarnish her reputation and image," Gandhi points out.
Other than TANSI, Jayalalitha's biggest headache is the granite quarry case. The crime branch of the state police, which investigated the allegations, named Jayalalitha as one of the prominent public servants who, together, allegedly collected Rs 390 million in return for the issue of granite quarrying licences to private companies in flagrant violation of government rules and regulations.
Former industries minister M Chinnaswamy and the chairman and managing director of Tamil Nadu Minerals Ltd, A N Dyaneswaran, are the two other prominent names linked to this case. Both were chargesheeted and have spent time in judicial custody. What remains to be seen is how convincing the case against Jayalalitha herself is -- and whether, and how, she can use her renewed political clout to wriggle out of it.
Further, the CBI is now actively probing the case relating to a donation of Rs 30 million received by Jayalalitha from abroad, in the year 1992-93. Her tax returns of the time had shown the figure as a gift, and no tax was levied. But when Tamil Maanila Congress leader P Chidambaram was finance minister in the H D Deve Gowda government, he is said to have asked the CBI to investigate the donation -- and the probe is still on.
Jayalalitha and a few of her erstwhile ministerial colleagues were, besides, convicted and sentenced for permitting the construction of a seven-storey luxury hotel in the hill resort of Kodaikanal, in violation of existing building laws. Jayalalitha appealed against the conviction, and the Supreme Court granted her a reprieve. The conviction, however, still hangs over her head.
Then there is the Rs 65 million coal import case -- again, still under investigation and yet to reach a denouement in court.
In the Rs 85 million colour TV scam, which was tried in a special court, Jayalalitha and Sasikala were acquitted. But some of her partymen, including former minister for local administration T M Selvaganapathy, are still fighting the case.
DMK leaders point out that Jayalalitha, thus, will have the dubious distinction of fighting a dozen serious corruption cases while heading a government. "With so many serious corruption cases against her, she won't be able to sustain a government for long," argues former DMK minister Arcot N Veeraswami.
"Jayalalitha is the Laloo Prasad Yadav of Tamil Nadu. But isn't it ironic that Laloo Yadav has been denied chief ministership while Jayalalitha has been given the post on a platter? The people of Tamil Nadu will not forgive Governor Fathima Beevi for the bad precedent she has created," Veeraswami told rediff.com
AIADMK leaders admit that fighting so many corruption cases could be a hindrance to the smooth functioning of the new government. "But let the law take its own course," K Kalimuthu, chairman of the AIADMK, told rediff.com "The DMK had claimed that the cases they slapped against Amma would destroy her political career. Now look whose political career has been damaged!"
Interestingly, Kalimuthu ended the conversation with a little teaser that pointed at a tit-for-tat battle in the offing. "The Jayalalitha government will weed out, and punish, the corrupt and guilty members of the Karunanidhi government," he warned.
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