“I am told there is a raid…. I’m not aware of the details. I will check and make a statement,” Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthil Balaji told mediapersons waiting outside his official residence on Greenways Road in Chennai, before he vanished into the house at 8.50 a.m. on June 13.
He came out at 1.45 a.m. on June 14, almost 17 hours later, clutching his chest and wearing the same clothes that he had worn when he went in. The Minister was helped into an Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) car, and as he lay on the seat he appeared to be in great discomfort. The vehicle sped away. Mediapersons who followed the vehicle were puzzled when it pulled into the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Specialty Hospital, located in the Omandurar Government Estate. The Minister, as the events unfolding on live TV made clear, had a health issue.
His lawyer N.R. Elango informed the Madras High court later: “There is not even a whisper on what was going on from 9.30 a.m, on June 13 to 11 p.m. that day. There is also no record to show what transpired from that time to 1.39 a.m. on June 14, when he was arrested by the ED.” The ED had managed to get custody of the Minister until June 28.
The case against the Minister
Senthil Balaji, who first became a member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2006 as an AIADMK member when he was barely 30, rose quickly in the ranks while earning a reputation of being an efficient organiser. In 2011, Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK supremo, made him a Minister. After Jayalalithaa’s death, he joined the T.T.V. Dhinakaran faction, and moved party again to join the DMK in 2018. It was during his tenure as Transport Minister that Senthil Balaji is alleged to have manipulated marks of candidates appearing for various examinations in the department, in a cash-for-jobs scam.
Three FIRs were filed against him, his brother Ashok Kumar, and his personal assistant Shanmugham in connection with the scam. The FIRs alleged that the three entered into a criminal conspiracy with the Managing Directors of government-owned transport corporations in order to provide jobs after taking cash. The scam came to light when some of those who paid cash alleged that they neither got the jobs nor their money back. Three of them—Arulmani, S. Devasagayam, and V. Ganesh Kumar—preferred complaints at that time. The cases are pending before the Additional Special Court for Trial of Cases For Members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly, Chennai.
Transport Corporation officials who were summoned in the case admitted to many irregularities in the recruitment process. Despite this, none of the main accused appeared before the investigation authorities even though they were summoned multiple times.
It was the admission of a settlement with the victims that led to the current woes for the Minister. After Senthil Balaji was sworn in as Minister, he and his personal assistant named in the case, approached the High Court to quash the criminal cases, claiming that they had come to an agreement with the complainants. This caught the attention of the ED. According to the Madras High Court, a total of 81 persons were victims of the scam. Of this, only the cases of 13 who had applied for the post of Junior Engineer were investigated. The remaining cases are under investigation.
“Three FIRs were filed against him, his brother Ashok Kumar, and his personal assistant Shanmugham in connection with the scam.”
The Supreme Court came down heavily on the investigation on May 16 and directed the ED to probe the allegations against the Minister. From May 26 to June 2, Income Tax authorities raided over 40 places which they claimed were linked to Senthil Balaji. The ED action began on June 13.
Earlier, the ED had raided the State Secretariat, which is located in the historic Fort. St. George, in what it claimed was an attempt to discover leads in a money-laundering case involving the Minister. A five-member team searched the Minister’s office. Searches were also carried out in his official residence, and other places which the ED thought had links to the Minister, located in Karur and Coimbatore. The Erode residence of a TASMAC truck contractor was also searched. Earlier, on May 27, the Income Tax department had raided 40 places on the suspicion that they were linked to Senthil Balaji.
Hospital drama and a heart issue
On June 13 morning, ED officials arrived at the Minister’s residence when he was out on this routine walk. On his return the questioning went on all day and well into the night until he was taken to the hospital, where he evaluated by a panel of doctors. He underwent a coronary angiogram at 10.40 am on June 14.
A press release from the hospital said: “Coronary angiogram revealed triple vessel disease, for which CABG [coronary artery bypass graft]—Bypass surgery is advised at the earliest.” On June 16, after the Minister was shifted to Kauvery hospital, its executive director, Aravindan Selvaraj said that “he was assessed by our team of expert doctors led by Dr A.R. Raghuram, senior consultant cardio thoracic surgeon, who has advised early Coronary Artery Bypass Graft surgery”.
The ED, too, summoned specialists attached to the Central government-run ESI Hospital. In addition, a well-known cardiologist from Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, too, examined him. Even after all this the ED stuck to its position that the Minister was feigning illness. Early on June 21, Senthil Balaji underwent “beating heart Coronary Artery Bypass surgery…. Four grafts were placed and coronary revascularisation was established”, a press release from the hospital, issued at 10.45 a.m., said.
Even after four independent sets of doctors had examined him, Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta, arguing in the Supreme Court for the ED on June 21, cast aspersions on the doctors and even the operation. Taken aback, Senior Advocate N.K. Kaul, appearing for Senthil Balaji, wanted to know if the SG was implying that the Minister had “fabricated blockages” in his heart. The SG responded: “That may be or may not be!” He modified his stand slightly in the Madras High Court the next day. While contending that he still had “some reservations about the issue” he said he did not want to “trivialise” it because the Minister had undergone a surgery.
