V. Senthilbalaji | From villain to anti-hero

The Tamil Nadu Minister arrested by the ED continues to enjoy the backing of CM Stalin, who accuses the Union government of using Central agencies to intimidate political opponents

Updated - June 30, 2023 04:52 pm IST

Published - June 18, 2023 02:19 am IST

In Tamil Nadu, some politicians crave for the attention accorded to a groom while attending weddings and seek to be the focal point even in a funeral home. V. Senthilbalaji, 47, Minister in the M.K. Stalin Cabinet, hospitalised following his recent arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in an alleged money laundering case, is different. He is among those who would position themselves as the groom’s best man or a pall bearer; someone who cannot be ignored or dislodged.

He is resourceful enough to know how to please the chef to get the buttered side of the bread. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for a party-hopper, in whose political dictionary the term “loyalty” does not exist, to gain proximity to the leadership everywhere.

Hailing from Karur in western Tamil Nadu, Mr. Senthilbalaji, in over 25 years, has switched parties five times. Starting off as student politician in Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), he moved to its parent outfit, DMK, before joining the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam by the turn of the millennium.

In 2011, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa appointed him Transport Minister. Such was the confidence in him that in 2014 when Jayalalithaa was jailed in a corruption case, his name was floated as a probable to succeed her.

Mr. Senthilbalaji tonsured his head and carried a fire pot to propitiate deities for her release. She returned in 2015. But for him, it brought bad tidings as she dropped him from the Cabinet. Around this time, complaints were lodged alleging his conduits had cheated job aspirants after receiving bribes promising appointments in the Metropolitan Transport Corporation.

During the 2016 Assembly election campaign, Mr. Stalin hit out at him, saying, “There was a Minister in this district, Senthilbalaji... He has Karur under his control in terms of looting, corruption and taking bribes. Charges of abduction and land grabbing against him are in court. Is it not just one or two, there are so many charges.”

Mr. Stalin had no inkling that in three years, he would be fielding Mr. Senthilbalaji, who quit TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam after a short stint, on DMK ticket in the very same constituency. Mr Senthilbalaji quickly became proximate to Mr. Stalin and his family members. Party veterans grudgingly watched the Chief Minister overlook seniors and allocate the Electricity, Excise and Prohibition portfolios, deemed as “cash cows”, to him in 2021.

Central to DMK plans

He also became central to the DMK’s plans of wresting control of the Coimbatore region from the AIADMK. He delivered results in the urban local body polls but ruffled feathers of local leaders of the DMK and its allies with his one-upmanship.

As a Minister, Mr. Senthilbalaji preferred to set the rules of his game. Early on, bar owners protested outside his bungalow, accusing him of irregularities in awarding of tenders to run bars. Former Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan flagged that the leakage of revenue from liquor/ excise was up to 50%. Last month, a hooch tragedy took many lives; besides two persons died after consuming liquor from an official outlet. Yet, perhaps due to his political utility outweighing his liability, he remained undisturbed.

Silently, Mr. Senthilbalaji worked out a “compromise” in the “cash for jobs” scam and got the Madras High Court’s endorsement. However, the Supreme Court last year overturned this arrangement between the “bribe giver” and the “bribe taker”. The Chennai Central Crime Branch then said it had collected sufficient evidence to establish Mr. Senthilbalaji’s involvement in the case. A month ago, the Supreme Court allowed the police to proceed with the investigation and vacated a stay on the ED proceedings in the money laundering case. Had the ED acted immediately, he would have perhaps been a villain. His image had taken a beating when his supporters attacked Income Tax sleuths who knocked on the doors of his brother in Karur last month.

However, ED officials mistimed it and stormed into his official chamber in the Secretariat and house, close on the heels of Home Minister Amit Shah’s political visit to Tamil Nadu. His arrest in the early hours after a full day’s grilling and subsequent hospitalisation have turned him into an “anti-hero” of sorts.

Mr. Stalin and his allies have rallied behind him and turned the tables on the Union government, accusing it of using Central agencies to intimidate political opponents. The Chief Minister has retained him as a Minister without portfolio. A political message is being conveyed as if the ED had launched an operation to keep Mr. Senthilbalaji out of the electoral strategising.

As he awaits an early coronary artery bypass graft surgery, the ED, armed with an order for his custodial interrogation, is also waiting.

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