An amazing combination of beauty, intelligence and benevolence. That has been what is J Jayalalithaa, a colourful leader who has ruled Tamil Nadu four times keeping out her formidable rival, one of India’s shrewdest, oldest and most popular politicians, Karunanidhi, the 90-year old patriarch of Dravidian politics. Beautiful because history corroborates that she ruled the roost on the silver screen alongside its icon and her mentor, MGR. And she was the one who threw to the winds the taboos, to launch a mini skirt on the stage for the first time, if oldies could recall! She has been so intelligent and powerful later in politics that all men came to her prostrating, and a hysterical women folk worship their ‘Amma’ in gratitude for all things she has done to their life as a Chief Minister whose majesty reached out to the grass roots.
Every time she was thrown out, every time she has bounced back. Now she is again behind bars, will she or will she not this time? And that is the million dollar question on everybody’s lips.
The sentences were out on Saturday in the disproportionate assets case against her and others. Jayalalithaa, along with her friend and associate Sasikala Natarajan, Sasikala’s nephew VN Sudhakaran and Sasikala’s niece, J Ilavarasi, was awarded four years in prison. In addition, Jayalalithaa was fined Rs 100 crore and the others Rs 10 crore each. All four were arrested and sent to jail.
This is the first time a serving Chief Minister has been sentenced and sent to jail thus bringing an end to an 18-year long legal battle.
The beginning of an eventful journey
On Feb 24 1948, young Sandhya gave birth to a bundle of joy that the world would later come to know as J Jayalalithaa. Little did Sandhya know that her daughter’s life would be like a roller coaster, one that would have many a twists & turns, highs & lows.
After the untimely death of her husband, Sandhya moved to Bangalore and wanted her daughter to have a good education. Jayalalithaa was put into Bishop Garden Girls High School. Later she and her mother moved to Chennai, where she was admitted to Presentation Convention Church Park. Jayalalithaa was good at academics and even won a scholarship to pursue higher studies. Besides academics, she also trained in classical dance. She was 15 and wanted to study further but her mother Sandhya had other plans.
The world of cinema
The cinema industry was looking very promising and the mother felt that Jayalalithaa would have a better chance in life as an actor. She was right. Jayalalithaa went on to act with stalwarts like Shivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran (MGR). She built her own fan following acting in over 140 Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films.
MGR and AIADMK
Meanwhile, she developed a close working rapport with MGR, who had bigger ambitions in politics. In 1977, in the aftermath of the emergency, MGR’s party, AIADMK won the state elections and he was elected as the Chief Minister. Jayalalithaa saw MGR as her mentor, both in cinema and later in politics. MGR went on to serve three consecutive terms as Chief Minister and it was a matter of time before Jayalalithaa would follow her mentor.
In 1982, she joined AIADMK and her life in active politics had begun. She became a very visible face of AIADMK, under the stewardship of MGR. In 1987, MGR died while in office and the party fell prey to inner squabbling for control.
MGR’s widow, Janaki, led one faction to claim AIADMK’s legacy, while the other faction led by Jayalalithaa, believed she had earned her political spurs to claim MGR’s legacy. The bitter power struggle saw the party split a year later.
Soon after, Jayalalithaa’s faction would make a strong come back and in 1991, she won the election on the AIADMK platform. Her dream of taking on her mentor’s mantle had finally been realized. She was sworn in as the Chief Minister. From here on, her life would be one of political intrigue, legal battles and a constant fight for survival.
While in office, in 2001 she was embroiled in a corruption case related to acquisition of state owned property, in a case that later came to be known as the Tansi case. The courts held her guilty and she was prevented from contesting the state elections that year.
She fought back with an appeal and in 2002, the Madras High Court absolved her of some of the charges against her. This opened up a window for her and she fought a by-election from Andipattiand was once again re-elected as a Chief Minister.
