NEW DELHI: Supreme Court jailed the anointed next leader of Tamil Nadu for four years for corruption Tuesday, heightening the turmoil in a state still reeling from the death of its long-time matriarch.
VK Sasikala was told to surrender immediately to prison authorities after judges overturned her acquittal in a long-running “disproportionate assets” case that also involved her late mentor Jayalalithaa Jayaram.
There was no immediate reaction from Sasikala who was not present at the hearing at the apex court in New Delhi and has been holed up in a resort close to Tamil Nadu’s main city Chennai since last week.
But the verdict signals a dramatic end to the fairytale rise of a one-time casette saleswoman who was on the cusp of becoming the leader of one of India’s most populous and prosperous states.
The court ordered she immediately hand herself in to begin serving her sentence, which automatically bars her from holding public office for a decade, as well as fining her 100 million rupees ($ 1.5 million).
The panel of judges also sentenced her nephew and niece to four years in prison after the Karnataka High Court had acquitted them in 2015 of any wrongdoing.
“We set aside the Karnataka High Court verdict and restore the trial court judgement,” Justice PC Ghosh and Justice A Roy said in the verdict.
The court also said that there was “incriminating evidence” against Jayalalithaa, a former film star who died last December after three stints as the state’s chief minister.
All four were convicted by a lower court in 2014 and sentenced to five-years in prison before their acquittal in Karnataka.
Sasikala had been anointed as Jayalalithaa’s successor by the state’s dominant All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and was due to be sworn in later this week.
But the 59-year-old has been involved in a bitter battle in recent weeks with the state’s acting chief minister minister, O Panneerselvam, who has been trying to block her ascent.
Tuesday’s verdict means Panneerselvam is now likely to stay at the helm although Sasikala loyalists were reported to be rallying around one of her main allies, Edappady Palaniswamy, as an alternative.
While the 2014 conviction sparked mass protests on the streets of Chennai by Jayalalithaa’s supporters, Sasikala does not command anything like the same level of loyalty and there no immediate signs of demonstrations.
Supporters of the main Tamil opposition party however celebrated, setting off firecrackers and distributing sweets outside her Chennai residence.
“This verdict shows that individuals in public life should not indulge in corruption” opposition leader M K Stalin told reporters.
Sasikala has taken refuge since last week in a luxury resort alongside several dozen AIADMK state legislators, keeping a close eye on them over fears that Panneerselvam’s camp might poach them before her investiture.
The corruption case dates back to late 1990s when Jayalalithaa and Sasikala were accused of profiting from the chief minister’s office and amassing wealth beyond their income.
They were jointly accused of owning several bungalows, luxury cars, tea estates, eight tons of silver, nearly 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of gold and thousands of saris which could be not accounted for through their salaries.
Sasikala was running a video parlor and Jayalalithaa was a budding politician when the two met, which marked the beginning of a decades-long friendship dogged by corruption scandals.
Sasikala was briefly expelled from the AIADMK over allegations her family was misusing the Jayalalithaa name, but she was allowed back in after publicly distancing herself from her husband.
In 2014, both women were sentenced to jail for corruption but were acquitted on appeal after serving a brief period behind bars.
Sasikala’s meteoric rise in politics mirrored Jayalalithaa’s own rise in Tamil politics when she declared herself as the political heir to her mentor and popular film actor M. G. Ramachandran following his death in 1987.
But unlike Jayalalithaa, a three-time chief minister who ruled the state with iron grip and inspired a devotion that verged on the religious, Sasikala is seen as lacking charisma and a solid power base. AFP