If you follow Indian news, you may have seen that the (former) Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, is currently in jail after being convicted of corruption charges. Here’s an overview of the case and what we can learn from it.
Who is Jayalalithaa?
Jayalalithaa, often referred to as ‘Amma’ (mother), started off as an actress in South Indian cinema, appearing in more than 140 films. Her political career began in the 1980s, closely associated with the then-Chief Minister and semi-divine MGR, head of the Tamil political party known as the AIADMK. After MGR’s death in 1987, Jayalalithaa positioned herself as his successor, challenging MGR’s wife for power over the party. She eventually won the confidence of the party and the public and became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the first time in 1991.
She lost the next election in 1996 to her main political rival, M. Karunanidhi of the DMK party. The two would trade the role of Chief Minister back and forth over 25 years. Jayalalithaa and her party won the most recent regional election in 2011, and scored overwhelming wins in the 2014 national elections.
This might sound like a soap opera to you, and it makes sense when you learn that all the major players came from the film industry. If you love a good story, check out Mani Ratman’s film Iruvar, which tells the officially fictitious, but undeniable reality of the story.
What is the case?
The lawyers of the DMK brought a case against Jayalalithaa in 1996 for having ‘disproportionate assets.’ They proved that during her first reign as Chief Minister (1991-1996), she amassed 53 crore rupees (around US$8.5 million) of assets that she could not account for. In addition to massive amounts of land-grabbing, the lawyers also proved that she spent more than 3 crores (US$500,000) on a single wedding in 1995.
On September 27th 2014, Jayalalithaa and three of her associates were found guilty of these charges. She was sentenced to four years in jail and a 100 crore fine (US$16 million). In addition, she was forced to step down as the Chief Minister.
Why did the ruling take so long?
The DMK first brought the case against her in June of 1996, immediately after they came back into power. Jayalalithaa has always maintained that the case is an example of vendetta politics, and she is right. The DMK knows that if they can strike down the rival party’s leader, they will be in a much stronger position. However, that doesn’t make their claims untrue.
The original case was moved to Bangalore after Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2001, which involved a reexamination of all the witnesses.
Indian courts are infamously slow. One report said that there are 31.28 million pending cases across the country, and it would take 320 years to clear them all. Hearings regularly get adjourned for long periods of time. #Timeiseternal
Is this a major crackdown on corruption in India?
This is actually the third time Jayalalithaa has been convicted of a crime, and the second time she has had to step down. Charges brought against her in 2001 forced her to relinquish control for a few months until she was acquitted.
Using a political position for personal gain has largely been assumed to be the norm in India. No one was shocked to hear that this happened, and even her supporters would likely acknowledge the fact that she probably did it.
It would be wrong to think that the DMK is on a campaign to root out corruption. They had their own major issues during their last term, including the popular 2G scam which saw their own party members headed to jail. In fact, voters chose Jayalalithaa in 2011 in part because she is currently seen as tougher on corruption than Karunanidhi of the DMK.
Has she been booed out of politics forever?
One of the more interesting cultural aspects of the case is the display of unwavering support for Jayalalithaa. Her entire party has stood behind her, never flinching in her innocence, despite overwhelming evidence. Even many in the general public show her support. The Hindu reports that as many as 16 people have killed themselves over the news of her arrest. The entire Tamil film industry fasted for a day and shut down filming to show their support. 12,000 private schools closed their doors for a day in her honor.
Here is a billboard recently put up in Chennai:
It translates to ‘How can a man judge God?’
What we can learn from the Jayalalitha verdict?
- Indian political parties are largely personality based. The AIADMK cannot turn their back on Jayalalithaa partly because without her, there is no party. They don’t have a platform they stand behind as much as a person. Also, to speak out against the leader of a party is political suicide. Due to her recent success and power, Jayalalithaa is seen as divine in her own way.
- The Indian public is very forgiving of powerful leaders. Despite knowing all these charges were against her, she still enjoys a massive following. Why? Because she is a powerful figure, and Indians want someone in power to be powerful. #PowerPlays You saw this same attitude towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots is much less definite than Jayalalithaa’s in this corruption case; but in both, the common man says “Even if it was true, that was so long ago, and they have learned from their actions.” It would not be surprising to see Jayalalithaa back in politics after this blows over.
- Corruption is a hot topic, but anticorruption measures are still far from being effective. This is the first time that a sitting CM has ever been forced to step down as a result of a conviction. It’s a great sign that the courts are willing to take such a bold move. However, remember that this entire case was not brought about by an independent investigation, but by a political rival with nothing to lose. (The DMK had one of its worst elections ever in 2014.)
- Tamil politics, just like the cinema, always provides a lot of great drama.
Next up, we’ll look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the US! Be sure to subscribe to stay up to date with the latest posts.