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15 Feb 2017

Chained-amma vows to rule from cage, Panneer closes ranks with Amma niece

G.C. Shekhar, TT, Chennai, Feb. 14: A pulsating spectacle unfolded around a gaol and a grave south of the Vindhyas tonight after the conviction and the jail term of V.K. Sasikala was restored by the Supreme Court earlier in the day.
A defiant Sasikala pulled a proxy out of her hat, nominating Edappadi K. Palaniswami, a loyalist and PWD minister whose community has a considerable presence in the Assembly, for chief minister.
"I will steer the party even from inside a cage," Sasikala declared tonight in Chennai, although the Supreme Court had said in the morning that the convicts should surrender "forthwith".
At night itself, the reply to Sasikala's implicit threat to keep a watch from jail was fired from Marina Beach, from where a mutiny was mounted last week.
O. Panneerselvam, the caretaker chief minister who stands to gain from Sasikala's conviction, appeared at Jayalalithaa's memorial with Deepa Jayakumar, Amma's niece who resembles the aunt. "The AIADMK has a bright future and I will function with Mr. Panneerselvam to strengthen the party," Deepa said.
The OPS or Panneerselvam camp is hoping that once Sasikala is safely locked up in prison near Bangalore, her fortifications will crumble and the MLAs now with her will flock to him.
After the Supreme Court verdict, two more MLAs declared support to Panneerselvam, who reached out to the Sasikala camp by urging the MLAs to reunite so that "Amma's (Jayalalithaa) government can continue to fulfil her dreams without any interruption".
"Let us forget the unsavoury incidents of the recent past. There should be no problem in restoring the importance that everyone used to enjoy while coming back together," he added.
Sasikala will not be able to contest an election for 10 years because the law bars a convict from becoming a poll candidate for six years from the date of the end of the sentence. Sasikala has been sentenced to four years in jail.
But by picking Palaniswami as her OPS, Sasikala has bunged a caste spanner into the AIADMK matrix.
The choice of Palaniswami, who belongs to the Gounder community from western Tamil Nadu, is aimed at retaining the backing of the 27 other MLAs from that community in case of a confidence vote. The community could unite to defend its newfound clout as no Gounder has ever become a chief minister in Tamil Nadu.
If OPS fails to rustle up the support of 117 MLAs to get the required majority in the 233-member House and manages only to whittle down the majority that Palaniswami now commands, the AIADMK could be split vertically.
If the governor, through a secret ballot in the Assembly, determines that no faction commands a majority, he could recommend President's rule without dissolving the Assembly. Since a midterm election at this juncture could only help the DMK, the warring AIADMK groups could be tempted to use the interlude to patch up and put together a government without the influence of Sasikala or her family.
On Sasikala's directive, the 120 MLAs who have been kept in a beach resort 90km from Chennai elected Palaniswami as the legislature party leader and sent him to the governor to stake claim to the post of chief minister.
By nominating a proxy, Sasikala made it clear that she will not allow the deposed Panneerselvam, who has revolted against her, another shot at the chair. She also sent a warning to those in her group by expelling Panneerselvam, education minister K. Pandiarajan and other senior leaders who have switched to OPS's camp.
Sources said Sasikala had to make it clear that she continued to be in charge of the party. Unconfirmed reports said she wanted to seek four weeks to surrender in order to install a government of her choice and make arrangements for her brother Divaharan and nephew Dinakaran to run the affairs in her absence.
Panneerselvam's effort to reach out to the Sasikala camp was a clear invitation to revive the government he took charge of after Jayalalithaa's death with the promise of expanding it by accommodating some senior leaders. He sent Pandiarajan and 12 MLAs and MPs to the beach resort to meet the legislators there, but they were stopped midway by police who feared a law-and-order problem.
The conviction, four-year jail term and Rs 10-crore fine each on V.K. Sasikala and two others have been restored by a Supreme Court bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy. The two other convicts are V. Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s nephew and Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile foster son, and J. Ilavarasi, Sasikala’s sister-in-law. Some of the questions the case has thrown up:
