he Tamil Nadu government announced the planting of 69 lakh trees to commemorate the birth anniversary of late Chief Minister and former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party head, Jayalalithaa. A number of politicians organised free meals for the poor and Jayalalithaa’s niece and aspiring MLA, Deepa Jayakumar, floated a party in her aunt’s name — the MGR Amma Deepa Peravai.
A few days later, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by M.K. Stalin, still coming to terms with not having secured any tangible advantage from V.K Sasikala’s conviction and the battle between AIADMK leaders O. Panneerselvam and K. Palaniswami for the Chief Minister’s chair, started demanding that State funds not be used to propagate Jayalalithaa’s name as she was a “convict”. Consequently, they have gone to court on the issue.
The letter of the law has thus far not been interpreted as precluding a convicted representative’s brand from being used by the State for adorning its spaces and naming its programmes. One may argue that it is difficult to draw a line — what are the convictions that warrant a disqualification from brand promotion?
Drawing a line
If the spirit of the law is upheld, the drawing of a line becomes fairly straightforward. Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, says that MPs or MLAs convicted of certain offences, including for corruption, are disqualified from the time they are convicted until six years have passed after their prison sentence is completed. Disqualifying someone from running for elections but allowing messages and welfare assistance to flow in their name is counter-intuitive to the spirit of the law and the consequences it seeks to impose upon those who run afoul of it.
In the case of Jayalalithaa, the situation has been made complex for a number of reasons — she was a former Chief Minister who had her share of critics but also a large follower base. The issue is bound to be emotive. The AIADMK is seeking to capitalise on the public affection and sympathy for her, especially at a time when the party’s continuation as an ideological identity is far from given and there is an internal scuffle over who her real political heirs are. Additionally, there is a legal technicality the AIADMK is relying on: Jayalalithaa was not convicted in the disproportionate assets case but charges against her abated because she had died before the Supreme Court made its judgment.
However, a reading of the judgment clearly indicates that Jayalalithaa has not been convicted only because she is now deceased. Had the Supreme Court pronounced a verdict while she was alive, the situation would have been quite different as the court in its judgment, found an “inextricable nexus” between Jayalalithaa and the three who were convicted.
A new normal
Places and programmes are named after individuals to honour their memories, often because they had a special association with the place or programme’s founding. Given the court’s observations, it is only proper that Jayalalithaa’s name and photographs cease to be associated with spaces and programmes that are publicly funded at least for the period of her disqualification (10 years) in the counterfactual situation of her being alive today.
This is especially important in a system that is riddled with corruption and criminality; over a third of Lok Sabha MPs in 2014 had criminal cases against them and over a fifth were serious cases, according to data from the Association for Democratic Reforms, a think tank. In Tamil Nadu a surreal situation is developing, in which ministers are beholden to an individual sitting in a Bengaluru jail. Criminality in politics is not just commonplace, it is becoming the new normal and the use of imagery and names is part of the glue that seals this state of affairs in place.
This brings us to the larger question of naming government programmes, buildings and airports after politicians — convicted or otherwise. An open debate on this is long overdue — the public imagination has room for far more than politicians, especially given the low regard politicians have for public funds and discharging their responsibilities. So why must they have a near monopoly on our spaces?