Justice Relayed

The long road to Jayalalithaa’s conviction for corruption

Jayalalithaa is the only sitting chief minister in the country’s history against whom a conviction for corruption has been delivered. Arun Sankar K / AP Photo
01 November, 2014

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.

“It is borne out from the records that, after the trial resumed before this court, the accused moved applications after applications before this court at every stage of the proceedings,” Cunha wrote. By purportedly exercising her right to a free and fair trial, “virtually every order passed by this court was carried in appeal or revision to the High Court of Karnataka and then to the Supreme Court of India resulting in considerable delay.”

Jayalalithaa inordinately stretched the provisions of appeal that a court of law allows any accused. She registered hundreds of objections to the proceedings; as many as two hundred of these were filed on her behalf between 2005 and 2013 alone, according to BV Acharya, the Special Public Prosecutor leading the prosecution during that period. All of these applications went all the way to the Supreme Court only to be dismissed, or granted partial relief in a few instances. Jayalalithaa was notably dissatisfied by complications arising from a language barrier: many of the documents produced before the Special Court were originally in Tamil, and required translations into English after the case was moved from Chennai to Bengaluru in 2003: by repeatedly complaining of inaccurate translations, Jayalalithaa was able to delay her case considerably.

“The translation work was completed by 2005 and the copies of the English translation of the deposition and the exhibits were furnished” to Jayalalithaa in March that year, Cunha wrote. In July 2010, the SPP, Acharya, sought to recall 45 witnesses for cross-examination. But “A-1”—Jayalalithaa—“filed an application in I.A-No. 396,” Cunha wrote, “seeking to scrap the English translations of the depositions of all the witnesses and to hold a de novo translation by summoning all the witnesses before the court.” It had taken the court over a year to get the documents translated by a team of twenty assistant professors and lecturers. (The Supreme Court turned down the request, having found no reasonable grounds to order a fresh translation.)

Getting Jayalalithaa to appear before the Special Court in Bangalore was itself a humongous task. When summoned, she often meandered to the Supreme Court instead, in order to express an inability to attend hearings. Once, she cited work exigencies; at another time, she claimed her security detail was inadequate. In December 2011, Jayalalithaa did attend hearings, having received the Supreme Court’s assurances of her security, when the SPP wanted to record the statements of the first accused. After two days of attending court, she stopped, claiming that the apex court had asked her to be present for that duration only, and no longer—requiring the Supreme Court to intervene once again, to order her to complete the legal exercise.

This exceptional resistance required, in turn, exceptional legal precision and perseverance to conduct the case. At one point in the trial, Jayalalithaa was required to answer over 1,900 questions over a period of four days. (Her responses to most of them, unsurprisingly, were staccato and clipped; the court noted in rare cases, however, that a response might be more “argumentative in nature than denial.”) The SPP was a key figure in undoing some of the case’s most crucial procedural wangles, before he was required to step down due to an objection made by Jayalalithaa’s defence over his continuing to hold the SPP’s post after he was appointed Advocate General of Karnataka in 2011. However, a senior lawyer said that Acharya’s stepping down was also due to consistent efforts to implicate and harass him in matters pertaining to his other social and professional involvements.

Some of the most crucial interventions made by presiding judges were marked by a sense of impatience. BM Mallikarjunaiah, the third of the five judges who presided over the trial at the Special Court, was responsible for summoning Jayalalithaa to court; he was also the judge who facilitated Acharya in asking her over 1,900 questions over four days. Cunha, in his turn, found the slew of applications, interlocutory applications and special leave petitions that delayed the trial akin to speed breakers: “Is this a criminal court or an adjournment court?” he asked at one point during the trial. “This case has been on for years, but the number of days it has been adjourned far outweighs the days some purposeful deliberation has taken place.”

