BANGALORE, India (AFP) - The head of India’s largest Tamil party was cleared of corruption Monday, a verdict that sparked wild celebrations by supporters and paved the way for the return of one of the country’s most powerful politicians.
Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram was forced to stand down as chief minister of prosperous Tamil Nadu state after being found guilty last September of amassing illegal wealth while in office.
The former film star was sentenced to four years in jail and fined one billion rupees (S$21 million) in a case that ran for nearly two decades. But High Court judge C R Kumaraswamy declared her “appeal upheld” on Monday at a hearing in the city of Bangalore which lasted only seconds.
“We don’t think there is any ground for appeal. As far as we are concerned, the case is closed,” public prosecutor BV Acharya told reporters outside the court.
Although Jayalalithaa had been forced to quit as chief minister of the southern state, her return is now seen as a formality as she continued to control her party while on bail awaiting the outcome of the appeal. The 67-year-old enjoys huge popularity in Tamil Nadu where fans know her simply as “Amma” (Mother) and ministers have been known to prostrate themselves before her.
Jubilant supporters cheered, handed out sweets and set off fire crackers outside the court, where security had been strengthened ahead of the decision, and in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.
Hundreds of supporters held up photos of Jayalalithaa and danced in the streets chanting “Amma Amma” outside her house in Chennai, formerly known as Madras.
“This was a false case. It was a political vendetta by the opposition to discredit Jayalalithaa but we have got justice from the law,” a leader of her AIADMK party, William Rabi Bernard, told AFP.
“She will take over as chief minister of the state in less than a fortnight.”
Jayalalithaa has always dismissed the corruption charge, first brought by a rival politician in the state in 1996, as politically motivated. She was charged in 1997, when police seized assets including 28 kilos 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.
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, although she has also drawn accusations of an autocratic governing style.
During last year’s general election campaign, she garnered huge support by handing out freebies including electric blenders, goats and small amounts of gold.
Her AIADMK party is the third largest force in the national parliament, and she is regarded as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Jayalalithaa took over the leadership of the AIADMK party after the death of its founder MG Ramachandran – her on-screen love interest in multiple movies.
On Monday, party loyalists had been holding religious ceremonies in temples across Tamil Nadu, praying for her conviction to be overturned.
Jayalalithaa’s three co-accused in the case also had their convictions overturned.
The case was held in Bangalore rather than Tamil Nadu for security reasons and there was a heavy police presence outside the court, with authorities fearing supporters would turn violent if the decision went against her.