COVER STORY: JAYALALITHA
is a woman of convictions. Consider her priorities immediately after being
sworn in as chief minister of Tamil Nadu on Monday, May 14-safe drinking
water, not a vindictive government; reopening of defunct spinning mills,
not rhetoric on industrialisation; bolstering the public distribution
system, not junk food eateries. Jayalalitha, who promises a government
of convictions, is also a convict-and if you discount Kalyan Singh of
Uttar Pradesh (imprisoned for a day for not maintaining peace in Ayodhya),
the first to become chief minister of an Indian state. In 1989, M. Fathima
Beevi made legal history as the first Indian woman to be appointed a Supreme
Court judge. This past week, as governor of Tamil Nadu, she wrote herself
into the chronicles again by inviting Jayalalitha, general secretary of
the AIADMK, to take charge of the state. Politicians, journalists, professional
pundits-every variety of person who makes a living by explaining life
in terms of precedents-were for once silenced. Jayalalitha's brazenness
had no equivalent, no parallel at no time in no democracy.
CONVICTION OF POWER: Despite all odds and indictment in three of
the dozen-odd cases against her, Jayalalitha was sworn in as chief
minister by Governor Fathima Beevi (right)
Why is Jayalalitha, one-time movie star, all-time
prima donna, M.G. Ramach-
andran's favourite heroine and political legatee, Brahmin queen-usurper
some would say-of an avowedly subaltern Dravida movement, such a singularity?
She faces a dozen-odd cases for acts of corruption in her previous term
in office (1991-1996). M. Karunanidhi's DMK government-which lost the
recent assembly election-had set up special courts to try her. In three
of the cases (see box), Amma, as she is known among the faithful, had
been found guilty.
On October 9, 2000, in the tansi land deal case-where
Jayalalitha was accused of selling public land at a throwaway price to
a favoured company-the imperious Iyengar was sentenced to separate prison
terms of three years and two years. This is what disqualified her from
contesting the state election seven months later. As per Section 8 of
the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, those convicted in a
criminal case and sent to jail for more than 24 months are barred from
elections for six years.
While this clause has existed in the rulebook
for 50 years, its interpretation has been varied. Convicted criminals
who were out on bail and had appealed before a higher court happily contested
the polls. In 1996, as then election commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy
recalls, "Of the 13,592 candidates for the Lok Sabha election, 1,500
faced criminal records or had been convicted." Forty of them eventually
Suitably exercised, the Election Commission
(EC) in August 1997, asked the returning officers to follow the RPA provisions
more strictly. Being out on bail was not enough, the conviction would
have to be kept in abeyance ("stayed") by the higher court appealed
to. To Jayalalitha's misfortune, the Madras High Court suspended her sentence
but, explicitly, not her conviction. As such, the returning officers-she
filed papers from four seats, itself an illegality-rejected her candidature.
Yet, when the AIADMK swept the election, its MLAs duly chose Jayalalitha
as their leader. The political dominatrix was chief minister again.
Strangely, Jayalalitha's case was anticipated
by the courts two decades ago. In 1980, V.C. Shukla of the Congress stood
for election from the Mahasamund Lok Sabha constituency despite being
convicted in the Kissa Kursi Ka case. Along with Sanjay Gandhi, he had
been charged with the destruction of reels of a satirical film. Shukla
had appealed and was out on bail when his nomination paper was accepted
by the returning officer.
The decision was challenged in the Madhya Pradesh
High Court. Well after Shukla won the election, the then justice J.S.
Verma-later to preside over the Supreme Court-declared the returning officer's
action incorrect. Meanwhile, in the Kissa Kursi Ka case, Shukla appealed
to the Supreme Court and was acquitted. This meant he was exonerated with
retrospective effect and nullified any period he may have been a convict.
So despite ratifying Verma's ruling-it was correct on the day it was made-the
apex court in effect upheld the acceptance of Shukla's nomination papers.
Justice R.S. Sarkaria did say though that the
"converse"-the nomination papers of a convict on bail being
rejected-had not been clarified but this was only a "hypothetical
situation". Out of that delightfully grey area in the law has walked
in the 21st Century fox-Chief Minister Jayalalitha.