The stage has been set for the return of J. Jayalalithaa as chief minister of Tamil Nadu with the Karnataka High Court setting aside a trial court judgment that held her guilty last year in a disproportionate assets case. Justice C.R. Kumaraswamy ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the charges and overturned Justice John Michael D’Cunha’s order. Sentenced to four years imprisonment, Jayalalithaa had to resign as CM, as mandated by the Representation of the People Act (RPA). It is a travesty of the investigation process and the judicial system that a case involving a high-profile political personality took 18 years to be decided by the trial court. It is even more appalling that the verdict of the trial court could not stand the scrutiny of the higher judiciary.
Leaving aside the merits of the case, the HC verdict raises questions about the legal framework that bars a person with a prison sentence of more than two years from being a part of electoral democracy. This may seem like a strong deterrent to the criminalisation of politics, but a closer look at the record of our judicial system indicates that to hold a person guilty before she exhausts the various levels of redress in the judicial 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 Supreme Court ruled on the RPA in 2013, the law had held that a convicted person could hold on to political office until she had exhausted various appeals. The impact of Jayalalithaa’s case since the trial court verdict points to the absurd situation the present RPA provision can lead to. When Jayalalithaa was forced to quit the CM’s office in the wake of Justice D’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 the 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 — are likely to appeal the order in the SC.
The Jayalalithaa case highlights two imperatives. One, the need for foolproof 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 she completes the appeals process. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in the recent past talked about fast-track courts to adjudicate on corruption cases involving politicians. The government must act on it.