The conviction of AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala in the disproportionate assets case involving her close friend, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, as the prime accused, is a significant marker in India’s legal and political history.
While there is no denying that the judgment has strengthened confidence in the justice delivery system, it is mystifying that the ruling has come more than eight months after the two-member Bench concluded hearing arguments in the case.
Future of AIADMK
Politically, this could not have come at a worse time for Ms. Sasikala, who was making a determined bid to form the government after displacing one-time loyalist O. Panneerselvam.
Twenty-one years after the case began, State Of Karnataka v. Selvi J.Jayalalithaa & Others has ended with the conviction of all the accused under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Final verdict of the Supreme Court
The sentence of the main accused, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, abates since she is no longer alive. V.K. Sasikala must now go to prison for four years, and for six years more she cannot stand for election. The Supreme Court concluded that in 1991 the assets of the accused were valued at Rs. 2.01 crore. By 1996, the accused were worth a whopping Rs. 66.44 crore.
Supreme Court delved in detail into all the loans, the gifts, the valuation of the properties, other incomes and the marriage expenses of Ms. Sasikala’s nephew, and for each one of these upheld the finding of the trial court. The High Court’s finding on the percentage of disproportionate assets being 8.12% was “based on completely wrong reading of the evidence on record compounded by incorrect arithmetical calculations”. The trial court’s judgment was restored in toto.
The details of the case
1. In 1996, Subramanian Swamy filed a criminal complaint under the Act, alleging accumulation of vast wealth through corrupt acts by the erstwhile Chief Minister abetted by her close aide.
2. The case was transferred to Karnataka following attempts by prosecutors in Tamil Nadu to oblige the principal accused, who by this time was back in power as Chief Minister. Two appointments made there proved crucial — the no-nonsense trial judge, Judge D’Cunha, and a seasoned prosecutor, the eminent lawyer B.V. Acharya.
3. In September 2014, the former rendered the judgment, 18 years after inception of the case. He found that during the period 1991-1996, the extent of disproportionate wealth was to the tune of Rs. 58 crore. The main accused was sentenced to four years of imprisonment and asked to pay a fine of Rs. 100 crore. Ms. Sasikala, guilty of abetment, also got a four-year term with a fine of Rs. 10 crore.
4. An appeal was filed in the Karnataka High Court. Bail was denied and the accused moved the Supreme Court. Chief Justice H.L. Dattu granted bail. But curiously, he directed the disposal of the appeal by the High Court in three months. He did so without any request from the accused, and gave no reason.
The last thing an accused wants is an early trial, and the first thing a convicted leader wants is an early hearing of the appeal. The accused in this case benefited on both counts. This capsulated time period would deprive the prosecution of adequate time to present its arguments.
2015 judgement of the Karnataka High Court
In May 2015, Justice C.R. Kumaraswamy of the Karnataka High Court acquitted all the accused. He sharply reduced the value of assets. He steeply increased the income, inflating the amount of loans taken. He brought down the disproportionate wealth to about Rs. 2.8 crore. Even then, there was an 8.12% gap which he sought to overcome by applying a 1976 judgment of the Supreme Court in Krishnanand Agnihotri v. State of Madhya Pradesh.
There the disproportionate amount was only Rs. 11,000, which was less than 10% of the total income, and the court said that this small difference could be condoned. Justice Kumaraswamy did not explain how that could become the norm for a case such as this. It was a judgment crying out for reversal.