India's Jayalalithaa returns as Tamil Nadu chief minister after being acquitted of graft

Chief of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party Jayalalithaa Jayaram gestures during her swearing-in ceremony as the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in Chennai on May 23, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chief of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party Jayalalithaa Jayaram gestures during her swearing-in ceremony as the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in Chennai on May 23, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - One of India's most powerful politicians returned on Saturday as chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu state, less than a fortnight after a court acquitted her of corruption.

Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram was forced to stand down as chief minister of prosperous Tamil Nadu after being found guilty last September of amassing illegal wealth while in office. The 67-year-old was sentenced to four years' jail and fined 1 billion rupees in a case that ran for nearly two decades, but a higher court cleared her of corruption earlier this month.

The packed venue of Madras University erupted in cheers as Ms Jayalalithaa, draped in an emerald green sari, took an oath in Tamil while her 28 Cabinet ministers stood behind her on the stage.

Throngs of jubilant supporters lined the roads leading to the swearing-in venue in state capital Chennai, waving party flags, as police struggled to control crowds as her heavily-guarded motorcade zoomed past. Hundreds of supporters, many in colourful dress, held up photos of Ms Jayalalithaa, handed out sweets and danced to the beat of drums chanting "Amma Amma" and "Amma is back".

The leader enjoys huge popularity in Tamil Nadu where fans know her simply as "Amma" (Mother) and ministers have been known to prostrate themselves before her.

Ms Jayalalithaa has earned the loyalty of many voters in Tamil Nadu with a series of highly populist schemes including an "Amma canteen" that provides lunch for just three rupees (five cents).

During last year's general election campaign, she garnered huge support by handing out freebies including electric blenders, goats and small amounts of gold.

Ms Jayalalithaa's AIADMK party is the third-largest force in the national Parliament, and she is regarded as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with many of his Bharatiya Janata Party leaders attending her ceremony.

The corruption claims against her were first brought by a rival politician in the state in 1996.

She was charged a year later when police seized assets including 28kg of gold, 750 pairs of shoes and more than 10,000 saris in a raid on her home.

Prosecutors said her assets, which reportedly included two 1,000-acre estates in the lush tropical state she ran, were vastly disproportionate to her earnings during her first term as chief minister, which ran from 1991 to 1996.