Hindustan Times
New Delhi

While Jayalalithaa’s conviction in the disproportionate assets case is a victory for the judiciary and for proponents of the decriminalisation of politics, it is unlikely to end the political career of the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The truth is that the functioning of political parties rarely changes when their leaders are put behind bars. There are many ways for elected representatives to ensure that their parties run as smoothly as before. These include conducting regular meetings inside jail with a coterie and using loyalists as a link with party functionaries.

Jayalalithaa is only the latest in a string of powerful politicians who have run their parties from jail. Others include former Bihar chief minister and Rashtriya Janta Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, YSR Congress president YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and former Haryana chief minister OP Chautala.

While members of the political party might be reassured by its continued smooth functioning, a politician calling the shots despite being incarcerated is an indication that the party is not democratic. “The real driver of representative democracy is a political party, which is today run as a personal fiefdom,” says Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of Association for Democratic Reforms, who believes that few Indian political parties have real internal democracy.

“We still have a very long way to go as democratic society where rule of law is supreme,” he adds.

The trend is more evident in the case of regional parties as they often revolve around a single personality and rarely have a second line of command. “Today, the AIADMK exists because of Jayalalithaa. She is the face of the party and she is the vote catcher,” said Vaasanthi Sundaram, author of the unpublished biography Jayalalithaa: A Portrait. Political analyst Jai Mrug suggests that the scenario is also evidence of the functioning of political parties based on a patron-client relationship. “The leader is seen as a Robin Hood. His acts of omission and commission are overlooked as a trade-off for the benefit of patronage,” he says.

The reverential attitude of jail staff and the privileges extended towards these prisoners are a matter of some concern as they invariably violate prison regulations. Incidentally, there is no classification of inmates under the category of “political prisoners” in the Prisons Act 1894 or in the rules made to operate the law.

So how should jail authorities deal with the demands of high-profile prisoners? “In case he or she wants any kind of different treatment, prison officials should ask for a written direction from the competent authority of the state,” said RK Saxena, former Inspector General (prisons) Rajasthan. Alternatively, the convicted politician has the right to approach the court for entitlements.

“In a majority of the cases, this does not happen and prison authorities go out of their way to make arrangements for prisoners with a political background,” says Saxena. Little wonder then that a politician’s work day looks much the same whether he’s in prison or out of it.

Jayalalithaa’s aura permeates all across
Jayalalithaa supporters protest against her conviction in the DA case. (PTI Photo)

Panneerselvam is Amma’s choice, we will 200 per cent support and do everything that we would do for Amma,” was the refrain of shocked and distraught party workers on the day that Jayalalithaa was taken away to Bangalore Central Prison.

Among her followers, loyalty to Amma is complete. Members of the party cadre even bow in respect to the helicopter that ferries her and prostrate on the floor on which she walks. Where else in India can you shoot pictures of a row of bowing politicians, dressed in trade mark white shirt and dhoti, other than in Tamil Nadu? Whether she is physically present or not, Jayalalithaa’s aura seems to encompass everyone. And for the AIADMK’s men and women, she is here, there and everywhere.

On September 27, when she was jailed, members of the party’s cadre engaged in sporadic and spontaneous incidents of violence. Amma is believed to have sent a quiet but firm word to Pannerselvam to discipline the party cadre, lest the violence provide the opposition with grounds to attack the AIADMK government.

Read: Jayalalithaa sentenced to 4 years in jail; clashes in Tamil Nadu

Given all this, it is no surprise that Amma’s physical presence is not required for the daily functioning of the party for which her every wish is a command.

No formal second-rung leadership has been designated in the party that runs on auto pilot in Jayalalithaa’s absence. This was the case when she spent about three months in 2001 in Bangalore prison and it is the case now too. As in the army, ministers and office bearers know what is expected of them. Discipline is total and its enforcement strict. While Manmohan Singh as prime minister could not dare to reshuffle his cabinet as per his own wishes and had to retain Raja, Jayalalithaa shuffles her ministers like she’s playing a game of cards. Indeed, in Tamil Nadu, administrative and police reshuffles are routine and frequent. “With her, one does know where one stands,” says a former bureaucrat.

Members of the bureaucracy and politicians all know that loyalty is paramount. A whiff of doubt and they could be out. But all this only endears her to her party cadre. They worship her because Brand Amma wins elections.

With or without Karunanidhi
M Karunanidhi is roughed up by Madras police during his arrest at his residence in June 2001. (AP Photo/ Sun TV)

In 2001, DMK chief M Karunanidhi spent about a week in jail after he was arrested in a midnight swoop. His son and political heir Stalin too was arrested. The arrests were in connection with alleged corruption in the construction of 10 flyovers in Chennai.

If his opponents hoped the incident would set him back, they had misjudged. 

The incident instantly won Karunanidhi the sympathy of the people who had just voted him out, and the central government, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, stood firmly by its ally.

