T.N. Minister Senthilbalaji’s arrest | Power games — the anatomy of an arrest

The arrest of Minister V. Senthilbalaji in a corruption case by the Enforcement Directorate has marked the literal opening of a can of worms in the political landscape in Tamil Nadu. Here’s a look at how the events of the past have led to the instant face-off between the Union and State governments

Updated - June 19, 2023 12:37 pm IST

Published - June 18, 2023 01:13 am IST

Minister V. Senthilbalaji was questioned for 18 hours by the ED and when he complained of chest pain, was initially admitted to the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital at Omandurar Government Estate in Chennai on June 14, 2023. He was later shifted to a private hospital in the city. 

Minister V. Senthilbalaji was questioned for 18 hours by the ED and when he complained of chest pain, was initially admitted to the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital at Omandurar Government Estate in Chennai on June 14, 2023. He was later shifted to a private hospital in the city.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Corruption cases are not new to Tamil Nadu. Political leaders, including former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, were convicted and disqualified from contesting elections in the past. But, for the first time, a case against a serving Minister has led to an impasse between the Chief Minister and the Governor of the State and the Centre and State governments, and what has the makings of a constitutional crisis.

The events that unfolded this past week hinged on the arrest of Minister V. Senthilbalaji by Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials in the early hours of Wednesday. The arrest was preceded by a search at his official chambers in the Secretariat. The case has its origins in the cash-for-job charge against the Minister and three others, when Mr. Senthilbalaji was heading the Transport Department in the AIADMK government. The crisis has come after years of the case passing through various courts and the latest action initiated after the Supreme Court gave the go ahead for further investigations.

Though Chief Minister M.K. Stalin accused the ED — which has arrested Mr. Senthilbalaji — of acting out of political vendetta, his critics say this issue has placed the Chief Minister in an unenviable position, pointing to his earlier vociferous campaign against the corruption of Mr. Senthilbalaji. After the death of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Mr. Senthilbalaji threw his weight behind T.T.V. Dhinakaran, the nephew of Sasikala, the confidante of Jayalalithaa. Mr. Senthilbalaji was one of the 18 MLAs disqualified by the then Speaker, P. Dhanapal.

In 2018, he made a surprising defection to the DMK. Though defections are quite common in Tamil Nadu politics — Mr. Senthilbalaji, who started his career in the MDMK as a student wing leader, joined the AIADMK — what surprised the political circle was the DMK leadership’s decision to admit him to the party despite Mr. Stalin’s prior criticism. For the DMK, which was looking for a leader to compensate its weakness in the Kongu region, there were no qualms in taking him in and rewarding him when the time and opportunities came.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election provided Mr. Senthilbalaji, known for his organisational skills and fieldwork, with an opportunity to prove his mettle. The DMK and its allies swept the election that year, and this further strengthened his position in the party where he had a meteoric rise. When the DMK came to power in 2021, he walked away with the important portfolios of Electricity, Prohibition, Excise and Molasses, to the chagrin of party seniors, though a case was pending against him in connection with the job racket. He gradually emerged as the DMK’s face in the Kongu belt, traditionally the stronghold of the AIADMK, eclipsing others in the region.

A shot in the arm

He had a smooth sailing and received a shot in the arm when the Madras High Court in July 2021 quashed the case against him, his brother Ashok Kumar, personal assistant Shanmugam and Rajkumar, a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) employee. Justice M. Nirmal Kumar, who heard the case, held that no useful purpose would be served by conducting trial since all 13 victims had reached a compromise after getting back their money and wanted the case to be quashed. But the ED entered the scene and registered a Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) against the writ petitioners on July 29, 2021, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.

Again Mr. Senthilbalaji and others got relief when a Bench of the Madras High Court quashed the ED summons.

But the euphoria dissipated when the Supreme Court, in September 2022, ordered the restoration of a criminal complaint quashed by the Madras High Court against Mr. Senthilbalaji and others accused of taking bribes in exchange for jobs at the MTC.

Setting aside the order of the Madras High Court, a Supreme Court Bench, comprising Justice S. Abdul Nazeer and V. Ramasubramanian, pointed out that the High Court had erred in quashing the case just because a “compromise” was struck between the “bribe-giver” and the “bribe-taker”. The judges also made it clear that corruption by a public servant was an offence against the State and society at large.

Again in May 2023, through another order, the Supreme Court paved the way for the Crime Branch investigation to continue against Mr. Senthilbalaji, while setting aside the Madras High Court order of October 31 last year, directing de novo or a fresh investigation against the Minister. “The investigation officer is to proceed with further investigation in all cases,” said Justices Krishna Murari and V. Ramasubramanian.

The Supreme Court order fast-tracked the actions of the Central agencies, including the ED and the Income Tax Department that searched the houses and premises belonging to Mr. Senthilbalaji and those who are close to him. Income Tax officials faced the fury of Mr. Senthilbalaji’s supporters when they reached the homes of his brother, V. Ashok Kumar, and his acquaintances in Karur district to conduct searches. A woman official suffered a fracture, and later the police arrested eight persons involved in the attack.

