Senthilbalaji arrest | Madras High Court says a Minister without portfolio is a constitutional travesty

Chief Justice S.V. Gangapurwala and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu say Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin may take a call on his continuation in the light of the observations made by the court

September 05, 2023 05:39 pm | Updated September 06, 2023 12:49 pm IST - CHENNAI

Jailed Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji. File

Jailed Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji. File | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

“A Minister without portfolio is a constitutional travesty,” the Madras High Court observed on Tuesday, September 5, 2023. It said the continuation of V. Senthilbalaji in the Cabinet, despite his being in judicial custody in a money laundering case, “does not augur well with the principles of constitutional ethos on goodness, good governance and purity in administration”.

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Chief Justice S.V. Gangapurwala and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu expected Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to take a call on the arrested Minister’s continuation in the Cabinet purely on concerns over constitutional and public morality, though a person in judicial custody was not barred, either under the Constitution or any statute, from continuing as a Minister.

‘Corrosion of values’

“The founding fathers of our Constitution may not have comprehended corrosion of good and clean governance to an extent that a person would be retained as a Minister without portfolio, that too, while in custody, nor did they envisage that the Executive Head would reward an elected Member with the status of a Minister, though finding him not fit to discharge the responsibilities of a Minister,” the Bench wrote.

The court made the observations while disposing of a batch of three writ petitions filed by AIADMK former MP J. Jayavardhan, Desiya Makkal Sakthi Katchi president M.L. Ravi and one S. Ramachandran against Senthilbalaji’s continuation in the Cabinet even after the Enforcement Directorate arrested him as early as on June 14, 2023.

‘No purpose is served’

The judges agreed with senior counsel V. Raghavachari and advocates K. Sakthivel and S. Sheik Ismail that a person in judicial custody would not be able to perform the duties of a Minister effectively. “He is a Minister for the name sake. In other words, a Minister without any work... Certainly, no purpose is served by just ceremonially retaining him as a Minister,” they said.

It also said, “The present case brings to the fore the erosion of high standards of character and conduct demanded from the legislators. The petitioners expect, and legitimately so, high standards of moral conduct by the persons in power. The Chief Minister is the repository of the people’s faith. Political compulsion cannot outweigh the public morality, requirements of good/clean governance and the constitutional morality.”

Authoring the verdict, the Chief Justice went on to state, “The Chief Minister is an executive head. It is the responsibility of an executive head to assign ministerial responsibilities to an elected representative. However, if he feels that a particular elected representative cannot be assigned the responsibility of a Minister, there cannot be moral or constitutional basis to retain such a Member of the Legislative Assembly as a Minister without portfolio, which would be opposed to the ethos, good governance and constitutional morality or integrity.”

Though the petitioners had relied upon an order that Governor R.N. Ravi passed to dismiss Senthilbalaji from the Cabinet and then kept in abeyance on the same day, the first Division Bench said, “It would be a matter of debate as to whether the Governor can unilaterally disqualify a person officiating as a Minister, though he has not incurred any disqualification under the Constitution of India or under any statute.”

Relying upon Supreme Court’s judgment in Nebam Rebia’s case, the Bench held that if the Governor chooses to “withdraw his pleasure” with respect to a Minister, he/she must exercise such discretion with the knowledge of the Chief Minister and not unilaterally. “In the present case, the Chief Minister had never consented for the exercise of discretion by the Governor,” they said.

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