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15 February 2017 Editorial


15 FEBRUARY 2017 

The conviction and after

Corruption in high places is a malaise that is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Even in the rare cases they are arraigned before a court, top politicians often pay their way through legal battles, and spend little or no time in incarceration. The conviction of AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala in the disproportionate assets case involving her close friend, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, as the prime accused, is a significant marker in India’s legal and political history. The charges against Jayalalithaa abated following her death last December, but Ms. Sasikala had to face the full wrath of the Supreme Court, which has upheld the trial court order in toto, leaving her to spend four years in prison. As Justice Amitava Roy wrote in his concurring order, “corruption is a vice of insatiable avarice for self-aggrandisement by the unscrupulous, taking unfair advantage of their power and authority.” While there is no denying that the judgment has strengthened confidence in the justice delivery system, it is mystifying that the ruling has come more than eight months after the two-member Bench concluded hearing arguments in the case. All the more so, since the basic thrust of the judgment only endorsed the position taken by the trial court in Bengaluru, which held all the accused in the case guilty. Given that the Supreme Court had pressed the Karnataka High Court to hear the appeal expeditiously, there was no justification in such an inordinate delay.

Politically, this could not have come at a worse time for Ms. Sasikala, who was making a determined bid for power, staking claim to form the government after displacing one-time loyalist O. Panneerselvam. Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao had held off inviting Ms. Sasikala to form the government despite her demonstrating the support of a majority of the members of the legislature precisely because he anticipated such a situation. Now, however, the options before him are a lot clearer. If the newly elected leader of the AIADMK Legislature Party, Edappadi Palaniswami, is able to show the support of at least 117 MLAs, he will have to be sworn in as Chief Minister. Though there are allegations that the MLAs were kept forcibly at a resort by the Sasikala camp, Mr. Panneerselvam is nowhere close to splitting the AIADMK legislature party despite the support of the rank and file. Notwithstanding the legal setback, Ms. Sasikala may be able to trump Mr. Panneerselvam politically. But her success in keeping the MLAs together may depend on the Governor’s next move; whatever that is, Tamil Nadu is destined for more political churn.


Early setback for Mr. Trump

President Donald Trump suffered a big political blow, barely a month into office, when his National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned over his Russia contacts. Mr. Flynn, a close aide of Mr. Trump, admitted that he had “inadvertently” briefed Vice-President Mike Pence with “incomplete information” about his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. The allegation is that Mr. Flynn discussed American sanctions on Russia with Mr. Kislyak in the waning days of the Obama presidency and told him that Russia should wait till Mr. Trump’s inauguration. He later denied speaking of the sanctions, and based on his brief, Mr. Pence publicly defended him. But after the media reported that they had sources vouching that Mr. Flynn had discussed the sanctions with the envoy, it became impossible for the White House to defend him. Technically, Mr. Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador before he became part of the government are a breach of an 18th century law, the Logan Act, that makes it illegal for private individuals to conduct foreign policy. The context is grave for the Trump administration. There are already allegations that Moscow interfered in the presidential elections in favour of Mr. Trump and that the Russians have some compromising personal information about Mr. Trump.

The resignation, however, is unlikely to contain the scandal. It raises even more questions about administration officials’ dealings with Russia and the way the government functions. Mr. Flynn, for example, already faces allegations that he acted with the knowledge of others in Mr. Trump’s transition team, and his past Russian links are being probed. If the scandal widens, it could derail Mr. Trump’s Russia reset plans. He could have avoided this early embarrassment had he paid more heed to those who questioned his picks for top jobs in the administration. Mr. Flynn, who was fired by President Barack Obama in 2014 as head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, was particularly unpopular in Washington. Mr. Trump’s other picks, be it Attorney General Jeff Sessions who faces allegations of racism, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who needed the Vice-President to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate for confirmation, are other cases in point. Such decisions cannot be unmade now. But Mr. Trump could learn some lessons from the Flynn episode. He could use better judgment when he chooses his next NSA. He should set his house in order and formulate a cohesive approach towards domestic and foreign policy issues, including stating clearly what his Russia policy is. If not, his administration could well be trapped in crisis mode.

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