MK Stalin too had to spend some time in Madurai jail. Things could have turned chaotic for the party but the DMK, which has a strong cadre and a well-defined party structure, fought back with protests. Some 32,000 party members were lodged in different jails. As a result, Karunanidhi refused to seek bail for himself, thereby earning even more appreciation from his followers. 

Read: Katju to Karunanidhi: explain growth of your wealth

The party cadre’s loyalty, intact even today, was the engine that drove the protests. “How badly Kalaignar was treated was shocking.  Cadres were angry, restless and agitated. But the illegal arrests were criticised by everyone,” says a senior DMK leader.

The DMK has a firm party structure in place and its executive council comprising senior leaders discuss, debate and deliberate, often clashing with one another on issues. But once Karunanidhi himself takes a final call and issues a directive, everyone falls in line.

Even when Karunanidhi was lodged at the central jail, his party apparatus worked as if he was still physically among them. Matters were eased somewhat by the fact that his trusted followers including senior leaders, who built the party with Karunanidhi, know his mind and strove to work accordingly.

However, the party did not have to suffer too long. Karunanidhi was released in less than 10 days as public opinion in the country and the central government too came down heavily against the Jayalalithaa government for the manner in which the entire issue had been handled.

Jail no hindrance for OP Chautala in ticket distribution
Former Haryana CM OP Chautala being taken to jail after being produced at a Delhi Court in connection with illegally recruiting primary school teachers. (PTI Photo)

About one-and-a-half years ago, the principal opposition party in Haryana, the Indian National Lok Dal, looked like it would collapse.

The reason: On January 22, 2013, the Delhi CBI court sentenced the INLD supremo and former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, his elder son Ajay Chautala — sitting MLA from Dabwali — and eight others to 10 years imprisonment in a case involving the illegal recruitment of about 3,000 teachers.

 The INLD, which has always been seen as centered around Chautala, quickly reconciled itself to being led from prison. Matters that just could not be tackled from prison were looked after by Chautala’s younger son Abhay Chautala. The sitting MLA from Ellenabad took the party’s reins in his hands while ensuring that senior leaders including KC Bangar and party president Ashok Arora were by his side.
Meanwhile, the jailed leaders would periodically check into the Medanta Hospital, a five-star health facility in Gurgaon that’s everything a prison is not. Naturally, Chautala is kept abreast of all party goings-on and information. Communication between the leader and the workers has also been total.

Read: INLD supremo OP Chautala surrenders at Tihar Jail

Indeed, communication has been so smooth that, Chautala, who has been meeting a large number of party workers at the hospital every day, has also decided the distribution of all the 88 tickets (of the total 90 seats — two were given to INLD ally Shiromani Akali Dal). In between all this excitement, Chautala was also periodically granted bail on different grounds.

Perhaps the INLD leader had been pushing the envelope rather too brazenly. The bail given by the court was heavily criticised by the CBI when Chautala, on his extended bail (begun from September 25, 2014), began campaigning at full throttle in support of his candidates across the state.

Earlier this week, the CBI’s objections led the court to ask Chautala to appear before it on October 10. Subsequently, he was asked to surrender to jail authorities by October 11. Does this mean party workers will be bereft? Quite unlikely judging from past events.

Lalu Prasad Yadav's art of conducting jail durbars
RJD President and former Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav entering the Birsa Munda central jail in the fodder scam case in Ranchi in September 2013. (Parwaz Khan/ HT Photo)

The jail authorities were at his service and ensured that he got the same treatment as he did when he was chief minister.  Except for the fact that he functioned as de facto chief minister from the camp jail, Lalu’s routine was as normal as ever.  As his wife was at the helm of the state’s affairs, officials regularly visited the jail and took directives from Lalu on every issue big or small. He cleared files in consultation with some top bureaucrats and issued directives to the secretaries of departments. Some senior officials used to carry files to the jail so Lalu could take a look at them and include his directives. Those files were then ferried back to the chief minister who would affix her signature.

Read: Jayalalithaa lodged in jail while Chautala, Lalu are out on bail

During his second stint at Patna’s Beur jail and later at the designated prison ward of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences (IGIMS), Lalu continued with a similar routine of meeting party leaders and officials. Meeting hours were fixed for durbars and for the RJD leaders, who flocked to him inside the prison ward. Astute politician that he is, Lalu used his jail terms to reap political benefits and to consolidate his backward class and Muslim vote bank to his advantage in later elections. 

Life in prison was not particularly inconvenient for Lalu who used to cook the food he enjoyed, which included  mutton and fish preparations, with pomfret being a special favourite. Every day, the stream of supporters from his political turf Chapra and its nearby areas would throng the prison ward and bring him gifts of food including curd, fish of all varieties and crabs. His barber and masseur too visited him regularly. “It was sort of an open jail for him,” recalled a staff member of the IGIMS.

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