Guilty verdict adds twist to Tamil Nadu tussle

Chief minister-hopeful Sasikala found guilty in corruption case, proxy leader promoted

Indian politician V. K. Sasikala was found guilty of graft by a top court yesterday and faces jail time, likely ending her political ambition of becoming the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu state.

A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court found Sasikala, the interim general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, guilty in a disproportionate assets case involving around 660.5 million rupees (S$14 million).

Sasikala was found guilty of "active abetment and conspiracy" in helping the late popular chief minister J. Jayalalithaa buy land and strike up other deals with funds that far exceeded the leader's income.

The two women, who were best friends for the most part of more than three decades, were jailed in 2014 after being convicted by a trial court but won in an appeal in the Karnataka high court.

The judgment yesterday, which restores the trial court order, comes at a crucial time when Sasikala is locked in a battle of succession with caretaker Tamil Nadu chief minister O. Panneerselvam.

The succession battle was triggered by the death of Ms Jayalalithaa on Dec 5 following cardiac arrest.

GOVERNOR'S CALL NOW

The governor will have to make the call. He can't delay any further, but this political uncertainty will continue. It will probably end when she (Sasikala) goes to jail and there is a compromise formula.

DR N. BHASKARA RAO, of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, on breaking the leadership stalemate.

The conviction means Sasikala faces four years in jail and is barred from contesting elections for 10 years. She can appeal against the conviction in the Supreme Court. Her party said it was considering the legal options.

The state of Tamil Nadu has been in the grip of a political crisis following the infighting within the AIADMK, which, under Ms Jayalalithaa, came back to power after assembly elections early last year.

The crisis is threatening the stability of the southern state, which is an auto manufacturing hub and is among India's most prosperous states, and has been successful in getting foreign investments, including from Singapore.

Politics in the state has been dominated by local parties Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the AIADMK, which have alternated in power over five decades.

Yesterday, Mr Panneerselvam, who tweeted "justice prevails" on his Twitter handle, urged unity in the ruling party, which has four years left in power.

"Let us forget the differences, temporary fight and come together to defeat the opposition waiting to split the AIADMK," he wrote.

But the tussle is far from over.

Sasikala, who remained holed up in a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Chennai yesterday, managed to get minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, a loyalist, nominated as the AIADMK legislature party leader.

She also had Mr Panneerselvam and his supporters expelled from the primary membership of the party. Her faction claimed majority support from AIADMK legislators, numbering around 124.

A total of 117 legislators are needed to stake the claim as party leader.

Both sides are claiming a majority, with the decision now resting on the Tamil Nadu governor to invite either or both sides to show that they have majority support to claim the chief minister's post.

"The governor will have to make the call. He can't delay any further, but this political uncertainty will continue. It will probably end when she (Sasikala) goes to jail and there is a compromise formula," said Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.

Convictions against popular and influential leaders are rare in India where corruption in public life remains an area of concern.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Guilty verdict adds twist to Tamil Nadu tussle'. Print Edition | Subscribe