"The governor is bound to go by the decision of the cabinet.''
Tamil Nadu fisheries minister D Jayakumar's comment after the cabinet meeting that recommended the release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, was significant. On the face of it, he was stating the constitutional position. But without much subtlety, Jayakumar was also reminding Governor Banwarilal Purohit that he has no other option.
Under Article 161 of the Constitution, the President of India and the governors of states have been given the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute sentences. The question is whether the power is vested entirely in the president and the governor allowing him to disagree with a recommendation made by the government, or whether he simply has to sign on the dotted line.
In normal cases, the governor would have simply gone with the cabinet recommendation. But the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case is far more sensitive and high-profile. The NDA government on more than one occasion, the latest being 10 August, has made it clear that it is not in favour of releasing the seven convicts. The BJP argument has been that it was an international conspiracy, five of the seven are Sri Lankan nationals, it is a question of national security and most importantly, it will set a wrong precedent.
There is also the view that the case cannot be about Rajiv Gandhi alone. Though Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi have taken a sympathetic position on the killers of their father, 14 other people also died in the bomb blast and the sentiments of the kin of those who were killed, too need to be taken into account. Those killed included Congress leaders and policemen who were at the spot.
In 2014, former chief minister J Jayalalithaa had announced in the Tamil Nadu Assembly that her government will ensure the release of the convicts irrespective of the Centre's opinion in the matter. After AG Perarivalan, one of the convicts, filed a mercy petition in 2015 before the governor, Jayalalithaa the following year once again reiterated that her government was ready to release the convicts.
Why the Tamil Nadu cabinet once again recommended the release now is because the Supreme Court on 6 September, lobbed the ball back into the governor's court, stating that under Article 161 of the Constitution, he has the powers to grant pardon.
What will Governor Purohit do now? Given that he knows that the Centre and the state are not on the same page on the case, it is highly unlikely that he will go purely by the recommendation of the Tamil Nadu cabinet. He is certain to ask the Ministry of Home Affairs for an opinion and if its word to the apex court is anything to go by, Governor Purohit will be asked to reject the recommendation. This will mean Perarivalan and the others will once again seek a judicial review of the Governor's decision. Apart from Perarivalan, the other convicts are Nalini, Murugan, Robert Payas, Santhan, Ravichandran and Jayakumar.
All the political parties in Tamil Nadu, barring the BJP, are in favour of the release of the convicts. Privately, the BJP is worried that it will be branded an anti-Tamil party because of its stand on the matter. Its argument, though, is that it is taking a more nationalistic view than looking at the issue only through the prism of Tamil Nadu.
The AIADMK and the DMK argue that India should take a more humanitarian position. The convicts have spent 27 years behind bars and can be given a chance to taste freedom. Perarivalan for instance, was charged with supplying a 9-volt battery which was allegedly used for the belt bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others on the night of 21 May 1991 in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. The belt bomb was triggered by Dhanu, the woman suicide bomber of the LTTE at an election rally. Perarivalan, who is 47 years old now, has maintained that he was not aware of the purpose of the battery and those sympathetic to him argue he has already paid a heavy price for that one mistake.
What are the political implications of such a move? In both the 2014 and 2016 elections, the AIADMK did exceedingly well and though there is no evidence to suggest that Jayalalithaa's decision on the Rajiv killers had anything to do with the victories, Edappadi Palaniswami wants to emulate his late leader's move. Two, of late, in Tuticorin and on the issue of the Salem-Chennai expressway, the state has been accused of using strong-arm tactics and taking an anti-people position. The decision on the convicts is Palaniswami's attempt to show a softer side. The question is whether people will buy into it.
For the past year and a half, the impression has gained ground that the BJP is indulging in back-seat driving. This cabinet resolution will count as an AIADMK attempt to stand up to the BJP. It will also send a message to the BJP that with Lok Sabha elections just eight months away, the dynamics of the BJP-AIADMK equation need to change. While the BJP has used the agencies to keep the AIADMK under control, politically, the saffron party will need to lean on the Dravidian outfit at election time.
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