J Jayalalithaa, the chief of the AIADMK, has become the first chief minister to be forced from office after being convicted of corruption. The 66-year-old politician has been sentenced to 4 years in jail and fined Rs. 100 crore ($16.7 million), after a Bangalore court found her guilty of corruption during her first term as chief minister of Tamil Nadu from 1991 to 1996.
The Supreme Court had ruled last year that any lawmaker found guilty of a crime that carries a two-year jail sentence or longer would be disqualified immediately and barred from contesting elections for 6 years from the date of completion of sentence. Prior to that ruling, convicted lawmakers could remain in office if they appealed within three months against their conviction.
The verdict on Saturday therefore disqualifies Jayalalithaa as chief minister and effectively bars her from contesting elections for 10 years.
The case itself is 18 years old and was originally filed in 1996. It alleged that Jayalalithaa’s assets had grown disproportionately during her first term, from Rs. 3 crore to 66 crore – despite her earning a token monthly salary of Rs. 1.
This disproportionate assets case then meandered through the courts in Tamil Nadu, but after Jayalalithaa came to power a second time in 2001, a petition was filed to have the case transferred to neighbouring Karnataka. In 2003, the Supreme Court transferred the case to a court in Bangalore.
Special judge John Michael D'Cunha’s verdict has earned Jayalalithaa the dubious distinction of becoming the first sitting CM to be held guilty under the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
There could, however, still be hope for her as the Supreme Court has said a convicted person can contest an election if his/her conviction and sentence are both stayed by a superior court. That means Jayalalithaa will have to appeal in the Karnataka High Court against her conviction.
Her party AIADMK is now fighting for its political survival, barely four months after it swept the general election in Tamil Nadu, winning all but two seats in the state to become the third largest party in Parliament.
Jayalalithaa is expected to select a loyalist to replace her as chief minister, as she did in 2001 when she was forced to step down by the Supreme Court that set aside her appointment. But this time, the crime is far more serious and the conviction could stunt her political career.
The verdict was cheered on by rival Tamil party DMK, but tension gripped the state as there were clashes in the capital Chennai. AIADMK protesters burnt effigies of DMK president M Karunanidhi, his sons MK Stalin and MK Alagiri, and tore party posters in Chennai and Madurai.
According to the police, a state-owned transport corporation bus was set on fire at Veppur village and some 20 buses damaged in stone pelting in Cuddalore district.