NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court jailed the anointed next leader of Tamil Nadu for four years for corruption Tuesday, heightening the turmoil in a state still reeling from the death of its long-time matriarch.
VK Sasikala was ordered to surrender to prison authorities after judges quashed her acquittal in a $10 million “disproportionate assets” case also involving her mentor, the late chief minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram.
There was no immediate reaction from Sasikala who was not present at the apex court in New Delhi and has been holed up in a resort close to Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai since last week.
But the verdict brought a juddering halt to the 59-year-old’s meteoric rise as she was on the cusp of becoming the leader of one of India’s most populous and prosperous states.
The court ordered she immediately hand herself in to begin serving her sentence, which automatically bars her from holding public office for a decade, as well as fining her 100 million rupees ($1.5 million).
The panel of judges also sentenced her nephew and niece to four years after the Karnataka High Court acquitted all of them in 2015 of any wrongdoing.
“The magnitude of the nefarious gains as demonstrated by the revelations in the case are, to say the least, startling,” Justice PC Ghosh and Justice A Roy wrote in their verdict.
The ruling also said there was “incriminating evidence” against Jayalalithaa, a former film star who died last December after three stints as chief minister.
Sasikala had been anointed as Jayalalithaa’s successor by the state’s dominant All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and was likely to be sworn in later this week.
But she has been involved in a bitter battle with acting chief minister, O Panneerselvam, who has been trying to block her ascent.
Although there was no immediate response to Tuesday’s verdict from Sasikala herself, her party issued a statement saying Panneerselvam and 19 other senior AIADMK rebels had been sacked.
Edappady Palaniswamy, a Sasikala loyalist, was appointed AIADMK leader in place of Sasikala but Panneerselvam is likely to stay on as chief minister while the infighting continues.
“Let us bury the hatchets and stay united for the good of the party and continue the fine governance of Amma,” Panneerselvam told reporters after the verdict, using Jayalalithaa’s nickname.
– Firecrackers –
While the 2014 conviction sparked mass protests, Sasikala does not command anything like the same level of loyalty as Jayalalithaa and there no immediate signs of demonstrations.
Few party workers were at the party headquarters and the only people outside her residence were political rivals who celebrated the verdict by bursting firecrackers and distributing sweets.
“This verdict shows that individuals in public life should not indulge in corruption,” opposition leader M K Stalin told reporters.
Sasikala has taken refuge since last week in a luxury resort alongside several dozen AIADMK state legislators, keeping a close eye on them over fears that Panneerselvam’s camp might poach them before her investiture.
The corruption case dates back to late 1990s when Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were accused of profiting from the chief minister’s office and amassing wealth beyond their income.
They were jointly accused of owning several bungalows, luxury cars, tea estates, eight tons of silver, nearly 30 kilogrammes (66 pounds) of gold and thousands of saris which could be not accounted for.
The court put the overall value of the assets acquired illegally at 660 million rupees, equivalent to around $10 million.
Sasikala was running a video parlour and Jayalalithaa was a budding politician when the two met, which marked the beginning of a decades-long friendship dogged by corruption allegations.
Sasikala’s meteoric rise mirrored that of Jayalalithaa who came to power following the death of her own mentor and regular movie co-star M. G. Ramachandran in 1987.
But unlike Jayalalithaa, who inspired a devotion that verged on the religious, Sasikala is seen as lacking charisma and a solid power base.—AFP