Jayalalithaa Jayaram is expected to return as chief minister of Tamil Nadu with the Karnataka high court overturning a trial court’s judgment that convicted her in a disproportionate assets case last year. Justice CR Kumarasamy ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the charges and overturned Justice John Michael Cunha’s order, which sentenced Jayalalithaa to four years imprisonment. She then quit the CM’s office, as mandated by the Representation of People’s Act (RPA). It is a travesty of the investigation process and the judicial system that it took 18 years for the case to be decided in a lower court. That the verdict of the trial court could not stand the rigours of scrutiny in a higher court is no less appalling. The numerous—and bizarre—turnarounds in the case also cast a shadow over the justice dispersal mechanism.
When Jayalalithaa was forced to quit the CM’s office after Justice Cunha’s ruling, the AIADMK chose O Panneerselvam to head the administration. The new CM publicly said he was an interim choice pending
appeals in higher courts. His statement that he governed under Jayalalithaa’s guidance made a mockery of both the conviction and the democratic process. The uncertainty would continue since the petitioners—Subramanian Swamy and the DMK—will likely appeal the HC order in the Supreme Court. The HC verdict raises questions about provisions of the RPA that debar a person with a prison sentence of more than two years from being a part of electoral democracy. At the outset, this may look like a strong deterrent to the criminalisation of politics. A closer look at the record of our judicial system indicates that to hold a person guilty before he exhausts the various levels of redress in the process is unfair. There are numerous instances where a higher court has upturned the orders of a lower court citing poor investigation and weak reasoning. Until the SC ruled on the RPA in 2013, the law had held that a convicted person could hold on to a political office until he had exhausted various appeals. The impact of the Jayalalithaa wealth case since the trial court order in Tamil Nadu points to the absurd situation the present RPA provision can lead to.
The Jayalalithaa case stresses two imperatives. One, the importance of fool-proof criminal investigation and speedy trial and, two, the need to provide immunity to a person convicted in a corruption case in a lower court until he completes the appeal process. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in the recent past talked about fast courts to adjudicate on corruption cases involving politicians. The government must act on it.