New Delhi/Chennai: The Karnataka high court on Monday overturned a lower court’s conviction of J. Jayalalithaa for allegedly amassing assets disproportionate to her incomes, clearing the way for her return as chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

The verdict also shifts the political momentum in favour of Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) party in Tamil Nadu ahead of assembly elections next year.

“The verdict by Karnataka high court has given me much mental satisfaction," Jayalalithaa, 67, who had to quit as chief minister following a special court’s judgement on 27 September, said in a statement.

“This verdict has rid me of the slander heaped on me. The false charges implicated upon me by my political adversaries have been cleared by this verdict. It has proved that I have not done any wrong."

Jayalalithaa, who is expected to be sworn in as chief minister on 17 May, accused the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) of devising a “cunning plan to trap me".

“...and owing to circumstance, temporarily justice was delayed. But today’s verdict has proved that justice has prevailed," she added.

Jayalalithaa and her three associates—N. Sasikala Natarajan, V.N. Sudhakaran and J. Elavarasi—were convicted by the special court for amassing wealth disproportionate to their incomes during the AIADMK leader’s first term as chief minister in 1991-96. Jayalalithaa was convicted of owning assets worth 53.60 crore. Jayalalithaa approached the Karnataka high court after she was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison and fined 100 crore. The others were asked to pay a fine of 10 crore each.

Refused bail by the high court, she moved the Supreme Court. In October last year, the apex court granted her bail and in December, it directed that her appeal against her conviction be heard within three months.

On Monday, Karnataka high court judge C.R. Kumaraswamy, in a 919-page judgement, set aside the conviction and also quashed the trial court’s order that movable and immovable properties of the accused be confiscated. “Taking into consideration overall circumstances and material placed on record, in my view, the judgement and finding recorded by the trial court suffers from infirmity and it is not sustainable in law," the judge said.

On the alleged disproportionate assets, the judge held that “it is relatively small. In the instant case, the disproportionate asset is less than 10% and it is within permissible limit".

“Therefore, the accused are entitled to acquittal. When the principal accused (Jayalalithaa) has been acquitted, the other accused, who have played a lesser role, are also entitled to acquittal."

Public prosecutor B.V. Acharya said the prosecution didn’t think there are grounds for an appeal. “As far as we are concerned, the case is closed," he said.

Jayalalithaa’s acquittal led to celebrations across Tamil Nadu.

“It is Pongal, Diwali and everything else in between here today," said Senthamilselvi, an AIADMK worker. “I am delighted, of course. But I knew that we would win—who can beat a lady as brave as our Amma?"

Political analysts said Jayalalithaa’s acquittal in the corruption case will come as a morale booster for her party that faces assembly elections expected to take place in May next year.

“There will be major consolidation in favour of J. Jayalalithaa and her party AIADMK. This acquittal will not only motivate her supporters in the state but the party will also be more confident going to polls," said P. Sakthivel, associate professor in the political science and public administration department at Annamalai University.

Jayalalithaa is the third important regional leader after former chief ministers Lalu Prasad of Bihar and Om Prakash Chautala of Haryana to face corruption charges. While Yadav and Chautala have been barred from contesting elections for nearly 11 years, Jayalalithaa’s acquittal will see her return to active politics in Tamil Nadu.

Interestingly, senior leaders of the opposition DMK in Tamil Nadu are also facing corruption charges, especially in the 2G spectrum allocation case.

“Corruption remains a major concern... but there is no major alternative political party in the state. If a party is able to gain popularity and improve its base in the state, it can challenge both AIADMK and DMK. People are concerned about the corruption allegations against both the parties," Sakthivel said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Jayalalithaa after her acquittal, PTI news agency cited an unnamed AIADMK politician as saying.

“As far as I am concerned, people’s chief minister (a term used for Jayalalithaa by her supporters) has got a big relief with the grace of God. Jayalalithaa should ensure that the people of Tamil Nadu get that relief," said the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tamil Nadu unit president, Tamizhisai Sounderrajan.

PTI contributed to this story.

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