It is quite likely that this violence prompted the Central agencies to tighten the net around Mr. Senthilbalaji. Next came the visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah to Vellore. It is rumoured that a power outage at the Chennai airport and in surrounding areas when Mr. Shah arrived was laid at the door of Mr. Senthilbalaji, who held the Electricity portfolio, and soon after, the ED searched his house and office at Fort St. George. Sources said Mr. Shah reportedly considered the power cut “inauspicious”. But, the Minister himself sought to put an end to the controversy by saying the outage “was accidental” and it occurred owing to an problem at a substation. “The issue was identified and resolved within 40 minutes. This must not be politicised,” he had said.

But things moved quickly thereafter. Mr. Senthilbalaji was questioned for 18 hours by the ED and when he complained of chest pain, was shifted to the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital at Omandurar Government Estate.

A coronary angiogram done the next morning revealed that he had triple vessel disease and the doctors advised a coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Subsequently, he was shifted to a private hospital, after courts allowed the transfer. He is in the custody of the ED till June 23.

A political war

What would have passed as a routine inquiry and arrest has snowballed into a major political war between the ruling DMK and the BJP government at the Centre because of the prevailing hostile political atmosphere. The ruling dispensation, particularly Mr. Stalin, was infuriated by the entry of the Central police forces and the Enforcement Directorate into the Secretariat as he considered it as an assault on State autonomy and federalism. Incidentally, sleuths of the Income Tax Department searched the office of the then Chief Secretary, P. Rama Mohana Rao, at the Secretariat.

Questions are being asked why the Chief Minister is bending over backwards to defend Mr. Senthilbalaji when there is a case against him and the Supreme Court had given its nod for investigation. “I am not against any inquiry against Mr. Senthilbalaji. I am only questioning the need to treat him like a terrorist and locking him up in a room. He is not an ordinary man who can run away. He is a five-time MLA and two-time Minister,” Mr. Stalin said, trying to counter his critics. The Chief Minister was firm that Mr. Senthilbalaji was “tortured” because of political vendetta and warned that the BJP would not be able to bear the consequences if it provoked the DMK and its cadre.

In the meantime, he recommended the allocation of portfolios held by Mr. Senthilbalaji to Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu and Housing Minister S. Muthusamy. It triggered another round of war between the Chief Minister and Governor R.N. Ravi. In normal circumstances, the Governor would go by the recommendations of the Chief Minister and approve the allocation of portfolios. But Mr. Ravi turned down the recommendation, saying that the allocation of Mr. Senthilbalaji’s portfolios to two Ministers because of his health was “misleading and incorrect”.

Mr. Stalin immediately shot off a letter to the Governor, reminding him that allocation of portfolios was the prerogative of a Chief Minister. He said the act of the Governor rejecting his recommendation was against the Constitution and State autonomy. Though the Governor subsequently approved the allocation, he made it clear that he had not agreed to the continuation of Mr. Senthilbalaji in the Cabinet “as he is facing criminal proceedings for moral turpitude and is currently in judicial custody”.

The tussle between the Chief Minister and the Governor also brought to light the stand of the Governor on the continuation of Mr. Senthilbalaji. The Governor had written to Mr. Stalin as early as on May 31, demanding the removal of Mr. Senthilbalaji from the Cabinet. The next day, Mr. Stalin sent a reply, saying, “Only the Chief Minister who is elected by the people has the right to make recommendations for the appointment and removal of Ministers. As per 164(1) of the Constitution, the Governor has no powers on the issue.”

Seeing ulterior political motives of the BJP at play, a party that seeks to get a toehold in Tamil Nadu which is dominated by the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and its allies organised a public meeting. In a statement, the leaders said the ED questioned Mr. Senthilbalaji and raided his house and office because the visit of Mr. Shah to Tamil Nadu and his public meeting proved to be a failure.

Political watchers note that the BJP is keen on opening an account in Tamil Nadu in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. It seeks to worm its way into the affection of Tamil people through various gestures. It placed the Sengol presented by the seer of the Thiruvavaduthurai Math at the new Parliament building.

Mr. Shah, during his visit to Tamil Nadu, made a reference to it and even said a Tamilian could one day become the Prime Minister. The BJP has been accusing both the DMK and the AIADMK of corruption, nepotism and family politics. The party’s Tamil Nadu president, K. Annamalai, provoked the AIADMK, an ally, by stating that former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was convicted in a corruption case. The BJP has been consistently building up a case against the two Dravidian parties and presenting itself as an alternative.

But it has to begin from somewhere and the Kongu region seems to offer an ideal ground, where polarisation on communal lines started after the 1998 serial bomb blasts. Political commentators say Mr. Senthilbalaji, with his organisational skills, may pose a challenge, and the BJP may seek to eliminate the hurdles that it thinks he may create on its path in the region.

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