Graft conviction keeps south Indian politician out of office

NIRMALA GEORGE
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A lawyer addresses the media after the Supreme Court upheld the corruption conviction of the head of the ruling party in Tamil Nadu state, outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. The top court’s order ended the chances of AIADMK party leader Sasikala Natarajan becoming the southern state's next chief minister. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

NEW DELHI (AP) — India's top court on Tuesday upheld the corruption conviction of the head of the ruling party in Tamil Nadu state, ending her chances of becoming the southern state's next chief minister.

The Supreme Court set aside a lower court order that had cleared Sasikala Natarajan of corruption charges.

India's politics are often dominated by outsized personalities and their friends and relatives, creating an environment where corruption is endemic.

Sasikala was the personal assistant to Jayaram Jayalalitha, a former movie star who became Tamil Nadu's top politician, or chief minister. Jayalalitha died in office in December triggering a succession battle within her AIADMK party.

Jayalalitha inspired intense loyalty among her political supporters who called her "Mother." Some of that charisma rubbed off on Sasikala, who was hailed as "Little Mother."

The corruption case, filed in 1996, accused Jayalalitha, Sasikala and two of Sasikala's kin of possessing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income. It was moved to neighboring Karnataka state due to fairness concerns, and the defendants were found guilty in 2014, but nine months later, were acquitted by the Karnataka high court following an appeal. That decision was challenged in the Supreme Court.

Jayalalitha died before the top court could give its decision, but on Tuesday, the judges ordered Sasikala and the two remaining co-defendants to complete their four-year jail terms.

The conviction means Sasikala is barred from contesting an election for six years after completing her jail sentence, thus removing her from the political scene for the next 10 years.

The ruling ends one more scene in the high drama that has engulfed Tamil Nadu since Jayalalitha's death, with Sasikala and the acting chief minister O. Paneerselvam jockeying for the top job.

Although Sasikala had no administrative experience, she wielded enormous power due to her proximity to Jayalalitha. Last week, the AIADMK party announced that she would be the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Sasikala tried to influence the battle for the top job by isolating nearly 120 lawmakers in a beach resort about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the state capital, Chennai.

Paneerselvam, who had resigned as acting chief minister, told the media that he had been forced to resign under duress. He appealed to lawmakers in Sasikala's custody to join him to carry forward the ideals of Jayalalitha, whose death had thrown the party and the state into a political crisis.