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14 Feb 2017

Prison or palace? Tick-tock - Two-judge Supreme Court bench to deliver judgment today

Sasikala turns misty-eyed in Chennai on Monday. (PTI)
R. Balaji and G.C. Shekhar, TT, Feb. 13: The Supreme Court is expected to pronounce on Tuesday the verdict in an assets case involving V.K. Sasikala, making or wrecking her recently articulated political ambitions.
Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and two relatives of Sasikala have been accused of amassing disproportionate assets of Rs 66.65 crore during Amma's first term as chief minister from 1991 to 1996. Since Jayalalithaa passed away in December, the case against her stands abated.
The judgment is scheduled to be delivered at 10.30am by a bench of Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy.
If the top court upholds the high court acquittal, Sasikala will be on course to face a floor test within seven days. The contender to the Poes Garden legacy has claimed the support of over 120 legislators in a House that requires a simple majority of 118.
A guilty verdict would make it extremely difficult for her to retain her flock, especially from jail, and O. Panneerselvam is then expected to retain power in Tamil Nadu.
The third possibility is either an order for a retrial in the lower court or a split verdict that would lead to the formation of a three-member bench in the Supreme Court to hear the appeal afresh.
Given the huge backlog of cases in the Supreme Court, a new bench can take months, if not years, to reach a conclusion. Such an eventuality could help Sasikala consolidate her hold over the legislators, many of whose candidature had been finalised by her earlier. She also controls the purse strings in the party.
Speculation about a split verdict became feverish in the evening because some circles inferred from the cause list, which notifies various cases before the court, that the two judges would pronounce separate judgments.
Separate pronouncements need not always mean that the verdict is split. There can be a "concurring" verdict as well - the judges may give different reasons for passing the judgment either in favour of conviction or acquittal.
The word on the possible schedule of the verdict came soon after it emerged that attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi had asked the acting governor in Tamil Nadu not to delay the process of forming an alternative government "beyond seven days" from today.
Sources said Rohatgi had advised governor Vidyasagar Rao to conduct a "composite floor test" within a week to determine the relative strengths of the rival groups.
Rohatgi is said to have cited the apex court's earlier rulings in the S.R. Bommai, Jagadambika Pal and other cases to say that the proper forum for determining the claim of a person seeking to become the chief minister should only be the "floor of the House".
The advice becomes redundant as the governor's cautious stand till now has been interpreted as a sign that he is waiting for the verdict before convening the floor test.
A Bangalore special court had earlier convicted Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and Sasikala's relatives V.N. Sudhakaran and J. Elasvarasi in the assets case.
The four-year sentence on her had forced Jayalalithaa to resign as chief minister but a single judge of Karnataka High Court reversed the special court's order.
Subsequently, the Karnataka regime had filed an appeal that was heard at length by the top court. The Supreme Court had reserved its verdict on June 7 last year. Usually, the verdict is delivered within one or two months but in this case, it has taken eight months.
Not that the countdown to the judgment led to a let-up in the steady stream of dramatic developments in Tamil Nadu.
Sasikala turned misty-eyed as well as combative today, accusing Panneerselvam of being hand in glove with the DMK.
Later in the day, an AIADMK legislator showed up by the side of Panneerselvam with a "great escape" story. S.S. Saravanan, an MLA from Madurai South, told a cheering crowd at OPS's residence that he had disguised himself, scaled the wall, jumped and walked from the rear of the resort where Sasikala is "protecting" her flock.
But sources said he had all along been hiding in a relative's village near Madurai and reached Chennai this evening. "He is merely spicing up the story," said an insider.
"Very soon, all the MLAs will come here," Saravanan shouted. Just before he surfaced, Gopalakrishnan, the Lok Sabha MP from Madurai, also joined Panneerselvam. The OPS camp now has eight MLAs and 12 MPs.

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