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Book excerpt: N Ram on how Jayalalithaa took grand corruption to new heights

N Ram’s new book examines political corruption in contemporary India. In this excerpt, he points out that “rule-bound scientific corruption” escalated under Jayalalithaa

books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:51 IST
N Ram
N Ram
Hindustan Times
N Ram,Jayalalithaa,Tamil Nadu
Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK General Secretary J. Jayalalithaa (1948-2016) waves to her party supporters.(R Senthil Kumar/PTI)

In the three decades following MGR’s death, the two dominant parties in the state took turns to develop, refine, upgrade, and scale up the corruption system put in place in the early 1980s. Escalating political and electoral financing needs, the desire of political leaders and their kin for personal enrichment to levels previously unheard of in the state, and the abundance of opportunity that charisma, stardom, and mass popularity offered strong leaders in a relatively developed state with decent economic growth rates combined to make Tamil Nadu’s system of grand corruption what it is today, something akin to an autonomous subformation within a social formation.

Jayalalithaa’s last five years in office saw rule-bound scientific corruption escalate. As we have seen, she had been twice convicted and then acquitted on appeal on corruption charges, and at the time of her death she was awaiting the Supreme Court of India’s final verdict in the disproportionate assets case. But this stressful experience does not seem to have acted as a deterrent to taking grand corruption to new heights. During the state’s Legislative Assembly election campaign in April 2016, Amit Shah, the BJP president, accused Jayalalithaa’s government of being ‘the most corrupt’ in the country. Five months later, soon after the Chief Minister had been hospitalized, a senior BJP minister confided in me that when it came to corruption Tamil Nadu ranked ‘Number One’ in India and that this assessment was based not on hearsay or general impressions, but on concrete evidence available with the central government.

An article published in The Caravan soon after Jayalalithaa’s death offered an interesting explanation for how she had got away with her mode of governance:

Nothing stuck to her, neither corruption charges nor charges of being an autocrat, or for that matter, accusations of land-grabbing. This is because in her person, she reconciled popular need and state action, and to doubt her meant that one was casting aspersions on the notion of popular sovereignty itself. This explains all those defamation cases, and her unwillingness to listen to criticism, unless it appealed to her…she existed as the very source of popular legitimacy, never mind her disinterest in democracy.

This insight has wider and troubling significance for the fight against corruption in India. When a strong and charismatic leader with mass appeal and a loyal organization to support her or him makes a bold stand invoking the notion of popular sovereignty, anti-corruption campaigns rarely succeed in making a major political impact. In such cases campaigners against corruption face two difficult challenges: they need to prove corruption through robust evidence; and they need to persuade millions of voters that popular legitimacy is no defence, and the notion of popular sovereignty no argument, against proven corruption in a social environment where people believe that most politicians are corrupt.

To return to the Tamil Nadu story. It is now clear that while Jayalalithaa was hospitalized and fighting for her life, the BJP government was biding its time to strike. The opening shot was fired three days after the Chief Minister’s death. Closely coordinated income tax raids unearthed a black money racket operated by J Sekhar Reddy and K Sreenivasulu, two politically connected businessmen engaged in river sand mining and construction in Tamil Nadu and allegedly enjoying a cosy relationship with senior bureaucrats and the top AIADMK leadership. With the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation moving into action, cases filed under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and the Prevention of Corruption against the businessmen, their associates, and unnamed public servants, and several arrests made, it became clear that this was no ordinary income tax raid.

N Ram (SR Raghunathan/The Hindu)

With the trail leading straight to Chief Secretary P Rama Mohana Rao, income tax searches were conducted at his residence, other relevant premises, and, most dramatically, his office in the State Secretariat. Moving in without informing the Chief Minister and engaging Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in the income tax raids seemed to be designed to send a tough message to the state government — ‘we can do this to any of you and we know most of you are sitting ducks’. Few, however, could disagree with the view, articulated among others by the displaced Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu, that had Chief Minister Jayalalithaa been alive and in charge at Fort St George, the central government would not have dared to resort to such action.

The political situation in Tamil Nadu took a series of dramatic turns in the weeks following the death of Jayalalithaa. The ruling party, despite being able to muster a majority through dubious means on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, was riven with internal dissension, severely weakened, and in danger of losing its popular legitimacy. In early April 2017, there was more political drama following raids conducted by the income tax department in twenty-one places in Chennai and eleven elsewhere in the state belonging to Dr C Vijaya Baskar, minister for health, and his associates. The raids were based on information received on tax evasion and distribution of cash during the by-election in Chennai’s Dr Radhakrishnan Nagar Assembly constituency, which had fallen vacant with Jayalalithaa’s death. With the income tax department forwarding the incriminating information, which suggested that apart from the Health Minister, the central figure, several political leaders belonging to the ruling party were involved in a racket to distribute cash totalling 89 crore as bribes to voters in the constituency, to the Election Commission of India, the latter moved swiftly to cancel the by-election.

The fourteen-page order of the ECI44 setting out the circumstances and reasons behind the cancellation of the by-election tells a sorry story of how, despite adopting extraordinary measures, the constitutional authority could not prevail against ‘a huge and systematic design to distribute money to voters in order to induce/bribe them to influence their voting behaviour.’ Nothing in the order suggests that the corrupted by-election would have been cancelled if the income tax department had not acted on the information that came fortuitously to hand. The ECI finally consoled itself with the thought that top political leaders could not feign ignorance of such illegal activities by their party candidates, especially in some states that have ‘excelled in innovating more and more subtle ways to circumvent the statutory provisions enacted by Parliament to curb the menace of money power in elections’ and that ‘the innovative ways which the political parties and their leaders at the top echelons have devised to bypass the law’ needed to be ‘dealt with a heavy hand’.

Read more: Jayalalithaa had a knack of creating fear: Amma’s biographer Vaasanthi

What is the future of the state’s grand corruption system? Will it remain intact, continue to flourish, or will it prove to be soft and vulnerable and disintegrate in the face of attacks by the opposition, investigations by journalists and official agencies, judicial intervention, and, above all, the erosion of popular legitimacy?

Nobody can answer these questions with any confidence, but the opportunity beckons. Now is the time to target Tamil Nadu’s scientific system of political corruption, not by underhand political manipulation from the centre, not by making exaggerated claims and allegations, but with precision and detail and by marshalling anti-corruption resources and campaigning actively on the issue among the people. It may be too much to expect a grand corruption system that has been decades in the making to be dismantled any time soon but from a democratic standpoint, it would be irresponsible not to make a resourceful and well-prepared strategic charge.

First Published: Jul 07, 2017 17:40 IST