ON 1 OCTOBER 2014, the Vellore municipal council passed a resolution against John Michael Cunha, the judge who presided over the Special Court in Bangalore that sent Jayalalithaa Jayaram to jail in late September. In the resolution, the council claimed to be confounded by a mere mortal’s daring to arrogate himself powers to punish a goddess.
Getting Jayalalithaa—the de facto supreme leader of Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam—to cooperate with the court may certainly have seemed to her prosecutors like setting human will against superhuman. Charges in the case, which alleged misuse of her office to acquire assets worth Rs 66.65 crore, were framed in 1997. The trial, which culminated dramatically last month in a conviction, a rejected bail plea and a suspended sentence, lasted 18 years, over ten of those in the Bangalore Special Court. Cunha’s judgement, which runs to over a thousand pages, made it clear that the delay was caused mostly by impediments that Jayalalithaa created at every stage of the trial.
The trial ought to have stood as an exemplar of how to bring the powerful to justice. Jayalalithaa is the only sitting chief minister in India’s history against whom a conviction for corruption has been delivered; even the former chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, found guilty in September 2013 for his role in one of the major cases related to the fodder scam, had been out of power for several years at the time of his conviction. In reality, achieving a result took an extraordinary combination of individual and institutional perseverance, helped along by a dogged political opposition.