The conviction of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case by a Special Court in Bangalore is a significant vindication of a vital constitutional principle — that the rule of law be upheld for all citizens including persons in high public office. Too often have members of the political class managed to get away with the abuse of power, betraying the trust of the people who voted them to office.
Ms. Jayalalithaa is the first serving Chief Minister to be convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act; before her only a handful of political leaders have had to face jail terms in corruption cases. But this conviction did not happen as a matter of ordinary legal course. At every stage, attempts were made to obstruct and delay the judicial process.
It is commendable that the prosecution and the judges involved in this case stood up to the pressures and upheld the principles of justice and fairness. The case was moved to Bangalore in 2003 after the Supreme Court found several attempts to subvert the trial during Ms. Jayalalithaa’s earlier term starting in 2001. Yet, despite the protracted and tortuous course that the legal process took in this case, justice seems to have been finally done.
However, more important than bringing to justice persons abusing public office is establishing systemic checks to prevent abuse of power and influence-peddling. In the last two years or so, there has been a popular upsurge against corruption in high places. While Parliament was forced to take steps to put in place a national anti-corruption institution, the Lok Pal, the judiciary has taken the lead in this regard. But the time taken for the completion of this marathon trial — 18 years — is too long even for a case of this magnitude.
To deal with corruption in public life, the country’s requirements are two-fold: a more effective legal framework to prevent the abuse of power, and procedural reform that would limit the duration of cases without adversely affecting the right of the accused to a fair trial. Saturday’s verdict has had some unfortunate repercussions. Incidents of violence were reported from several parts of Tamil Nadu.
Whoever succeeds Ms. Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu must show statesmanship and political maturity, and ensure the maintenance of law and order without allowing AIADMK party cadre to spill their rage on the streets, directing violence at public property and ordinary citizens. Extra precautions must be taken to prevent any violence escalating into attacks on Kannadigas on account of the verdict being delivered by a court situated in Karnataka.
Ms. Jayalalithaa still has avenues for appeal open to her, and Tamil Nadu should not be allowed to descend into a spiral of violence and destruction.