The conviction of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa by a special court in Bangalore in a case that charged her 18 years ago with amassing disproportionate assets worth over Rs 66 crore has thrown the southern state into a state of political turmoil. Ms Jayalalithaa is now in a Bangalore jail, and her loyal lieutenant O Panneerselvam will succeed her as chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The special court’s ruling sent Ms Jayalalithaa to jail for four years in addition to levying on her a fine of Rs 100 crore. Three of her close aides have also been convicted with the punishment of serving a prison term and paying penalty. After many years, the law has spoken. The message that is sent out is indeed that nobody is above the law – not even one of India’s most powerful chief ministers, someone who has swept her state in the recent general elections, and before her disqualification enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the Assembly, with 151 of the 235 seats.
Still, the long time that it has taken to move this far is also a reminder that much is wrong with India’s legal process. The trial had to be moved out of Ms Jayalalithaa’s home state , indicating that not much should be seen as being vastly changed when it comes to the prosecution of politicians. As with other such cases, the Supreme Court had to intervene to ensure that justice was done. Once again, the question of whether lower courts are too open to meddling from the powerful must be addressed. In this case, the courts did manage to provide redressal, if after a long while. There are other cases where a legal solution is still distant, perhaps because the initial investigative work was not done, or a First Information Report (FIR) was not filed, thanks to political pressure. In the case of Ms Jayalalithaa, the FIR was filed while her political opponents in the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham were in power. This might not be the case for other such instances. Thus, the need for an independent, accountable and empowered lok ayukta is again visible. Tamil Nadu continues to be one of the few states without a lok ayukta. Such an ombudsman could at least ensure that an independent investigation is begun; this could be the case even if it is not endowed with any draconian powers.
Tamil Nadu is not a state in which politics is taken lightly. The rivalry between parties is intense, and political leaders are practically deified. Ms Jayalalithaa’s incarceration, thus, must be accompanied by a clear commitment from her successor that the rule of law will be accepted, and that any attempts at violence will be met with the appropriate response. The former chief minister’s party, which now dominates Tamil Nadu’s politics, should see this as an opportunity to demonstrate its resilience. The spirit, as well as the letter, of the law disqualifying Ms Jayalalithaa should be respected. There should be no repeat of what happened when Lalu Prasad, then chief minister of Bihar, was convicted – in which his wife, who had held no previous office, took over as chief minister. The political pay-off to maturely implementing the law will be considerable. Other parties should also note that attempts to subvert or delay the legal process will not, in the end, pay off. Instead, they may lead to you being brought down, as has happened to Ms Jayalalithaa, at the height of your power.