While hearing a bail plea by minister Senthil Balaji yesterday (30 January), Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court questioned the propriety behind his continuation in the state cabinet, inspite of being in prison for over 230 days.
This is not the first time that his continuation as a minister has come under scrutiny. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have demanded his dismissal.
Governor R N Ravi had gone to the extent of issuing orders 'dismissing' him, only to later state that they be kept in abeyance.
The High Court itself had previously stated, “the Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu may be well advised to take a decision about the continuance of V Senthil Balaji…as a Minister without Portfolio, which serves no purpose and which does not augur well with the Principles of Constitutional ethos on goodness, good governance and purity in administration,” while hearing a plea seeking his dismissal.
Chief Minister Stalin has however retained him in the cabinet, leading many to question why he is so keen to have him in the government.
One, the party wants to project strength ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. By not abandoning leaders and ministers who are under the radar of central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Income Tax department, Stalin wants to show that he is standing up to the Centre.
A number of the party leaders, including K Ponmudy, E V Velu, S Jagathrakshakan and Duraimurugan, are under their scrutiny, even though they have not been jailed. None of them have been dropped from their posts.
Additionally, dropping Balaji from the Cabinet would be portrayed as a big victory by the Tamil Nadu BJP.
Two, Balaji is seen as the party's strongman in western Tamil Nadu, who was instrumental in improving the fortunes of the DMK in a region where the AIADMK has traditionally done well. Dropping him from the Cabinet could send a negative message to his base, which could hurt the party in the elections.
Three, if Stalin drops Balaji from the Cabinet, he could divulge party secrets to the ED, and that could potentially drag in the DMK first family.
His brother Ashok, who has been absconding since long, could also choose to surrender to the ED and do the same.
Four, even if Balaji is dropped as minister (an influential position), it is unlikely to help him get bail, given the ED could still highlight the attacks by his supporters on Income Tax officers who had come to conduct searches in Karur, to oppose his bail plea. Therefore, the only purpose for which the DMK could consider dropping him from the Cabinet would not be met.
His bail plea has already been rejected multiple times, leaving not much hope for the party. While the Principal Sessions Court in Chennai has denied him bail three times, the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court had dismissed his pleas that were filed on medical grounds.
All in all, bail or no bail, the DMK seems to believe that Balaji remaining a minister is in its best interests and that could be the reason why he has been retained without a portfolio since his arrest on 14 June 2023.
S Rajesh is Staff Writer at Swarajya.
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