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Jaya verdict: The Rs 100-crore question about 2016

Last updated on: September 28, 2014 09:44 IST

Given the history of the trial proceedings, and the documents that the judges and lawyers in the appeal courts have to read at every stage, Jayalalithaa's bail plea, when moved, will take time to be decided, placing a question mark over the AIADMK's electoral prospects in 2016, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

At least some of the spontaneous and sporadic violence accompanying the Bangalore case verdict against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in her native state could have been avoided if the media -- both national and regional -- had not delayed preparing her party cadres and the rest of the population, the latter across the country, until it became embarrassingly unavoidable.

Not one of the 'national' television news channels reported the case even on August 26, when Special Court Judge Michael A D'Cunha reserved judgment in the case that had dragged on for 17 long years -- seeing scores of lawyers and judges, and transfer of a pending case in the Chennai court to neighbouring Karnataka.

It was only one of the two directives of the Supreme Court. As for the apex court's direction to speed up the trial, every appeals court passed interim orders from time to time, whose effect was only to delay the case, at every turn.

Suffice to point out that the case involved close to 250 interlocutory petitions, many of which went up to the Supreme Court, which also passed specific orders, without directing the defendants to return with the final order of the trial court.

At the end of the day, Jayalalithaa and her three co-accused -- confidante Sasikala Natarajan, the latter's sister-in-law Illavarasi and and their nephew and Jaya's estranged foster-son, V N Sudhaharan -- may have only added to their verdict-related woes by delaying the proceedings.

Between the time the disproportionate assets case was filed in 1997 and now, the mood of the Indian voter, including those in Tamil Nadu, had changed over meting out punishment to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

It is possible that Jaya might have escaped with lighter punishment if she had not protested answering 'Section 313 questions' when required originally before a Chennai judge and not delayed it until it became unavoidable and also became a media event, that too in the Bangalore court.

It is possible she might not have had to sit out the Dussehra vacation for the Karnataka high court in prison, before being possibly able to file for bail or suspension of sentence and quashing of the conviction order, if she had not moved a last-minute petition on security for self in court, after Judge D'Cunha had fixed September 20 for the verdict.

It is only in rare cases that the appeals court would consider suspending the conviction, even while granting bail -- which implies only the suspension of the sentence handed out by the trial court.

In the TANSI case, also involving Jayalalithaa in 2001, the Supreme Court unseated her as chief minister, citing the same reason. In more recent cases, the apex court has ruled that a legislator would statutorily lose her/his seat once a corruption case is proved against her/him.

If Jaya had stood trial and allowed it to proceed with the case without hitches in 1997, she might have escaped the subsequent amendment to the Representation of People Act, making it that conviction under anti-corruption law was enough for disqualification -- without a minimum two-year prison term, as used to be the case, earlier.

Judge D'Cunha has sentenced Jaya and the rest to four years' imprisonment, and fined her Rs 100 crores (Rs 1 billion) and the rest Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) each. This is the first time that any court in India has fixed such a high fine for any accused in any case.

In the normal course, an accused's bail application will be considered only after they deposit the fine amount in the trial court. The courts may have to make an exception in this case, considering the quantum, if Jaya were to obtain bail.

It also remains to be seen how Jaya is able to pay up such a huge fine, from cash or property surrender, for obtaining bail.

Other questions also remain. If and when bail is granted, will Jaya be ordered to stay put under the jurisdiction of the Karnataka high court, and not being allowed to work out of Chennai?

This could mean problems for Jayalalithaa remote-controlling a shadow chief minster when she is away. It is unlike in the past, when a non-minister in O Pannerselvam found himself in the chief minister's seat after her conviction in the TANSI case, ahead of the 2001 assembly polls.

In that case, when the Supreme Court unseated her, the case was pending final verdict on her appeal for months. The apex court acquitted her in three or four months. She returned to power, after formally winning an assembly seat a couple of months later.

In the present case, the bail pleas and appeals against the trial court verdict are yet to be moved. Given the convoluted history of the trial proceedings, and the documents that judges and lawyers in the appeal courts have to read at every stage, it is going to take time.

For now, however, it is about a successor to Jayalalithaa -- and no one but her seems to have any clue at all. Itmi s possible that her choice for an interim CM too might not have known that s/he is the chosen one -- just as ministers under Jayalalithaa and her mentor-predecessor, the late M G Ramachandran, often got to know about their nomination from All India Radio/Doordarshan!

But the Rs 100 crore question is: Can such a CM lead the party to a repeat of its unprecedented electoral victory in 2014 in the assembly polls of 2016 -- assuming that Jayalalithaa is not out and in TN to lead the AIADMK poll campaign?

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation.

N Sathiya Moorthy