New Delhi: Overturning a high court judgment that was riddled with arithmetical and logical errors, the Supreme Court on February 14, 2017 has held V.K. Sasikala, general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, guilty of amassing assets disproportionate to her known sources of income. The charges of corruption had primarily been levelled against her mentor, J. Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu who passed away after a protracted illness last December, but the conviction means Sasikala is effectively disqualified from standing for election and thus becoming CM of the state.
The period of disqualification will be for six years from the time she is released from prison. This means she could be ineligible to stand for elected office for a maximum of 10 years.
Such a long journey
On September 27, 2014, in Bangalore, special court judge John Michael Cunha had passed a judgement convicting the Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and others of possessing disproportionate assets under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Jayalalithaa and Sasikala – who was accused number two, or A2, in the case – were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. The AIADMK supremo, who immediately stepped down as chief minister, was also barred from contesting elections for a period of 10 years. On May 11, 2015, in a much awaited judgement, the conviction was set aside by the Karnataka High Court which acquitted her of all charges in the disproportionate assets case against her. Following that acquittal, Jayalalithaa returned as chief minister.
The corruption case which the Supreme Court finally settled on Tuesday goes back to 1996, soon after Jayalalithaa lost the elections and demitted office after her first term as CM. Subramanian Swamy, then in the Janata Party and now a BJP member, filed a complaint based on information taken from the wealth declared by Jayalalithaa in 1989-90 prior to becoming CM in 1991 that she had amassed wealth and property disproportionate to her known sources of income. Subsequent to this, the judge directed investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 202 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (inquiry mainly to ascertain whether the case is genuine or not) and Letika Saran, an IPS officer, was directed to investigate the matter in an impartial manner, gather evidence and submit a report within two months.
1997: Corruption charges framed
This particular order was challenged by Jayalalithaa and Sasikala in the Madras high court, and the investigations stopped for a brief period of time. However, by a subsequent order given by the same court, the Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, Madras was directed to carry on the investigation in accordance with law. During the course of this investigation, a large amount of incriminating evidence was found and the charge sheet made and filed in the Special Court in Chennai.
In 1997, the special judge issued summons to Jayalalitha, Sasikala, V.N. Sudhakaran, and J. Elavarsi. Following the hearing, he charged them under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code and Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. These charges were denied by the accused and they asked to be tried. Meanwhile, the Department of Vigilance and Anticorruption conducted further investigations and gathered evidence of disproportionate wealth amassed outside the country in Sri Lanka, Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and a chargesheet was filed based on this evidence. Subsequently, a petition was moved by the accused for conducting a joint trial for both matters. During the course of investigation, as many as 258 witnesses were examined.
2003: SC transfers case to Karnataka
After she returned to power as CM in 2001, K. Anbazhaghan, general secretary of DMK petitioned the Supreme Court for a transfer of the case outside Tamil Nadu. In November 2003, the SC moved the case to Karnataka, with certain directions, which included the constitution of a special court in Bangalore and the commencement of the trial in this special court as soon as possible. The primary objective for transferring the case to Karnataka was for conducting the trial in an impartial manner with no undue influence whatsoever, which might not have been possible if the trial was to take place in Tamil Nadu.
In the judgment last year, the trial court judge John Michael Cunha said:
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 raising different interlocutory issues purportedly to vindicate different facets of their right to a free and fair trial and virtually every order passed by this Court was carried in Appeal or Revision to the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka and then to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India resulting in considerable delay in the progress of the case.
It is clear that Jayalaithaa and Sasikala’s repeated appeals were the main reason the trial stretched on for a period of 18 years.
What the charges against her are
This case mainly involved Jayalalithaa, who is the first serving CM to have been convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Daughter of N.R. Sandhya who was an actress, Jayalalitha herself acted in films between 1964-1972. Following her mother’s death, she inherited some property, land (approx. 13 acres in Andhra Pradesh), a house in Hyderabad and her house in Poes Garden, Chennai, which is where she lived. From 1988 to 1996, Sasikala was a permanent resident at the Poes Garden residence. From 1992 till early 1997, VN Sudhakaran who was proclaimed by Jayalalitha as her “foster son”, lived at the same address. After her husband’s death, J Elavarasi (who was married to Sasikala Natrajan’s elder brother) became a permanent resident at Poes Garden from early 1992. These four are the main accused in this case.