 The Supreme Court asked Sasikala to surrender “forthwith”. But she has not done so till Tuesday night. What does “forthwith” mean?
For practical purposes, “forthwith” means before the jail closes for the day. In this case, the Parappana Agrahara jail, 20km from Bangalore, closes daily at 6pm.  Legally, “forthwith” can mean till 12 midnight. 
Usually, such orders are communicated electronically to the trial court that passes it on to jail officials. In the absence of any specific court relief, Sasikala can be arrested if someone files a complaint of non-compliance with the judicial order.
♦ Isn’t the maximum punishment for the disproportionate assets offence seven years in jail? How did they get away with four years?
Yes, seven years and fine maximum. The minimum punishment is one year, which cannot be reduced by courts. But maximum punishment is left at the discretion of the courts concerned. In this case, the Supreme Court has concurred with the sentence of the trial court.
♦ The late Jayalalithaa had also been convicted by the trial court? Does the conviction stand?
Opinion is sharply divided on the issue.
The Supreme Court said in the judgment: ”... she (Jayalalithaa)  having expired meanwhile, the appeals, so far as those relate to her, stand abated. Nevertheless, to reiterate, having regard to the fact that the charge framed against A2 to A4 (Sasikala, her nephew and sister-in-law) is proved, the conviction and sentence recorded against them by the trial court is restored in full, including the consequential directions.”
Asked, former Supreme Court judge Justice Santosh Hegde told The Telegraph later: “Her conviction remains. Sentence gets abated because she is not there to serve it.”
But former solicitor-general Gopal Subramanian said: “She has not been convicted. The entire case against her has abated.”
♦ The lower court had asked Jayalalithaa to pay a fine of Rs 100 crore. Does the fine still stand?
Again, multiple opinions have arisen.
A quick read-through of the 570-page judgment by the Supreme Court did not yield an explicit order on the recovery of the Rs 100-crore fine originally slapped by the trial court on Jayalalithaa. At the same time, the apex court had said immovable properties of six companies of the four accused, including Jayalalithaa, should be confiscated as the trial court had ordered.
Justice Hegde, the former Supreme Court judge, asserted that the fine could be recovered from Jayalalithaa’s estate. But Subramanian, the former solicitor-general, insisted that it could not be done.
“Her conviction is set aside not on the ground of merit but the conviction abates due to death. But the fine against her is recoverable under law... that’s my understanding of law,” Justice Hegde said.
According to the former judge, the case abates against her only with regard to the criminal sentence. “Fine is over and above that. Fine doesn’t get abated. Her conviction remains. Sentence gets abated, because she is not there to serve it.”
But Subramanian said: “If she is not convicted on account of the abatement of the appeal, the proceeds cannot be realised from her estate. If there is an abatement, the person can neither suffer imprisonment nor be liable to pay fine.”
♦ How will the confusion be cleared?
Sushil Kumar, a senior counsel, had told this newspaper earlier that the Karnataka government’s prosecution had the option of filing an application before the apex court for seizure of the properties.
If it is clarified that Jayalalithaa’s fine is still valid and if her estate fails to pay off, the government can auction two properties — the original (not the extended) portion of her Poes Garden bungalow, a Hyderabad farmhouse and some land purchased before she became chief minister. The bungalow is worth Rs 44 crore and the farmhouse and land  Rs 11 crore.   The rest of the property acquired after 1991 stands attached to the State.
♦ The case took over 20 years.... Jayalalithaa spent a mere 21 days in prison. What does it say of our legal system? 
There is no law in the country that says that a particular trial should be completed within a stipulated period. Usually, several factors are at play — the accused seek repeated adjournments, the prosecution seeks time for submitting evidence and at times, witnesses seek adjournments as they may be preoccupied with their personal and professional lives. An example that stood out:  when this case landed in Karnataka, the accused wanted documents, running into thousands of pages, to be translated from English to Tamil.
It is for Parliament to evolve a law to make it mandatory for trials in all criminal cases to be completed within a stipulated time.

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