This time around she was aggressive and went after all those who stood against her. She won some friends but she also lost some. While she would continue to claim Rs 1 as her salary as Chief Minister, the assets she acquired during her tenure in office would come back to haunt her and her longtime friend and associate, Sasikala Natarajan.
The case against her
As per the prosecution, J Jayalalithaa had declared assets of Rs 3 crore in 1991. In her five year tenure, she along with Sasikala, her foster son Sudhakaran (whom she has subsequently disowned), and Sasikala’s niece J Ilavarasi, together built an asset base of over Rs 66.6 crore. A claim that Jayalalithaa disputed.
Going back, the trigger to media attention, was the high profile wedding in 1996 of Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s nephew Jayalalithaa’s foster son (now estranged). The wedding was on a grand scale and was organized at an estimated cost of Rs 5 crore, which was an extravagant sum at the time. This only had the opposition gunning for her and thus began a series of cases that was to dog her for a long time.
She is accused of using Sasikala and her associates for creating some 32 companies, which were mostly front companies and used to acquire a 1000 acre estate at Kodanadu in the Nilgiris and another 1000 acre property in Tirunelvelli. In addition, she is also accused of acquiring over 28 kg of gold along with extravagant collection of dresses and accessories which include 12,000 sarees. This is indeed quite an acquisition for someone claiming to receive Rs 1 as salary!
Long drawn legal battle
Subramanium Swamy, a lawyer and then leader in the Janata Party, filed a case for disproportionate assets against her and aggressively followed up for the last 18 years. He stands vindicated.
This case is unique in many ways. For one, it involves a sitting Chief Minister with the case being tried in another state. On her coming back as Chief Minister in 2001, the DMK had moved court to shift the trial outside the state as it was not possible to get a fair trial in Tamil Nadu, with Jayalalithaa in power. The court concurred and the case was transferred to Karnataka.
Subramanium Swamy’s persistence seems to have paid off, with the special court put up near the Bangalore Central Jail, pronouncing a guilty verdict and a sentence of 4 years in jail. In addition, Jayalalithaa has to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore, while others have to pay Rs 10 crore each.
Jayalalithaa will have the dishonor of being the first serving Chief Minister to be disqualified from office under the recent Supreme Court ruling, which states that any serving law maker that is sentenced to more than two years would stand disqualified from office, with immediate effect.
Furthermore, she will not be allowed to stand for elections for another 10 years, unless a superior court rules otherwise. If the verdict is upheld by the higher court, this would mean the end of a long and chequered career that saw all the highs and lows of life, experienced by very few in the country. Jayalalithaa has been a dogged fighter and has survived many a political battle but this time it may well be curtains for her political career.
The court has not offered her any respite and the Judge ordered her arrest and sent her and her associates straight to jail.
Chennai has been very tense with AIADMK party cadres in disarray and DMK gloating over the judgment. In spite of Jayalalithaa appealing to her party cadres to maintain calm in the run up to the judgment today, there were sporadic incidents of violent protest and effigy burning reported in several parts of the state. Her party workers have also reportedly stoned DMK Chief Karunanidhi’s house today, with cadres from both sides in a faceoff in the city.
Unfortunately, Jayalalithaa has followed MGR’s style of single personality driven politics, with no real second line of leadership in place. That’s pretty much true today, as well and now Jayalalithaa has to choose someone who will hold the seat for her, while she does back seat driving from jail till the next assembly elections, due in another two years. She will want someone who can hold fort and still not emerge a threat to her.
Several names are doing the rounds and include former Advocate General and Rajya Sabha MP, Navaneedakrishnan, former Chief Secretary Sheela Balakrishnan, Visalakshi Nedunchezhian who happens to the wife of late former minister Nedunchezhian, and the former DGP Natraj.
Jayalalithaa is going to have a tough job selecting her replacement and in keeping the party together. For all those used to prostrating before her, the coming times will show the real face of political loyalty.
All this while DMK wrings its hands in glee, all set to pull out the political knives. Four years can be a long time in Tamil politics, even for a 66 year old political survivor like Jayalalithaa.
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