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Sword of SC verdict hangs over her head as Sasikala takes over as CM

S Murari | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 5:41 IST

As All Anna DMK General Secretary VK Sasikala takes over as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu Tuesday, the Supreme Court has announced that it would pronounce its long-delayed verdict on the assets case in which she is a co-accused, along with the late J Jayalalithaa, in a week.

While the case against Jayalalithaa will abate now that she is no more, a finding can be given in the case relating to Sasikala and three others who stand arraigned as co-conspirators in amassing wealth of Rs 56 crore disproportionate to their known sources of income between 1991 and 1996.

Jaya, Sasikala and others were found guilty by a Bengaluru special court in September 2014 and sentenced to four years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 100 crore each.

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The verdict led to the instant disqualification of Jayalalithaa as chief minister and O Pannerselvam had to step in and hold the fort until the Karnataka High Court acquitted all of them in March 2015.

Karnataka, which had prosecuted the case upon its transfer from Tamil Nadu after witnesses turned hostile, challenged the acquittal in the Supreme Court in May 2015. A two-judge bench of the apex court reserved its order on the case in June 2016.

The Karnataka government's special counsel Dushyant Dave raised the issue before the SC bench Monday and judges assured him that a verdict would be delivered in a week.

An adverse verdict against Sasikala will mean the end of the road for her as the SC is the last court of appeal.

What had made matters worse for both Jaya and Sasikala was that during the 18 years that the case dragged on in the courts, the Representation of the People Act was amended to ensure mere conviction was enough to cause instant disqualification of an elected official. Previously, the law provided for disqualification only if the person was sentenced to over two years in prison.

In 2000, Jaya had been convicted in two corruption cases and sentenced to 25 months imprisonment, leading to her disqualification. Her nomination for the 2001 assembly election was rejected on this ground. Yet, she campaigned and led the AIADMK to victory. And the party duly elected her as the leader, leaving the then governor with no choice but to swear her in as the chief minister.

The Supreme Court, though, ruled that she could not be chief minister when she was not qualified to be an MLA, and directed her to step down and clear her name first. She managed to get acquitted on appeal, and returned as chief minister in March 2003.

The assets case was the only one remaining which, on the basis of poor advice from her legal counsel, she dragged for 18 years. The Bengaluru court's judgment in 2014 came as a mortal blow to Jaya, leading to not only her instant disqualification but also instant imprisonment in a Bengaluru jail. Sasikala and other accused were also jailed.

Her acquittal by the Karnataka High Court had outraged Karnataka as it was seen as a travesty of justice. Jayalalithaa could return to the assembly only if she was acquitted outright as mere finding of guilt would have been enough to attract disqualification under the RPA. The court, though, found, allegedly through an arithmetical error, that the quantum of wealth acquired during the check period was within the 10% appreciation allowed by a Andhra Pradesh High Court judgment.

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Over the course of the hearing of the case in the Supreme Court, the judges observed that mere acquisition of wealth disproportionate to known sources of income was not enough to convict a person. It had to be proved that it was ill-gotten money.

Karnataka's special prosecutor BV Acharya, who conducted the case in the trial court, said there was a fair chance of the apex court overturning the high court order of acquittal. He also said that while the case against Jaya will abate, Sasi and others will have to face the verdict whichever way it goes.

Sasikala is aware of what is coming. She has decided to brazen it out as she did when buying a multiplex while Karnataka's appeal against her acquittal was pending before the apex court.

Sasikala is set to be sworn in Tuesday morning at the University Centenary Auditorium. Along with her, 32 ministers are expected to be sworn in. She is expected to retain most members of Pannerselvam's cabinet, bringing in only the old hands KA Sengottayan and Senthil Balaji, whom she has rehabilitated recently.

Reportedly, Sasikala may make Panneerselvam the deputy chief minister to help her face the assembly as well as with administrative matters. Pending the governor's return from New Delhi, his secretary has said Panneerselvam will continue in office as the caretaker until the new ministry is sworn in.

Apollo clears air

Meanwhile, rebutting reports in the social media maliciously linking her to the death of Jaya, Sasikala today asked the Apollo Hospital to clear the air.

A team of doctors, including British expert Richard Peale, said Jaya was admitted with lung infection and put on ventilator support. She had bacteria in her blood stream, from where they spread to her organs, and finally to the heart.

She was on and off conscious while on ventilator. Later, tracheostomy, which involves making an incision in the wind pipe to ease breathing, was done.

Jaya also had co-morbidity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure. She was sedated and whenever she was conscious, she communicated with the doctors in sign language. At no stage was any amputation done, as was rumoured in the social media, the doctors said.

As regards the controversy over the thumb impression obtained from Jaya for the nomination papers of a candidate, a doctor said it was so because she was on IV fluid and her right hand was swollen.

She was slowly recovering when in a sudden setback, she suffered a cardiac arrest.

She was conscious at that time and complained of breathlessness. All the doctors treating her were around during the resuscitation process. In the end stage, extracorporeal oxygenation, a kind of substitute for heart and lungs, was used to revive her heart. But after a few hours, it was stopped. The end came at 12.20 am on 6 December, the doctors said.

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First published: 6 February 2017, 10:23 IST