The Supreme Court refused to entertain the ED’s plea that its right to custodial interrogation was denied if the Minister was shifted to a private hospital. Referring the matter back to the High Court, the Justice Surya Kant said: “The only question here is whether you should be granted police remand when the person is hospitalised…. Should the remand be deferred till he is found medically fit?”
- Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthil Balaji’s house was raided and he himself was arrested on June 14.
- After extensive questioning by the ED, the Minister collapsed and was diagnosed with a heart issue. An angiogram was performed on him the next day.
- Opposition parties accused the BJP of political vendetta and of using government agencies to target political rivals.
Given the fact that the Minister would not be able to perform his duties, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin decided to re-allocate his portfolios, Electricity and Excise. The Chief Minister communicated to the Governor that the Electricity portfolio was being assigned to Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu, while Excise would be handled by S. Muthusamy. Senthil Balaji was retained in the Ministry as Minister without portfolio. In a surprise move, Governor R.N. Ravi, who has been at loggerheads with the government on many issues, refused to accept the recommendation at first and returned it on June 15.
The same day, Higher Education Minister K. Ponmudy questioned the motive behind Raj Bhavan leaking a May 31 letter from the Governor to the Chief Minister, wherein the Governor wanted Senthil Balaji dropped from the Cabinet. Ponmudy accused the Governor of hiding the fact that the Chief Minister had responded on June 1 to the Governor’s letter, and pointed out the powers that were vested with the Chief Minister and with the Governor.
On June 16, Raj Bhavan did a somersault. A press release stated that the allocation recommended by the Chief Minister had been accepted. But the Governor added one more sentence: “The Hon’ble Governor has not agreed Thiru V. Senthil Balaji continuing any longer as a Member of the Council of Ministers, as he is facing criminal proceedings for moral turpitude and is currently in judicial custody.” The Chief Minister wrote back, informing the Governor that he had no such power under the Constitution.
Why was Senthil Balaji targeted?
Why was Balaji targeted, that too in a case dating back a decade and where the proof hinges on statements of the affected persons? It was largely attributed to the fact that Balaji works in the western region of the State where the DMK is weak.
It is also the only place where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can claim the strength to challenge the Dravidian political parties in at least a couple of seats. In a short span of time in the DMK Balaji has risen to become one of its most important leaders. A former district secretary of the AIADMK from the western Kongu region, he is critical to the DMK’s success in the western belt, where the AIADMK is strong.
The case against him is from a period when Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister and Balaji was the Transport Minister in the AIADMK government. In multiple fora, Stalin himself has talked about Balaji’s “corruption” and had demanded action against him. This is often pointed out by BJP leaders and they ask why Stalin is shielding a corrupt politician.
Stalin, while making it a point to visit Balaji in hospital, made it clear that this was a case of vendetta against the DMK, Stalin described the situation in Tamil Nadu as an “undeclared emergency” and released a video statement warning the BJP. He warned the BJP to desist from provoking the DMK. “This is not a threat, but a caution,” he added.
The first political fallout of the episode was the Tamil Nadu government withdrawing general consent to the Central Bureau of Investigation. This means that the CBI now needs prior consent from the State government before it probes cases in the State. In south India, Telangana and Kerala have already withdrawn consent because both governments alleged that the BJP government was misusing the agency to target political rivals.
“M.K. Stalin described the situation in Tamil Nadu as an “undeclared emergency” and released a video statement warning the BJP.”
The Congress was vociferous in supporting the DMK Minister. In a statement on June 13, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, condemning the “misuse of ED,” asserted that “these are brazen attempts of the Modi government at harassment and intimidation. Such gross misuse of investigative agencies against political opponents has been the hallmark of the Modi government.” The Aam Aadmi Party, the All India Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were among the leaders who condemned the arrest.
Karnataka Minister Dinesh Gundu Rao remarked: “Misuse of the ED to target opposition leaders continues by the Central government. Till date not a single corrupt BJP leader has been under ED investigation. Why is that?” The NCP’s working president Supriya Sule said: “I am not surprised at all. The data speaks for itself…95 per cent of the ED and CBI cases are from the opposition.”
BJP feud forgotten
The arrest and the subsequent focus on Senthil Balaji turned the focus away from the spat between the state BJP and the AIADMK. The AIADMK had demanded an apology from BJP State president K. Annamalai for having spoken about AIADMK’s former general secretary Jayalalithaa in a derogatory manner. In effect, the BJP and the AIADMK came together in the Senthil Balaji arrest and have been asking questions of the DMK government.
The court battle over his arrest is crucial for Senthil Balaji. If he loses he is headed the way of Aam Aadmi Party’sManish Sisodia. Senior politicians point out that there is another way: the one followed by Narayan Rane, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Mukul Roy, and Suvendhu Adhikari.