Jayalalitha along with Sasikala floated a few companies that had both of them as partners, and property, assets and money were acquired and transferred in the name of these companies (for these companies) though no actual business activity was carried out relating to their functioning. After 1991, around 31 firms were floated in the name of Sasikala, Sudhakaran and Elavarasi, for which no income tax returns were filed and no assessment for commercial tax was done regarding their business. Jayalalithaa’s assets and funds were found to be disproportionate to her known sources of income to the extent of around Rs. 66 crore.
Challenge by Jaya counsel
A few questions of law and fact were raised by her counsel on the legality of the procedure of the investigation, and the investigation itself, whether the sanction of prosecution was in accordance with law, if the investigation conducted was bad in law for lack of authorisation under Prevention of Corruption Act, if the charges framed violated Article 21 of the Constitution of India (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty, “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure adopted established by law”) and whether the prosecution was motivated by political vendetta.
With regard to the legality and the validity of the sanction, the trial court said that the sanction accorded by the governor for prosecution was in accordance with law and not illegal. The court considered the testimony of the officials and the documentary evidence and concluded that the authorisations were in accordance with the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act (S.17 and S.18). Talking about the issue of political vendetta, the court noted that this particular contention was already rejected by the Supreme Court while dealing with the transfer petition in 2003. The Supreme Court in the given order held the following
In a democracy, the political opponents play an important role both inside and outside the House. They are the watchdogs of the Government in power. It will be their effective weapon to counter the misdeeds and mischiefs of the Government in power. They are the mouthpiece to ventilate the grievances of the public at large, if genuinely and unbiasedly projected. In that view of the matter, being a political opponent, the petitioner is vitally interested party in the run of the Government or in the administration of criminal justice in the State.
The judgment also quoted from Sheonandan Paswan v. State of Bihar where it was held that
It is a well-established proposition of law that a criminal prosecution, if otherwise justifiable and based upon adequate evidence does not become vitiated on account of mala-fides or political vendetta.
The trial court convicted and sentenced Jayalalithaa under the Prevention of Corruption Act to simple imprisonment for a period of four years and she was asked to pay a fine of Rs.100 crore. Sasikala Natrajan, V.N. Sudhakaran, and J Eavarasi were sentenced to undergo simple imprisonment for a period of four years each and to pay a fine of Rs. 10 crores each. After her conviction, Jayalalitha stepped down as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (she was automatically disqualified from that post and from the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu). She nominated O. Paneerselvam as her successor and he was duly sworn in as CM.
The conviction was appealed in the Karnataka High Court, and the verdict handed down by the special vacation bench of Justice C.R. Kumaraswamy.
As the conviction was quashed, Jayalalithaa returned triumphant as chief minister and died in office as an innocent person. However, the Supreme Court’s verdict will cast a long shadow over her reputation and legacy, even as it scuttles Sasikala’s chief ministerial bid.
Paneerselvam, who stepped in for Jayalalithaa after her 2014 conviction, and again when she was hospitalised last year, was formally sworn in as chief minister in December 2016 with the unanimous backing of all AIADMK MLAs as well as Sasikala. He resigned on February 6 when the same MLAs decided to make Sasikala the chief minister. A few days later, he sought to withdraw his resignation.
The governor of Tamil Nadu, who has been evaluating competing claims of support from Paneerselvam and Sasikala, is now likely to ask Paneerselvam to demonstrate his support on the floor of the assembly.
Though Sasikala can no longer be chief minister, she may still nominate another proxy in order to dislodge Paneerselvam, though this would mean ensuring her flock of MLAs stays in line.
With inputs from Chitra Padmanabhan.
This is an updated version of a background article first published on May 11, 2015.