Chennai, February 14, 2017
The Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered its judgement in a 20-year-old corruption case against late AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa, effectively knocking long-time aide V. K. Sasikala out of the chief ministerial race in Tamil Nadu even as the unseemly power tussle between factions led by her faction and caretaker Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam continued unabated.
SC convicts Sasikala in corruption case
The Supreme Court today delivered its judgement in a 20-year-old corruption case against late AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa, effectively knocking her long-time aide V. K. Sasikala out of the chief ministerial race in Tamil Nadu even as the unseemly power tussle between factions led by her and caretaker Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam continued unabated.
The much-awaited judgement, which came some eight months after arguments ended, has more or less ended Ms. Sasikala's political career even before it started and put paid to her chief ministerial ambitions.
The court upheld the appeal by the Karnataka government against the May 11, 2015 acquittal of Ms. Jayalalithaa, Ms. Sasikala and two others and restored the September 2014 verdict of a trial court in Bengaluru convicting the four accused in the case.
The special leave petition against Ms. Jayalalithaa's acquittal has, however, abated because of her death on December 5, 2016.
The all-important judgement, which will have a far-reaching effect on Tamil Nadu politics, was delivered by a two-judge bench comprising Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy.
The court ordered Ms. Sasikala, 60, and the other two accused to surrender forthwith before the trial court in Bengaluru. She is expected to comply with the orders in the coming days after completion of various legal formalities, including the receipt of the copy of the Supreme Court order.
Ms. Sasikala had spent the night at a resort close to Mahabalipuram, near Chennai, where the 129 MLAs, said to be on her side in the power struggle against caretaker Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, were staying for the past six days.
The judgement, among other things, means that Ms. Sasikala will have to spend time in jail and will be barred from contesting elections for six years after that. This ruled out her claim to form the next Government in Tamil Nadu after the party's MLAs elected her as their new leader on February 5.
Mr. Panneerselvam, 65, who had been sworn in as the Chief Minister hours after Ms. Jayalalithaa's death on the night of December 5, had resigned from the postion on February 5 after Ms. Sasikala's election as the new leader. State Governor C. Vidyasagar Rao accepted his resignation the following day but asked him to continue in office until alternative arrangements were made.
The Governor, however, did not respond in any way to Ms. Sasikala's claim, and the pending judgement of the Supreme Court in the corruption case was seen as one of the factors he took into account while deciding to wait.
Soon after the judgement, Ms. Sasikala went into a huddle with senior leaders of her faction and later the 120-odd AIADMK legislators present at the resort met and chose Mr. Edappadi K. Palaniswami as the new leader of its legislature party. Mr. Palaniswami is currently the Minister for Public Works, Irrigation, Highways and Minor Ports in the O. Panneerselvam government.
Mr. Palaniswamy met the Governor at Raj Bhavan this evening at the head of a 12-member delegation with a letter informing him of the legislature party's resolution and staking his claim to form the next government.
A delegation from the Panneerselvam camp also met Mr. Rao and claimed that they had the support of the majority of the party's MLAS and urged him to give him an opportunity to prove their strength in a floor test in the legislative assembly.
The Sasikala faction also expelled Mr. Panneerselvam, known popularly as OPS, and about 20 of his supporters from the primary membership of the party for alleged anti-party activities. The OPS camp said she had no right to expel anybody, especially because her own election was "interim" general secretary was not valid.
Those expelled by her include School Education Minister K. Pandiarajan, former Ministers C. Ponnaiyan, K. P. Munusamy and Natham R. Viswanathan, former Assembly Speaker P. H. Pandian and his son and former Rajya Sabha member Manoj Pandian.
However, she did not act against the 11 Members of Parliament -- nine Lok Sabha members and two Rajya Sabha members -- or the sitting MLAs who have backed Mr. Panneerselvam.
Ms. Sasikala had been elected as the leader of the legislature party on February 5, following which Mr. Panneerselvam had submitted his resignation to the Governor. Mr. Rao accepted his resignation on Monday but asked him to continue in office till alternative arrangements were made.
Two days later, on February 7, Mr. Panneerselvam raised the banner of revolt by saying that he was forced to resign and support Ms. Sasikala and that he was willing to continue as Chief Minister if the party and the people so desired.
Over the past few days, Tamil Nadu has witnessed a political crisis as both factions kept urging the Governor for a chance to prove their majority in the Legislative Assembly and making allegations against each other.
Ms. Sasikala's faction now has the challenge of keeping its flock intact at a time when about ten MLAs had, in a trickle, switched their allegiance to the Panneerselvam camp in the past few days. Their fear is that there could be a mass exodus from amongst the 120-odd MLAs they claim are on their side.
Mr. Panneerselvam has been saying that the MLAs are being held against their will at the resort near Mahabalipuram.
Police had stepped up security across Chennai and in many other parts of the state ahead of the Supreme Court decision.
The mood at the resoort, where Ms. Sasikala spent the night with her colleagues, was sombre as it was at the Poes Garden residence of Ms. Jayalalithaa, where she has been staying. On the other hand, there were scenes of celebration outside Mr. Panneerselvam's residence. Similarly, there were jubilant crowds outside the residence of Ms. Deepa, the niece of Ms. Jayalalithaa.
Ms. Sasikala is learnt to have broken down after hearing of the verdict before going in for discussions with senior party leaders on their next course of action.
