The Supreme Court’s landmark verdict on the disproportionate assets case has lent a dramatic edge to Tamil Nadu politics, but over the long term, it promises to further the cause against corrupt politicians. The 570-page judgment comes as an eye-opener to how such politicians can ruthlessly use pliant people and devise stratagems to launder ill-gotten wealth looted from public office. Though the case against Late J Jayalalithaa stands abated, the SC bench is very clear that Jayalalithaa did not accommodate VK Sasikala at her Poes Garden residence ‘out of some philanthropic urge’ — rather, it was with ‘cold-blooded calculation’ to keep herself secure from any legal complications likely from criminal activities. The judges concluded that in the period 1991-96 when Jayalalithaa was Tamil Nadu chief minister, she had come into ‘possession of assets disproportionate to her known sources of income’, and had hatched a ‘criminal conspiracy’ with Sasikala and her two relatives to launder the money by buying up properties in the names of ‘masked fronts’. The judgment mentions that in 1991, the assets of the accused stood at Rs 2.01 crore, but by 1996, had jumped to Rs 66.44 crore. So Sasikala and her two relatives held these assets through shell companies on behalf of Jayalalithaa. The apex court has held Jayalalithaa as the mastermind who misused her public office, ‘masked’ banking exchanges’, acquired vast tracts of land ‘for pittances’ and conspired with her co-accused only to later ‘feign ignorance’ about any crime committed. In particular, it notes that Jayalalithaa had given Sasikala ‘General Power of Attorney’ to handle funds credited to Jaya Publications, and the speed with which they created shell entities (in one instance, 10 firms set up in a single day) that did no business but only bought properties.
It is telling that the Supreme has praised the trial court for being ‘sensitive, vigilant and judicious in its appraisal of the evidence’, while criticizing the Karnataka High Court single bench for going by whatever the income tax authorities found in favour of the four accused. On the question whether private citizens like Sasikala can be prosecuted for public corruption, SC judges Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy have agreed with trial court judge John Michael Cunha that in such case, the accused can be prosecuted for abetting criminal misconduct falling under Section 13(1)(e) of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. Significantly, the verdict ends with a 7-page supplement in which the apex court has made clear its tough activist stand against political corruption. Penned by Justice Roy, it calls upon every citizen ‘to be a partner in the mission to free the civil order from the sprawling evil that is corruption’. It has used some very strong words to describe the ‘all pervading pestilent presence of corruption’ in almost every walk of life, its ‘octopoid’ stranglehold and ‘cancerous’ concoctions. “This pernicious menace stemming from moral debasement of the culpables, apart from destroying the sinews of the nation’s structural and moral set-up, forges an unfair advantage of the dishonest over the principled, widening as well the divide between the haves and have-nots,” notes Justice Roy. Thus it is that Jayalalithaa’s political legacy is in danger of being thoroughly discredited in the days to come, despite the AIADMK supremo’s success in making Tamil Nadu an economic powerhouse with strong welfare policies for the poor, a model other states are studying to emulate. It now turns out that Jayalithaa had been seriously ill for nearly a year, with Sasikala filling in the shoes of ‘Amma’. The number of shell companies run by Sasikala’s Mannargudi clan is suspected to have crossed 107 by the last count, with links to liquor, films, entertainment, mills, agriculture, real estate, transport, exports, investment and finance — all laundering money and evading taxes in hundreds of crores. There is growing consternation, in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, that convicted politicians of the ilk of VK Sasikala are seeking to function through proxies. This is something that courts will find difficult to neutralize, unless an enlightened citizenry decides enough is enough and boots them out with the vote.