February 13, 2017 12:02:45 am
Even as V K Sasikala continues the battle with O Panneerselvam to become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the whip could well lie in the hands of the Supreme Court, which can either demolish or propel her chances. The court is likely to deliver this week its judgment in the corruption case against former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa,in which Sasikala is a co-accused. Conviction by the apex court will tilt the balance decisively towards Panneerselvam, while an acquittal can fortify Sasikala’s claims.
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What is the case?
The case goes back to 1996, to a time soon after Jayalalithaa lost power for the first time. It was alleged that as Chief Minister from 1991to 1996, Jayalalithaa had conspired with three co-accused — Sasikala, Sasikala’s sister-in-law Ilavarasi, and Sasikala’s nephew V N Sudhakaran (Jayalalithaa’s “foster son”) — to acquire assets to the tune of Rs 66.65 crore, which was disproportionate to her known sources of income. According to the prosecution, while Jayalalithaa was the prime accused, the other three abetted the offence by acting as benami owners of 32 private firms. It was alleged that Jayalalithaa spent crores of rupees on renovations and constructions and on her foster son’s wedding, and that she possessed huge amounts of jewellery.
How did the trial proceed?
In 1997, a special judge in Chennai issued summons to Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Sudhakaran and Ilavarasi, and charged them under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act. The accused denied the allegations and trial began with the recording of evidence.
After Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001, DMK general secretary K Anbazhagan moved the Supreme Court asking that the case be transferred out of Tamil Nadu — a plea that the court granted in November 2003.A special court was set up in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) to ensure a free and fair trial, which commenced afresh.
In September 2014, the special court convicted all four accused under the IPC and Prevention of Corruption Act. Jayalalithaa was sentenced to 4 years’ simple imprisonment and fined Rs 100 crore; Sasikala, Sudhakaran and Ilavarasi were given similar jail terms and fined Rs 10 crore each. After her conviction, Jayalalithaa stepped down as CM — she was automatically disqualified for the post and for the membership of the legislative Assembly under the Representation of the People Act. She nominated Panneerselvam, her Finance Minister, as her successor.
Panneerselvam was sworn in as CM in September 2014. He had held the post once earlier for 6 months in 2001-02 in the wake of Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the TANSI land case.
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What happened in the High Court?
In May 2015, Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and the other two co-accused were acquitted of all charges. The Karnataka HC expressed the view that the prosecution had “mixed up”the assets of the accused, firms and companies, and had also added the cost of construction (Rs 27.8 crore) and marriage expenses (Rs 6.45 crore) to arrive at the figure of Rs 66.45 crore. The judge noted that the percentage of disproportionate assets was just 8.12%, whereas an SC ruling had held that in case of disproportionate assets up to 10%, the accused were entitled to be acquitted.
“The disproportionate asset is less than 10% and it is within permissible limit. Therefore, accused are entitled for acquittal. When the principal accused (Jayalalithaa) has been acquitted, the other accused, who have played a lesser role, are also entitled for acquittal,” HC judge C R Kumaraswamy said. After the acquittal, Jayalalithaa returned to power as Chief Minister.
How did the case go to the Supreme Court?
The Karnataka government challenged the order of acquittal in the top court and sought revival of the conviction. It disputed the calculations of the HC judge, and sought to establish that the quantum of assets disproportionate to their known sources of income was adequate to fetch conviction under the Prevention of Corruption Act. In June 2016, a Bench of Justices P C Ghose and Amitava Roy reserved its verdict on the appeals against the HC order. However, while the decision remained pending, Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5.
What happens now that Jayalalithaa is dead?
According to well-settled legal principles, the criminal proceedings against Jayalalithaa would abate under Section 394 of the Criminal Procedure Code. However, there is nothing in law that prevents the court from recording its findings on the aspect of criminal conspiracy against Sasikala and the two other co-accused on the basis of facts and evidence in the case, and this may very well mention Jayalalithaa’s role to an extent as well.
In case the Supreme Court sets aside the acquittal order and convicts Sasikala and the others, it will deliver a blow to her chances of becoming CM. Since she is not an MLA, she would need to win an election within 6 months of taking over as CM — but a conviction will not only disqualify her immediately, but will also debar her from contesting elections for 6 years from the date of release from prison.
There is another possibility. The SC can refer the case back to the Karnataka HC for deciding it afresh on merits, and to also determine whether appeals should be heard afresh since the prime accused is no more.
Should the SC set aside the HC order and not stay the conviction by the trial court, Sasikala may be automatically disqualified.
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