If the weight of evidence is what presumably swung matters Jayalalithaa’s way in the Karnataka High Court on Monday, it is the political heft she commands in Tamil Nadu and nationally that will determine what happens next.
Since the disproportionate assets charge on which she was convicted last September was tried by a special judge in Karnataka after the Supreme Court ordered the case transferred out of Tamil Nadu, the decision to press an appeal against her acquittal lies with the Congress-led government of that state.
At the same time, Subramanian Swamy — whose 1996 complaint led to the framing of charges against Jayalalithaa nearly two decades ago — also has the right to move the Supreme Court against the High Court’s verdict. Swamy was leader of the Janata Party when the case originated but is now a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In either instance, the decision to appeal ought not to be taken by the Congress or BJP – Karnataka must decide on merits, based on the High Court’s weak reasoning and the recommendation of the special prosecutor, and Swamy too should be free to appeal regardless of what his party wants him to do. In reality, however, political considerations are bound to come in to play.
Simply put, the BJP central leadership has compelling political reasons to let the Jayalalithaa case die a natural death now that she has been acquitted. Indeed, on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called to congratulate her on the High Court verdict. His gesture was, at one level, an ordinary courtesy. But it is also the case that the BJP increasingly sees in Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK an important legislative partner. The National Democratic Alliance is completely outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha, where it has only 63 MPs in a house of 245. If Jayalalithaa were handled with care, her 11 RS MPs would help give BJP floor managers some additional room for maneuver as they try and pilot Bills through the upper house.
An early indication of this strategy came last year when it emerged that the Union Finance Ministry under Arun Jaitley had been working on the settlement of another tax case against Jayalalithaa. As Sunil Prabhu of NDTV reported:
“The union government is allegedly ready to enable Ms Jayalalithaa to make an out-of-court settlement with the income tax department for failing to file returns two decades ago for two consecutive years (1991-92 and 1992-93). Co-accused with her in the criminal case is her close friend, Sasikala Natarajan.
“In August, the centre set up a committee to process Ms Jayalalithaa’s application seeking the compounding of the alleged offences – this means the government’s tax department and she can arrive at an agreement without the permission or intervention of the court. The committee has decided in favour of her, said sources.”
By January, thanks to the Modi government’s help, that case was closed.
At the same time, the BJP continued to pursue the possibility of expanding its own political footprint in Tamil Nadu after the NDA’s promising performance in 2014.
In the general election, the Congress and BJP both fielded candidates against Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK. Tamil Nadu was one of only three major states – the others being Odisha and West Bengal – where a strong regional leader was able to stop the Modi wave in its tracks. Her party won 37 out of the 39 parliamentary seats, with the BJP picking up one seat (Kanniyakumari) and its NDA partner, the PMK, taking Dharmapuri. Although Karunanidhi’s DMK and its allies failed to win a single seat, the overall vote share of their ‘Democratic Progressive Alliance’ at 26.8 per cent was much better than the NDA’s 18.5 per cent.
When BJP president Amit Shah visited the state last December, local party leaders told him the NDA stood a good chance of winning seats in the 2016 assembly polls if Jayalalithaa’s September 2014 corruption conviction was upheld and she remained barred from contesting elections for 10 years.
Now that Jayalalithaa has been acquitted, of course, all Tamil Nadu politicians – from those in tiny parties like the BJP and Congress to the major and minor Dravidian players like DMK, DMDK of Vijaykant, and PMK – find themselves scrambling back to their drawing boards to think of new alignments that can take on a re-energised Amma. The DMK, which would like to ally with the influential DMDK, may find Vijaykant more receptive, now that his hopes of capitalizing on a leaderless AIADMK going into election have been dashed. But the DMK will also have to overcome the handicap of its own corruption taint in the 2G matter.
There is some talk of Jayalalithaa dissolving the assembly to harness a sympathy wave but the timing of any snap election she wants will be up to the Election Commission. As and when elections are held, however, Jayalalithaa is bound to use her exoneration to put the DMK on the mat. She chose to describe herself after the acquittal as someone who had “emerged as gold, tested by fire”. If she builds upon her reasonable record of governance and takes advantage of the improvement in the power situation in the state, her gilded armor could well turn out to be strong enough to break the post-1984 pattern of Tamil Nadu politics in which ruling parties have never managed to get re-elected.