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What The Disproportionate Assets Case Verdict Means For Tamil Politics And Indian Democracy At Large

A precedent has been set.

14/02/2017 11:28 AM IST | Updated 14/02/2017 1:14 PM IST
ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images

The Supreme Court's verdict on the disproportionate assets (DA) case, convicting all four accused in it, is a landmark not only for Tamil Nadu politics but also for Indian democracy in general.

As VK Sasikala, close companion of the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa for over three decades, sees her chief ministerial ambitions turn to dust, supporters of her rival, O Panneerselvam erupt with joy. Scores of MLAs from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) are believed to be defecting from her camp to join Panneerselvam, who instigated he was forced to quit the high office by Sasikala.

Amidst these scenes of distress and merriment, one crucial point seemed to have eluded the AIADMK cadre. The apex court's ruling not only condemns Sasikala and two others, including her sister-in-law and nephew, but also Jayalalithaa, the leader of the party who was the prime accused in the case.

According to the provisions stated under Section 394 of the Criminal Procedure Code, charges against the deceased would abate, but nonetheless the court did find incriminating evidence against Jayalalithaa as well. In their bid to choose one leader over the other, this blight on their beloved Amma's legacy seemed to have escaped the party's supporters.

READ: HuffPost Explains: The Disproportionate Assets Case Between Sasikala And The Chief Minister's Chair

For the people of Tamil Nadu, too, the ousting of Sasikala as a frontrunner for the chief minister's office must have brought about a sense of collective relief. While there may be support within the AIADMK for Panneerselvam to continue as chief minister, for the public he is probably the better option among two evils. The popular mandate, as MK Stalin of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had pointed out, wasn't given to either Sasikala or Panneerselvam — but to Jayalalithaa. Having already filled in for Amma several times when she had to relinquish office temporarily, usually due to legal wrangles over cases of corruption against her, Pannerselvam was probably the better suited of the two to carry on her mantle.

But Sasikala's haste to get to the top job, propelled by a sense of entitlement as Amma's close confidante, pushed matters to a head when she, along with her coterie of MLAs, forced Panneerselvam to quit office in a way that was not only coercive but shockingly undemocratic. Without ever having run for elections, even as a local councillor, Sasikala felt confident enough to push out Panneerselvam, who had at least served as Finance Minister in Jayalalithaa's Cabinet, from a position that requires immense political responsibility and administrative experience.

It's not difficult to figure out where Sasikala's arrogance, bordering on hurbis, stemmed from. Unpleasant as it may sound, only one factor is to be squarely blamed for the current state of affairs in Tamil Nadu — Jayalalithaa's legacy.

READ: From Ammu To Amma, This Book Brings Alive J Jayalalithaa's Incredible Journey Over The Years

When she was alive and in power, Jayalalithaa ruled with an iron hand. True, as a woman in a patriarchal political set-up, she had to fight several men, including her own mentor MG Ramachandran, to wrest power that she considered rightfully hers. After MGR's death, she was poorly treated by a section of the AIADMK MLAs, who went on to form a rival faction with his widow Janaki. Not one to give up, Jayalalithaa fought tooth and nail to rise to the top leadership of the party, before becoming the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991.

In her five terms as chief minister she proved herself to be indomitable. She kept her MLAs on a tight lease and didn't mind when they prostrated themselves before her in public. Such display of obeisance, she said, was due to her as the leader of her party.

The media, too, was the receiving end of her ire. Even the slightest criticism of her policies, sometimes just straightforward reporting of facts that weren't in favour of her, could make her file lawsuits against newspapers and magazines. Such was her need to control the narrative of her life that Jayalalithaa had a court put a stay on the publication of her biography by journalist Vaasanthi in 2011. A much amended and shorter portrait was published last year, presumably without any of the details that had offended Amma.

The Supreme Court's verdict on the DA case gives a ringing punch to Jayalalithaa's reputation of being a dictator, deflating the belief that politicians can get away with (almost) everything. The judgement, which was arrived at independently by the two judges on the bench, held her guilty, along with her accomplices, and thus reinstated the citizenry's belief in the impartiality of the judiciary of the country once again.

With such a strong precedent, politicians in India, especially those with criminal records and/or accused in graft cases, will be forced to reconsider their tactics. No longer can the powerful control their fortunes with a remote control, as they have become used to doing.

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