T.N. Minister Senthilbalaji arrest | A case of propriety versus politics

Stalin’s unconditional backing of Senthilbalaji raises uncomfortable questions

Updated - June 19, 2023 04:26 pm IST

Published - June 19, 2023 12:37 am IST

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK president M.K. Stalin (left) and erstwhile Tamil Nadu Minister for Electricity, Prohibition and Excise V. Senthilbalaji (right). File

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK president M.K. Stalin (left) and erstwhile Tamil Nadu Minister for Electricity, Prohibition and Excise V. Senthilbalaji (right). File | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji’s arrest by the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged money laundering case would have ordinarily been a routine legal affair with the Supreme Court’s approval. However, the agency’s ill-timed and poorly executed plan in the wee hours of last Wednesday, June 14, 2023 has snowballed into a national political controversy.

Mr. Senthilbalaji’s arrest against the backdrop of Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit on a “political mission” has given ammunition to Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to call the action vindictive. The atmosphere was vitiated by Governor R.N. Ravi, who jumped the gun in seeking his ouster from the Cabinet a fortnight earlier, citing the Supreme Court’s green signal for the investigation against the Minister.

Also Read | Power games — the anatomy of an arrest

The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led Secular Progressive Alliance has used the opportunity to launch a tirade against the Narendra Modi government and the Raj Bhavan. It has also withdrawn the general consent given to the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe cases in the State.

Given the Centre’s extensive use of investigation agencies selectively against politicians of opposition parties, the fears of vendetta cannot be overruled. Considering the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s political necessity to make inroads in Tamil Nadu before the parliamentary elections, there is no ruling out similar action against ruling party politicians. An ED investigation is pending against Fisheries Minister Anitha R. Radhakrishnan due to judicial intervention; a case against the DMK’s financially resourceful MP S. Jagathrakshagan was quashed by the Madras High Court. The longer the agency succeeds in immobilising “election managers” such as Mr. Senthilbalaji, the better the BJP’s prospects in keeping the DMK in check in certain key regions. It could also infuse fear among the ruling party’s moneybags thereby impacting the DMK’s spending capacity in the parliamentary elections..

However, a dispassionate study of the case against Mr. Senthilbalaji would show that he may not be entirely above board, though it is for the judiciary to decide his guilt. It is not just the ED that is probing him. The cash-for-jobs scam in the Metropolitan Transport Corporation was registered by the police in 2015 soon after he was dropped from the Jayalalithaa cabinet. Mr. Stalin himself had demanded action till Mr. Senthilbalaji joined the DMK in 2018. The case dragged on as the accused took recourse to multiple legal actions and sought to settle it out of court as well. A key accused, Baskar, died last year under circumstances that require an investigation.

In fact, in September last year, the Chennai Central Crime Branch informed the Madras High Court that it had conducted a detailed investigation against Mr. Senthilbalaji in 2017 and collected sufficient evidence to prove his involvement in the crime. It examined 21 witnesses in one case and collected materials “indicating his culpability”.

While setting a two-month deadline for the Investigating Officer to complete the probe in the case, the Supreme Court in May said it would keep open the option of constituting a Special Investigation Team (SIT).

Against this backdrop, Mr. Stalin’s unconditional backing and retaining of a political turncoat as a Minister without a portfolio citing only his “hospitalisation” raises uncomfortable questions. It remains a moot point if the Investigating Officer would be able to proceed freely against the Minister, who the ruling party has given a clean chit to, and projected as a political victim in the related ED case.

Mr. Stalin’s action is in contrast to his earlier administrative decisions reflecting an eagerness to project an image of providing clean governance. In 2021, he had quickly transferred to the Crime Branch CID the probe in the alleged murder of a worker in a cashew factory belonging to DMK Cuddalore MP T.R.V.S. Ramesh. The parliamentarian surrendered thereafter and the CB-CID took him into custody for interrogation, infusing confidence in the probe.

Irrespective of the Chief Minister’s political compulsions to safeguard Mr. Senthilbalaji, it could hurt his personal image and also put the government in an uncomfortable situation should the Supreme Court constitute a SIT for a fair probe. Legally there is no bar on Mr. Senthilbalaji’s continuing as minister. But propriety may demand he is kept out, at least till the police complete investigation and he gets bail in the ED case.

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