Another big wicket down for DMK: Senior TN Minister Ponmudi is sentenced to three-year jail term...What's next?

In a yet another event of Achilles heel for the DMK following the imprisonment of its leader Senthil Balaji, senior minister in Chief Minister MK Stalin's cabinet, Ponmudi is now sentenced to three-year jail term along with Rs 50 lakh penalty after he was found guilty and convicted in a disproportionate assets case. Along with Ponmudi, his wife Visalakshi has also been convicted and would serve incarceration. 

Ponmudi is one of the veteran DMK leaders who's close to the party's high command. He has been one of the crucial faces of the party in north Tamil Nadu and has served as a minister during the DMK's rule in the state. Elected from the Thirukoilur constituency in the 2021 assembly polls, Ponmudi had been serving as the Tamil Nadu Minister for Higher Education in MK Stalin's cabinet. 

Though he sparked a slew of controversies in the last two years, his political career has got a big blow on Thursday - December 21 after the Madras High Court convicted in the assets case. The court has convicted him on Tuesday, triggering a new trouble for DMK ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The political observers said that the ruling of convicting the DMK leader had not only ruined his political stronghold but also had put his political future in risk.  

As the High Court sentenced Ponmudi to a three-year jail term, he stands disqualified as an MLA as per Section 8 (1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which says that any representative of the people, including an MLA or an MP, who is convicted of various offences, including provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, with more than two-year jail term shall be disqualified from contesting in the elections for six years. 

With this six-year ban and his three-year jail term, Ponmudi would stand disqualified and would be barred from contesting in the elections for nine years, unless he gets an order of dismissing his conviction and sentence. After pronouncing the verdict of awarding three-year jail term for Ponmudi and his wife amidst a tight watch from across the state, the judge has suspended the sentence for thirty days, giving Ponmudi and his wife a light to go for an appeal.

Immediately after the verdict, Ponmudi, as his next course of action, has announced that he would challenge the High Court's verdict in the Supreme Court. If Ponmudi fails to dismiss the sentence within thirty days, he would be pushed to serve incarceration, following which, he would become the second DMK Minister to be lodged in jail in the party's two-year rule. Though the disproportionate assets case would attract a maximum of seven-year jail term, the high court has awarded three-year jail term for the DMK leader along with a fine of Rs 50 lakh. 

Ponmudi's counsel, DMK's MP NR Elango, had requested the court to award minimum punishment by keeping in mind of Ponmudi's and his wife's age and their health condition. In his order, Madras High Court Justice Jayachandran gave thirty days for the convicts to surrender and noted that any decision on an extension of the time would be considered later if the couple could not work out their remedies before the Supreme Court. 

The court has also observed that if it was any other ministry, the matter would have been different, but the Minister had committed the offence being in charge of the Ministry of Higher Education, which has affected the future generation as well. After finding them guilty under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the judge said, "This court, considering the nature of offence and the gravity and impact on the society and also taking into consideration the submissions of the accused, impose simple imprisonment of three years and fine of Rs 50 lakh each. In default, six months simple imprisonment. I will grant 30 days for surrender." 

Ponmudi and his wife Visalakshi are the Accused No 1 and No 2 respectively and they were accused of amassing assets worth Rs 1.72 crore, beyond their source of income when Ponmudi was serving as the Minister for Higher Education and Mines during the DMK's rule between 2006 to 2011. When DMK's rival ADMK came to power in 2011, the government led by Jayalalithaa took the matter seriously and began its legal proceedings. 

In the ADMK's rule, the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) has registered a case against Ponmudi and his wife. Though the trial court in Villupuram had acquitted the couple in 2016, Madras High Court judge Justice Jayachandran had found that Ponmudi and his wife Visalakshi had possessed 65% disproportionate assets. Jayachandran had also declared the trial court's verdict of setting them free wrong and that it was demonstrably unsustainable. 

Noting that the trial court had given unsustainable reasons for the acquittal and had ignored evidence, Justice Jayachandran earlier pronounced that this is a fit case for the Appellate Court to interfere and set the acquittal aside. The Justice also said that the trial court has failed to understand that Ponmudi's wife was holding assets which Ponmudi had acquired through unknown sources. 

The DVAC report said that the couple had assets worth Rs 2.71 crore on April 13, 2006 and the same had increased to Rs 6.27 crore by May 13, 2010. The report also noted that after deducting their admissiable income and expenditure, Ponmudi and his wife can't able to explain the source of Rs 1.72 crore additional income.

Following the acquittal from the trial court in 2016, the DVAC challenged the ruling in 2017 and now, the Madras High Court has delivered the verdict finding Ponmudi and his wife guilty of the charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act and awarded each of them a three-year jail term. With this current ruling, Ponmudi has got disqualified as an MLA, which would naturally oust him from the ministerial role.