The uncertainty over the political future of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has returned at least partially on Tuesday with the commencement of the hearing of the disproportionate asset case against her in the Supreme Court. Reportedly, senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, appearing against her, told the court earlier on Tuesday that he would take three days to finish his arguments.
The AIADMK supporters and leaders are apparently not worried and believe that their leader will be exonerated. Tweets emanating from the SC said that Dave has told the court that Jaya and the three other accused in the case have conspired to make Rs 55 crore by misusing government office, which is the crux of the case.
It’s absolutely impossible to speculate which way the final verdict will go. Jaya had appeared to be literally on the precipice last May before the Karnataka High Court acquitted her in the case. The opposition, particularly the DMK, as well as the prosecution had thought that they had a strong case and hence were surprised. Subsequently, the DMK and the mainstream media came out with charges of arithmetic errors in the judgement which they said had led to the conclusion that Jaya’s unaccounted income did not exceed 10 percent of her total income, which according to an earlier decision of the Supreme Court was permissible.
In fact, it was mainly this argument, which demonstrated that her unaccounted income was within the 10 percent limit, that got her a favourable verdict. The prosecution’s effort this time would obviously focus on these alleged errors. If this argument is accepted and the figures are corrected, her unaccounted income would exceed the 10 percent limit by a considerable margin. BV Acharya, Karnataka’s prosecutor in the case, as well as Subramanian Swamy, the original complainant, also had advanced the same argument while pressing for an appeal against the HC verdict.
The hearing in the Supreme Court is the final stage of a case that dragged on for about 20 years. After a trial that dramatically lasted 18 years, which even saw the stage being shifted to Bengaluru thereby bringing the state of Karnataka into the picture, a local court had found her guilty in September 2014. It had led to a short period of imprisonment, disqualification as the chief minister, and her disappearance from active public life for nearly eight months. However, on 11 May, the Karnataka High Court acquitted her from all the charges and she returned to the office of the chief minister 12 days later.
Although the AIADMK leaders and cadres are seemingly unconcerned, a reversal of the high court verdict by the SC can be a lethal blow to Jaya, particularly with assembly elections round the corner. Politically, she looks quite formidable with hardly any visible anti-incumbency wave and the opposition in total disarray.
Compared to her past tenures, the last five years saw a major focus on welfare and social protection. Periodic market interventions to stabilise prices, food security measures and a slew of other social welfare schemes covering a wide range of issues, and siding with the poor have helped her retain her core vote bank of women and the poor. The DMK, the principal opposition party, on the other hand, has been ineffective in finding the chinks in her armer and launch any worthwhile attack. The did turn up on the streets and on media, but too feebly and too infrequently. Actor turned-politician Vijayakanth of the DMDK, her ally during the last elections and a present political foe, tried much more than the DMK, but had been burdened by defamation cases and lack of a coherent strategy.
Therefore at a time, where the dice is clearly loaded in her favour, a bad Supreme Court verdict can upset everything for Jaya. Last time, when she had to keep away from the office following the trial court verdict, there was always the chance of coming back. However, this time the decision - whichever way it goes - will be final. If a verdict chucks her out of the fray, it can certainly create some kind of disruption and vacuum in AIADMK because there is no meaningful second line leadership in the party.
Nobody knows if there is even a succession plan, in case she meets with an adverse verdict. All that one hears in Chennai and in local media are rumours and pure speculation because practically nothing leaks out of her inner circle. Most of the rumours in the recent past, including her serious ill-health, have turned out to be unreliable.
Instinctively, both Poes Garden watchers and veteran AIADMK specialists, speculate that Jaya’s associate Sasikala might be the natural successor. Some even suggest that she is likely to contest the assembly election from a southern district. It may be recalled that a few years ago, Jaya had expelled Sasikala from her residence, while rumours were rife that the latter and her family were plotting to usurp power - that too in connection with the same wealth case.
In the midst of all this, Jaya seems to be belligerent. A few days ago, she released a six page statement attacking Karnataka government for its appeal against the HC verdict. She invoked Article 162 and said it was an “interference in the internal affairs of Tamil Nadu”. She said, with choosing to appeal, Karnataka also violated federalism laid down in the Constitution.
Given the timing of the statement, it’s safe to surmise that her defence in the SC will lay considerable emphasis on this legality - whether Karnataka has the locus standi to appeal at all. “Karnataka has no legislative power in respect of the affairs of the State of Tamil Nadu and consequently has no power to prosecute the alleged offender in the Supreme Court for offences committed in Tamil Nadu against the State of Tamil Nadu,” she said. A major part of her political future depends on how the Supreme Court interprets this point of view.
Even if the SC agrees with Karnataka’s question of jurisdiction in the case, both Karunanidhi and Subramanian can step in and stake their locus standi because the SC itself had supported it twice. More over, Subramanian Swamy has a right to appeal as the original complainant.
In fact, when the Karnataka High Court pronounced the order last year, the ruling Congress and the state government were apparently in two minds whether to contest the order or not. While the special public prosector in the case, BV Acharya, who was re-inducted at the last minute, wanted the government to go on appeal, the legal cell of the Congress unit in the state opposed his suggestion. The government too apparently thought itself as a non-stakeholder, a point Jaya has harped on.
However, what seems to have prevailed over the initial reluctance of the Karnataka government is the all-round opposition from the Congress and other parties in Tamil Nadu, and jurists across the country. They all thought that the case was fit enough for appeal because the high court verdict allegedly based itself on wrong financial figures - that the numbers and the reason for her acquittal did not match. Former finance minister and Congress leader P Chidamabaram had openly supported the demand. He had said that Acharya was right in his opinion. Besides Acharya, the Advocate General of Karnataka also had given a strong written opinion suggesting an appeal.
At the time of the appeal, there were also some reports which suggested that the Congress high command - means Sonia Gandhi - favoured it. The party will now be happy because it’s its last chance gain some political space, let alone oust Jaya. It has already tied up with the DMK and will do everything possible to brand her corrupt.
The Supreme Court had promised day-to-day hearing on the case and the coming days will be crucial for both Jaya and the opposition, particularly the DMK and the Congress.