New Delhi, Nov. 24: The Supreme Court today cleared Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa of corruption charges in the Tansi land deal cases, drawing the curtains down on a legal battle that could have ended her political career.
But the acquittal, which spared her the embarrassment of having to step down and being barred from contesting elections, did not come without a stinging rebuke.
The court held Jayalalithaa “morally” responsible for violating the “code of conduct” that prohibits a public servant from purchasing government property and berated her for going to “any length” to “save her skin”.
Justices S. Rajendra Babu and P. Venkatarama Reddi made it clear that they let her off as such a code did not have “statutory force” and was “not enforceable in a court of law”. But they said the ADMK chief must “atone” by “answering her conscience” and “return the property” to the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation “unconditionally”.
A relieved Jayalalithaa thanked god for the verdict. “It is all god’s will. Thanks be to god, that’s all,” she said at her Poes Garden residence in Chennai. She also spoke to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for 10 minutes at the Chennai airport. Vajpayee was in the city to attend the funeral of DMK leader Murasoli Maran, who died yesterday.
The acquittal marks an amazing turnaround in Jayalalithaa’s political fortunes, which had touched their nadir as the Tansi cases advanced from court to court. A trial court conviction had prevented her from contesting the 2001 elections and the Supreme Court’s annulment of her coronation later had forced her to resign as chief minister.
Today, the apex court, which dismissed appeals against the ADMK chief’s acquittal in the case earlier by Madras High Court, underlined that her conduct was opposed to the “spirit” of the code of conduct, “if not its letter”.
“Morally speaking, can there be one law for small officials of the government and another law for the chief minister' In matters of such nature, is the code of conduct meant only to be kept as an ornamental relict (or relic) in a museum but not to be practised'” they said.
The scathing condemnation followed soon. “In her anxiety to save her skin,” Jayalalithaa, the judges said, “went to any length, even to deny her signature on documents which her auditor and other government officials identified.”
The bench said that while Jayalalithaa could not be convicted, morally “people in public life must perform their duties in a spirit of public service rather than by assuming power to indulge in callous cupidity regardless of self-imposed discipline”.
The judges, however, made a distinction between a government property and that of Tansi, a corporation, “which is a separate and distinct entity from the government”.
The bench said the “properties in question belong to Tansi” and added that a corporation has “complete control” over its properties, except when the “said properties are to be alienated”. In that case, “approval of the government has to be obtained as provided under the articles of association of the said corporation”.
When such property has to be sold, government approval is necessary and it is the chief minister who takes the decision, they added. “When such a chief minister is interested in purchasing the property, the bureaucracy will be over-enthusiastic to see that the sale goes through smoothly and at a price desired by such chief minister.”
To make their point, the judges said even officers “holding small posts like a railway property keeper or a cattle pound keeper or a process nazir who is put in charge of the sale of properties in a court auction cannot purchase the properties over which they have control”.
Despite the censure, the verdict ended suspense over its political fallout. With Jayalalithaa trying to emerge as the sheet-anchor of a third front, almost all parties have been following the developments in the case with anxiety.
Recently, a survey by the National Democratic Alliance had forecast that Jayalalithaa, along with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, would be one of the three major players in the post-poll scenario. An adverse ruling by the apex court would have upset her calculations.
“Now we would try and project her as the third front’s prime ministerial candidate,” said a top aide of the chief minister from Chennai.