By G Pramod Kumar
Two years ago, when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa decided to release all the seven convicts of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case serving jail terms in Tamil Nadu, it aroused considerable hope and excitement. But, when she does a repeat of the same move now, the general response is that of scepticism and indifference.
In February 2014, what Jaya attempted was a masterstroke: as soon as the Supreme Court (SC) commuted to life the death sentence of three convicts in the case, who were in jail along with four others for more than 20 years, she seized the opportunity and decided to remit the jail terms of all the seven. However, the Centre, because the CBI under its jurisdiction had investigated the case and prosecuted the convicts, blocked her decision in the SC.
The apex court in December 2015 said that Tamil Nadu couldn't take such a decision without the Centre’s concurrence. The SC added that the state also had to seek the opinion of the court which had sentenced the convicts. What also made Jaya’s decision untenable was the opinion of the SC that in the case of concurrent jurisdiction, the Centre had primacy over the state. In other words, Tamil Nadu couldn't release the convicts without the concurrence of the Centre. And thus, her decision was nothing but mere wish.
That's precisely why MDMK’s Vaiko, who had hailed Jaya’s 2014 decision as “bold and historic” dubbed the latest attempt as a “gimmick”. According to him, as well as the lawyer of Nalini, one of the convicts, she should have used Article 161 of the Constitution by passing a cabinet resolution and sending it to the Governor. Dalit leader Thol Thirumavalavan of VCK and the CPM state secretary G Ramakrishnan also said that Jaya should have got them released under Article 161.
However, with the SC verdict of December 2015 in which it spelled out three clear points such as the Centre’s supremacy, the opinion of the court that convicted the people concerned, and the duration of the life term, this possibility is not water-tight and is open to legal debate. In fact, the SC even said that commuting death penalty to life doesn’t mean that the convicts’ jail terms can be remitted. "It has now come to stay that when in exceptional cases, death penalty is altered as life sentence, it would only mean rest of one's life-span,” the court said.
So, for the moment, the only significance of Jaya’s renewed effort is political. She wants to show the people of Tamil Nadu that she cares for the Tamil cause. But unlike last time, her possibilities are limited and she has to start from where the SC stopped her. All that she can do now is to ask the Centre to concur. To make it work for her politically, she has skilfully spun it a bit: decide to release the convicts first and then ask for the Centre’s opinion. Once again, her message to the people of Tamil Nadu will be that she has decided to release them for the second time and she is helpless if the BJP-led Centre blocks it.
By seeking the Centre’s opinion, she is asking the BJP to commit too. When she first sought to release the convicts, the government at the Centre was headed by the Congress, which obviously didn’t like the idea. However, the BJP has no emotional stake in the case and hence could support Jaya’s decision. Probably, that’s what prompted Jaya to take this gamble. If BJP really wants to exploit the situation and get some sympathy from the voters in the state, this is the time for it.
If the BJP plays along, the big loser will be the DMK because its record of intervention in either the war against Tamils in Sri Lanka or the desperate pleas of Nalini and others had been dubious. The DMK was a UPA partner at the Centre at the height of the war in Sri Lanka, but couldn’t do anything to stop the alleged genocide in the island nation despite massive outcry in the international media. Drowning in two major scams, the DMK was in no position to pull out of the UPA except throwing some preplanned tantrums. Pushed to the back foot, it either played safe or did nothing in the case of Nalini and others. In fact, Nalini had become an untouchable that everybody wanted to keep in jail perpetually. It was only Jaya, who first spoke for her.
The DMK, which is now trying to field a formidable coalition with the Congress and the DMDK in its fold, will have nothing to offer in this case. Whatever it does, or says, will be seen as political opportunism.
Meanwhile, all that Nalini and the six other convicts can do is to keep their fingers crossed and bet on BJP’s political opportunism. The BJP has nothing to lose by taking a lenient decision. On the contrary, that might win them enormous public support.
Nobody clearly knows how strong is the Tamil cause as an electoral undercurrent in the state, given that the LTTE had been vanquished seven years ago. But, Nalini certainly looks like a potent symbol of a helpless Tamil woman. She recently came out on a 12-hour parol to participate in her father’s funeral and was featured prominently in the media. What was on display was how a sprightly girl from a prestigious city college metamorphosed into a sick old woman in jail over the last 25 years. Ultimately, good emotions will trump bad emotions. If Jaya manages to get her out, it will certainly make an impact. Does BJP want to take the bait? It should, without a doubt.