R Jagannathan(FP): The conviction of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case by a Bangalore court is a chilling reminder to politicians that they are no longer immune to prosecution purely because they are popularly elected – or have the sympathies of their voters.
Why popularity isn’t enough to keep the powerful from jail : Jaya, Lalu, Chautala
The rule of law is beginning to assert itself. Jayalalithaa’s is the third big case after those of Om Prakash Chautala and Lalu Prasad, both of whom were convicted by special CBI courts for corruption. While Chautala and others were convicted in January 2013 and sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for illegally hiring more than 3,000 teachers, Lalu Prasad (among others) was sentenced to five years in jail for the Rs 950 crore fodder scam.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been convicted in the disproportionate assets case. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been convicted in the disproportionate assets case.
But neither of them lost their ability to court popular support, with Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) unexpectedly winning two seats in the last Lok Sabha election, and Lalu Prasad pulling off a surprising win along with Nitish Kumar in the Bihar assembly bypolls despite heavy losses in the Lok Sabha.
While Jaya’s sentencing (for holding disproportionate assets worth Rs 66 crore when her income was shown as Re 1) is awaited, there is little doubt that she will lose her assembly seat and her chief ministership. After the Supreme Court held section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act unconstitutional, MPs and MLAs no longer have the benefit of having their disqualification held in abeyance for three months while they file appeals. And if the appeal was accepted, the disqualification was stayed. Not any more.
It is worth recalling that the UPA government was planning to amend the law precisely to enable convicted politicians to continue as MLAs or MPs by nullifying the Supreme Court verdict. But, in one of the few acts for which he will be remembered, Rahul Gandhi called the ordinance (cleared by his party and the cabinet) as “nonsense” at a public press conference, embarrassing Manmohan Singh and his mother. It didn’t save his party from defeat, but it did some good.
The ordinance was dropped, and Lalu Prasad – to save whom the government was rushing the ordinance – was convicted in the fodder scam last October, almost exactly a year ago from today’s conviction of Jayalalithaa.
While the DMK, Jaya’s arch rival in Tamil Nadu politics, may exult over the conviction and the ammo provided for the assembly elections due in 2016, the fact is M Karunanidhi’s own daughter Kanimozhi is being prosecuted in connection with the 2G scam, and two DMK ministers – A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran – are in the dock for 2G and other irregularities. While Raja is being tried in a special court, Maran has been charge-sheeted by the CBI in the Aircel-Maxis case.
Among the other present or former chief ministers who have been investigated for corruption or disproportionate assets are BSP supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. While the case against Mulayam Singh was closed by the CBI last year, the one against Mayawati is not over yet. While BS Yeddyurappa, the former BJP Chief Minister of Karnataka, is still facing a CBI case on corruption, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of the late Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, has already been to jail in a slew of corruption cases. (He is now out on bail).
Ashok Chavan had to quit as Maharashtra CM in connection with the Adarsh scam, and Shiela Dikshit has come under a cloud for her actions in the Commonwealth scam, but faces little more than an FIR against her so far.
What the Jayalalithaa conviction makes crystal clear are the following.
First, the courts are no longer taking a relaxed view of political corruption, thanks to public concerns over it.
Second, while legal procedures are long-winded and effectively delay justice, the mere fact that powerful personalities are being convicted sends a strong signal that political popularity will not be enough to save them from jail henceforth.
Third, changes in the Representation of the People Act to make it easier for politicians to avoid jail by using legal appeals will no longer be possible.
And fourth, more top politicians are sure to go to jail in future.