An open and bitter power tussle erupted after Mr. Panneerselvam, rather uncharacteristically, came out strongly against Ms. Sasikala late in the night on February 7. He alleged that he had been forced by the Sasikala camp to quit and that he would be willing to continue as Chief Minister if the party and the people wanted him to do so.
In the week since then, the two sides have been attacking each other while trying to attract more support. Mr. Panneerselvam managed to garner the support of at least 10 MPs, but only a handful of MLAs came out to back him openly. He alleged that Ms. Sasikala was holding the other MLAs at the resort against their will.
The Governor will now have to decide on the claims by the two rival camps in the ruling party. Ms. Sasikala, who has the option of filing a review petition against today's judgement, can name one of her trusted MLAs as her faction's chief ministerial nominee, assuming, of course, that her flock stays together.
Political observers will also be watching to see if the MLAs in Ms. Sasikala's camp will cross over to Mr. Panneerselvam's side after today's adverse judgement against her.
In the wake of the trial court's judgement in September 2014, the late Ms. Jayalalithaa had had to step aside as Chief Minister and Mr. Panneerselvam had stood in for her till she was able to return after securing an acquittal in the High Court.
Ms. Jayalalithaa and the three co-accused persons were accused by the prosecution of amassing assets valued at Rs 66.65 crore disproportionate to their known sources of income from 1991-96 during her first term in office.
Trial court judge John Michael D'Cunha had pronounced his verdict in the special court in the Central Jail at Parapanna Agrahara in south Bangalore.
The case was filed in 1997 by the Tamil Nadu government's Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) during the tenure of Ms. Jayalalithaa's rival and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M Karunanidhi as Chief Minister.
The Supreme Court ordered the case to be transferred to a special court in Bangalore in 2003 on a petition filed by DMK leader K Anbazhagan, who had expressed doubts about a fair trial in Tamil Nadu after Ms. Jayalalithaa returned as Chief Minister.
In 2001, she had to step down as Chief Minister soon after being sworn in after the Supreme Court declared null and void the action of then Governor Fatima Beevi appointing her to the position as she had been sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment in another corruption case.
Mr. Paneerselvan had taken her place then, too. She was cleared of all charges in 2002 and had returned as Chief Minister.
The prosecution had alleged that Ms. Jayalalithaa had just Rs 3 crore when she took over as Chief Minister for the first time in 1991 and had taken a token salary of just Re 1, but her wealth and that of her three co-accused had grown to Rs 66.6 crore during her five years in office, vastly disproportionate to her known sources of income.
The alleged wealth included 2000 acres of land, 30 kg of gold and thousands of sarees. She was also accused of spending more than Rs 5 crore on her foster son's wedding in 1996, though she had claimed that the expenditure was borne by the bride's family.
The trial court had held that the prosecution had been able to prove that Ms. Jayalalithaa possessed disproportionate assets of about Rs 53 crore. The fine imposed was as per provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in such matters. The fine will be realized from the assets that had been seized earlier by the DVAC.
Ms. Jayalalithaa had all along maintained that the case was an act of political vendetta by the DMK. Among other things, she had agued that her previous assets were undervalued, her property was overvalued and her income from various sources were not taken into account.
In 2011, Ms. Jayalalithaa had appeared in the Bangalore court for four days to answer more than 1390 questions posed by the judge.
On October 17, 2014, Ms. Jayalalithaa, Ms. Sasikala and the other two were granted bail in the case by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, as all eyes turned towards Raj Bhavan in Chennai to see what steps the Governor will take to resolve the political crisis in the state, media reports said Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had advised the Governor to have a composite floor test conducted within a week so that the claims of both camps could be tested in the Assembly.
Apart from the corruption case, there had been opposition to Ms. Sasikala's elevation from a section of the public, in social media and from the Opposition in the state. They pointed to the fact that she had never contested any election and had no administrative experience.
Ms. Sasikala had repeatedly voiced concern in the past few days about the delay by the Governor in inviting her to form the government and said that this appeared to be part of efforts to split the AIADMK. Her colleagues have blamed the Opposition DMK in Tamil Nadu and the ruling BJP at the Centre for the delay.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the crisis began, Mr. Panneerselvam drove to the Secretariat yesterday and held discussions with senior officials on various issues concerning the state.
Ms. Sasikala told her supporters yesterday that she had decided to remove OPS from the Chief Minister's position because he was "conniving" with the DMK. She slammed him for being "ungrateful" and trying to divide the AIADMK and rule the state with the help of the DMK. She said she would ensure the continuance of the AIADMK government. She said it was she who had made him the Chief Minister after Ms. Jayalalithaa's death.
Ms. Sasikala said she decided to step in and become the Chief Minister because some of the Ministers had expressed their dissatisfaction with Mr. Panneerselvam's style of functioning and also because she wanted the government established by Ms. Jayalalithaa to continue.
She also spoke at length about how she had stood by Ms. Jayalalithaa in all her times of crises, right from the time of the late Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M. G. Ramachandran's death.
Stating that she had seen "thousands of Panneerselvams" over the years, she had said the "present revolt is like dust off my hands".
Ms. Jayalalithaa was admitted to the Apollo Hospital here on September 22 and died on December 5 after a sudden cardiac arrest. Doctors who treated her had told a press conference here on Monday that the AIADMK leader had been treated for septicemia and a host of other medical problems.
Mr. Panneerselvam was Finance Minister in Ms. Jayalalithaa's Cabinet and was also handling all the portfolios held by her after she was hospitalised on September 22.