Throughout, Jayalalithaa’s political opposition was as staunch as it was varied. Charges against her were first filed by the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy; over the years, rumours persisted of the involvement of powerful Congress leaders behind the scenes of her prosecution. But some of the most important work of public opposition to her was done through the AIADMK’s rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, particularly K Anbazhagan, the 91-year-old general secretary of the party and a legal expert in his own right. After Jayalalithaa came back to power in Tamil Nadu in the 2002 elections, the case seemed to be in danger of significant weakening: 79 of the 259 witnesses, many of them government officials, altered their stances once Jayalalithaa took office as chief minister.

At this juncture, Anbazhagan moved the Supreme Court to have the case shifted to the neighbouring state of Karnataka, citing grave doubts over the fairness of the trial in Tamil Nadu. Over the years, he watched the proceedings in Bangalore closely, intervening whenever he felt the case was deviating from course. In 2004, he submitted a 450-page report to the Special Court on the intricacies of the case, and officially became an intervenor in the trial, submitting written arguments in support of the prosecution.

In spite of the DMK’s now successful pursuit of the conviction of its fiercest opponent, the outcome of Jayalalithaa’s trial has led some to claim that the sun is setting on Periyarist politics in Tamil Nadu. The DMK patriarch Karunanidhi is in his own twilight years, and his political heirs, Stalin and Azhagiri, are riven in their ongoing struggle for power. Outside the state, the media seems keen to interpret the conviction, and the DMK’s current unpopularity among voters, as an opportunityfor the Bharatiya Janata Party to unfurl its banner over a state where it has never had a significant presence. But the right-wing party has, for now, little traction on the ground in Tamil Nadu, and its caste calculations are in a state of flux. Its local leadership has moved away from Brahmin men such as Jana Krishnamurthy, L Ganesan and H Raja; it now looks to leaders such as Tamilisai Soundararajan and Pon Radhakrishnan, both from the backward-class Nadar community. The party is yet to field a truly a popular face in state elections, something that has bolstered support for all the Dravidian parties.

Its own superhuman supporter, the movie star Rajinikanth, was among the first to welcome Jayalalithaa’s release from custody when she was granted bail following the suspended sentence. Nearly twenty years ago, Rajinikanth made vehement public criticisms of Jayalalithaa’s corruption in the media, and was instrumental in building an alliance between M Karunanidhi of the DMK and G Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress, which pulled the rug from under the AIADMK’s feet in the 1996 assembly election. His greetings to Jayalalithaa last month were so unambiguously meek and fawning that not even the most die-hard of his fans would interpret it as the gumption of a challenger. The truth is that there is too much at stake for Rajinikanth commercially to commit to leading the BJP in Tamil Nadu, no matter how many pictures he poses for with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is little sense that the AIADMK will be generous enough to accommodate the BJP’s ambitions—in fact, in recent local-body polls, the two parties fought each other. If either of them held expectations of an alliance in the future, they seem unlikely to come to fruition now.

In the wake of Jayalalithaa’s conviction, it became an oft-remarked point that the sum found to be disproportionate to her legal sources of income, Rs 66.65 crore, is loose change in comparison with the more elaborate swindles uncovered in Indian politics in the new millennium. But in 1987, the year that her mentor, MG Ramachandran, died, Jayalalithaa’s assets were found to be worth only Rs 7.5 lakh; she claimed a bank balance of Rs 1 lakh, in addition to some jewellery. Jayalalithaa’s career has undoubtedly been one of exceptional triumphs, but whatever rewards a life of public service offers, the opportunity to legally multiply personal wealth by an order of magnitude is not among them.

She ended her acting career in 1980 with a film called Nadhiyai Thedi Vandha Kadal—The Sea That Came in Search of a River. The title could be a poetic metaphor not just for her life, but also for the ambition she has nursed for all these years. She has never preferred to meet the world, instead expecting the world to reach out to her, preferably at the doorstep of her Poes Garden home in Chennai. Everything about her career so far has tended to be unconventional, complicated and—to judge by her devoted party workers’ reactions to her conviction—emotionally violent. But even if a goddess can achieve what mere mortals cannot, the Special Court’s landmark judgement demonstrates that it need not always be admissible in the eyes of the law