Call it poetic justice. The disproportionate assets case has become a major stumbling block for Chief Minister aspirant VK Sasikala, with Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao deciding to wait for the outcome of the Supreme Court verdict expected soon.
Numbers maybe on her side and public mood maybe in favour of O Panneerselvam. And yet the Governor is refusing to take a call, and rightly so, because if Supreme Court holds Sasikala guilty of corruption, she will not be able to contest election for at least six years. The Constitution stipulates that a non-member cannot continue as Chief Minister if he or she is not elected to the Assembly within six months of assuming office.
J Jayalalithaa was disqualified as Chief Minister following her conviction under the Prevention of Corruption Act twice, first in 2001 and again in September 2014. So, the Governor sees there is no point in swearing in Sasikala as Chief Minister if she is going to be disqualified soon.
Sasikala has staked claim on the basis of AIADMKâ€™s legislature party resolution. The Governor can ask where was the need to replace Panneerselvam, whom he appointed after the passing of Jayalalithaa, just two months after he took over.
Panneerselvam may have resigned under pressure from Sasikala. But having accepted his resignation, there is no way the Governor can reinstate him now. The only legitimate ground by which he can delay Sasikalaâ€™s takeover is by waiting for the Supreme Court verdict.
There is poetic justice in the turn of events because it was Sasikala who, as Jayalalithaaâ€™s aide, got her embroiled in not only this case but also a host of other corruption cases dating back to her first term as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996.
Though Jayalalithaa drew only a nominal salary of one rupee as Chief Minister during the check period, her wealth zoomed to Rs 66 crore.
As the PCA Act can apply only to public servants, Jayalalithaa was made principal accused in all cases. And Sasikala, along with her relatives Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran were arraigned as co-accused or co-conspirators, who amassed wealth by exploiting their proximity to Jayalalithaa.
It was the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption of Tamil Nadu which prosecuted the case initiated by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy.
Jayalalithaa did not see the dangers ahead when two special courts in Chennai convicted her in the Tansi case and the colour television case in January 2000. Instead of meeting the challenge legally, Jayalalithaa unleashed state-wide violence by AIADMK goons and the climax was the burning alive of three college students, all girls, in Dharmapuri.
Mainly to disqualify her from holding any public office, the special courts sentenced her to 25 months imprisonment, as the law then required that only those sentenced to more than two years jail would be barred from contesting elections.
In spite of that, she filed nomination from four places in the 2001 Assembly elections and her papers were rejected in all of them. Yet, she led the AIADMK to victory. And on the strength of that she got the then Governor, Fathima Bivi, to swear her into office.
It was the Supreme Court which quashed her appointment on the ground that she was not qualified to be a member of the Assembly and asked her to get her name cleared first. It also passed strictures against the Governor for acting in haste without using her discretionary powers.
This precedent is also cited by the Governor now in delaying a decision.
Jayalalithaa eventually got herself acquitted in both the cases. While acquitting her in the Tansi case, on the technical ground that it was not a government entity and there was nothing in wrong a Chief Minister buying its assets, the apex court also told Jayalalithaa to atone her conscience. This she did by returning the 53 grounds of prime land in Chennai, bought at a throwaway price, to Tansi.
The assets case was the only one which remained. If only Jayalalithaa had not dragged the case for 18 years and instead allowed the law to take its course, she might have got away with a minimum imprisonment and come back to power. She allowed to be misled by AIADMK lawyers like Jothi that she would be acquitted.
As Jayalalithaa was in power from 2001 to 2006, Jothi forced all the government witnesses turn hostile. Shocked by this, DMK president K Anbazhagan moved the Supreme Court and got the case moved to a special court in Bengaluru. And the Karnataka Government took over the prosecution.
It was during this period the RPA was amended, making it clear that mere conviction is enough to disqualify a public servant regardless of quantum of punishment given.
On the day of the judgment in September 2014, Jayalalithaa went to Bengaluru, hoping to return after lunchtime. As it happened, special judge Michael Cunha held Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and the other two guilty and sentenced each to four yearsâ€™ imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on Jayalalithaa. The moment the judgment was pronounced, Jayalalithaa stood disqualified as CM and was taken to jail along with Sasikala and others.
It was during this period that Pannerselvam took over as acting chief minister for the second time, the first being in 2001 when Jayalalithaa was forced office by the Supreme Court.
The Cunha judgment, running to over 500 pages, was a damning indictment of Jayalalithaa. Undaunted, she got bail and challenged her conviction in the Karnataka High Court.
Justice S Kumaraswamy of the high court in March 2015 acquitted all of them on the premise that the assets were not disproportionate to known sources of income as they fell within the 10 per cent appreciation in value allowed as per an Andhra Pradesh High Court.
He also held that Jayalalithaa was getting income from her grape garden bought from the money she made in films. As for several companies promoted by Sasikala with Poes Garden residence address, the judge held that they were legitimate businesses. They include Jaya TV and Midas Distilleries.
In other words, Sasikala was not a benami of Jayalalithaa, ruled Justice Kumaraswamy.
Listed in the assets were several kg of gold and silver ornaments seized from Jayalalithaaâ€™s residence, the Kodanadu estate, the Siruthavur bungalow off the Old Mahabalipuram Road and several others. Even the mega wedding of Sasikalaâ€™s nephew Sudhakaran, the so-called adopted son whom Jayalalithaa quickly disowned later has been listed.
The acquittal by the high court gave Jayalalithaa a reprieve and she returned to power again.
An outraged Karnataka Government went in appeal to the Supreme Court and its verdict is expected any time.
As Jayalalithaa is no more, the case against her will abate. Even so, the Supreme Court will have to give a finding on whether Jayalalithaa was guilty or not. Only if she is found guilty, can the accused like Sasikala be punished.
The verdict will be a game changer as it will determine Jayalalithaaâ€™s legacy. An adverse verdict will also mean end of the road for Sasikala.