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DISPROPORTIONATE ASSETS

Jaya Makes Her Case

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The reopening of an old case could create problems for Jayalalithaa. However, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is not too worried. She has walked this road before

BANGALORE ~ In this season of scams, an old case has come to haunt Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa that could jeopardise her third term as CM.

Under Z-category security, the Chief Minister drove down from Bangalore’s old airport to a special court set up in the city’s central prison on two days, and answered questions that the judge put to her.

The case relates to her first term in office. In typical Tamil Nadu-style revenge politics, the DMK heaped on her a series of cases when it came to power in the 1996 Assembly election. Most of the cases have been settled over the years, except for one disproportionate assets case. Its charge-sheet alleges that when Jaya was Chief Minister, and earned a nominal salary of Re 1, she and her three associates acquired assets worth Rs 66.65 crore—which are disproportionate to their known sources of income. The assets include a large farm house, bungalows in and around Chennai, agricultural and industrial land in various parts of Tamil Nadu, a tea estate in Udagamandalam (Ooty), cash, investments, silverware and even 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of expensive footwear. The list includes 28 kg of jewellery, 91 wristwatches and 41 air-conditioners.

The case may be an old one and the amount involved may not be astronomical, but it is by no means insignificant. Jaya would therefore have been well prepared for the judge’s questions.

Responding to his questions, Jaya defended her collection of gold and diamond jewellery stating that they were purchased before she became Chief Minister in 1991. She denied that the saris and footwear belonged to her. The silverware seized by the Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, she claimed, was ‘foisted’ on her by investigating officers. There was little else that one could glean, as the court was off limits for reporters, given Jaya’s Z-category security.

Public prosecutor BV Acharya said that of the 1,339 questions that the judge was to ask her over two days, only 567 had been answered. Though the judge asked Jayalalithaa to come back the next day, her lawyer said the Supreme Court had only allotted two days for it, given the threat to her security, and that she would approach the apex court for exemption—as the next hearing was fixed for early November.

Subramanian Swamy, who is a private complainant in the case, says that the case could end Amma’s political career because she would be ineligible to contest any more elections if convicted.

But this is not the first time that Jaya has faced such a danger to her political position. Even in her second term, she had to vacate office after the Supreme Court ruled that as a convicted person she was ineligible to be Chief Minister. At that time, Jaya had installed  O Panneerselvam, a loyalist, as CM. She was eventually acquitted by the apex court in that case and became Chief Minister again. Jaya would surely have remembered all this while driving to the special court in Bangalore’s central prison. Panneerselvam was present here too, ensuring that his boss was looked after well during court breaks.

During Jayalalithaa’s first term as Chief Minister (1991–96), several allegations of accumulation of wealth, corruption and high-handedness were levelled against her. The ostentatious wedding of her adopted son only fuelled such charges. Subramanian Swamy had video-recorded the marriage preparations by dramatically appearing at the venue in a private car.

The two Tamil Nadu parties have a history of playing revenge politics. M Karunanidhi of the DMK and Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK take pride in putting each other in jail even on flimsy charges.

While there is hardly any novelty in these charges, it is significant that investigations of corruption-related cases have been kickstarted, despite the time elapsed and all the delaying tactics.

It also underlines the point that even an incumbent chief minister can be forced to answer to the law, even if she has been acquitted in other similar cases and won several elections since the cases were first filed. For the moment, however, the AIADMK is unperturbed.

“Our leader has [survived] so many allegations. These are all charges foisted by the DMK and a blackmailer called Subramanian Swamy,” says one leader of Jayalalithaa’s party.