Waves of protests follow jailing of corrupt Indian chief minister

Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, 66, was found guilty of corruption by a Bangalore court on September 27 and sentenced to four years in prison.

Supporters of J Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of India's Tamil Nadu state and chief of the AIADMK party, protest against her conviction for corruption outside a court in the southern Indian city of Chennai on September 27. Reuters
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NEW DELHI // A week after her conviction in a corruption case, the deposed Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa continues to inspire waves of political protests and dramatic displays of loyalty in her state.

Ms Jayalalithaa, 66, was found guilty of corruption by a Bangalore court on September 27 and sentenced to four years in prison. She was immediately forced to step down as chief minister, and she has been held in a jail in Bangalore ever since.

Her bail plea comes up for hearing on Tuesday.

At least 20 people across Tamil Nadu have killed themselves, allegedly over their despair at the conviction, according to members of Ms Jayalalithaa’s party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This list of suicides includes lower-rung party workers but also Ms Jayalalithaa’s supporters outside the AIADMK.

The AIADMK has also organised mass protests and hunger strikes across the state over the past week, claiming that Ms Jayalalithaa was wrongfully convicted and that rival parties influenced the verdict.

The party’s information technology division has started a campaign on WhatsApp, the phone chat service, sending hundreds of thousands of messages to mobile phone users, claiming Ms Jayalalithaa’s innocence. Some AIADMK members organised religious rituals at temples to pray for her swift release; others embarked on a protest march from Chennai to Bangalore.

On Sunday, a federation of private bus operators suspended operations in solidarity with Ms Jayalalithaa, taking 6,000 buses off the roads for the day. An association of private schools has announced that 4,500 schools in Tamil Nadu will be closed on Tuesday.

“These are all shows of loyalty,” said Peer Mohamed, a Chennai-based political analyst. “People are competing with each other to show their loyalty. It’s almost a feudal mindset, as if they’re thinking that if they do such things, their leader will appreciate their pains and efforts.”

Mr Mohamed traced this back to the cult of personality that has prevailed in the state’s politics, even growing more noticeable over the last couple of decades.

“It’s true that Tamil Nadu is a developed state with a diverse economy,” he said. “But the leaders of both the AIADMK and the DMK [the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the main rival party] have encouraged this cult of personality to persist and grow.

“It is in the best interests of these leaders to do so, because then they cut out any competition for leadership,” he said. “This is why we see such mass displays of loyalty, in such situations.”

Similar staged protests, suicides and public melodrama have accompanied other events in Tamil Nadu’s political history: the death of Ms Jayalalithaa’s mentor, M G Ramachandran, in 1987, for instance, or the 2001 arrest and week-long incarceration of her rival, M Karunanidhi, over corruption charges.

Some protests have even turned tragically violent. In 2000, AIADMK workers set a bus on fire after Ms Jayalalithaa was convicted in an earlier corruption case. Three college students died in the blaze. Ms Jayalalithaa was later judged to be innocent in that case.

Ms Jayalalithaa’s imprisonment also leaves her party beset by curious contradictions.

On the one hand, the AIADMK is clearly the most popular party in Tamil Nadu at the moment. Earlier this summer, during the national election, the party won 37 out of the 39 parliamentary seats in the state. In the Tamil Nadu assembly, the AIADMK and its allies control 203 out of 234 seats.

But if Ms Jayalalithaa serves her full term in prison – and if, as mandated by the court, she is also to remain away from electoral politics for six years after her release – the AIADMK will be left without a clear leader, vulnerable to infighting and factionalism. The extent to which the party revolves around Ms Jayalalithaa could be gauged at the swearing in ceremony of new chief minister O Panneerselvam last week. Mr Panneerselvam as well as a number of ministers in his cabinet were openly weeping at the turn of events, even as they took their oaths of office.

A loyalist of Ms Jayalalithaa, Mr Panneerselvam had served as chief minister between September 2001 and March 2002 under similar circumstances, when she had been prevented from holding office by a

court while under investigation in yet another corruption case. She was acquitted on that occasion as well.

“At that time, Jayalalithaa was able to run the party by remote control, because she was kept away only for a short time,” one senior AIADMK member, told The National on Monday. “But if, this time, she’s really going to be kept away by the court for 10 years, then it will be very difficult for her to keep control of the party.”

Ms Jayalalithaa would be 76 by the time she is allowed to return to electoral politics, he added. “In those 10 years, many other people will rise to the top of the party and want to lead it. And it will be difficult for her to stop them.”