N Sathiya Moorthy
22 December 2023
Stalin has a procedural problem, too. Nominating new ministers would entail his having to seek formal permission from Governor R N Ravi. Stalin does not want to interact with this governor as far as possible,
The Madras high court’s verdict, first convicting and now sentencing K Ponmudy, the higher education minister, in a disproportionate assets case dating back to his term in the last Karunanidhi ministry (2006-2011) should have ordinarily forced Tamil Nadu’s DMK Chief Minister M K Stalin to recast his team before his tainted colleagues embarrass the ruling DMK in the Lok Sabha election, more than already.
However, the realities of multiple situations, including the state government’s running feud with Governor R N Ravi, may have influenced Stalin to settle for a transfer of Ponmudy’s ministerial responsibilities to a senior colleague, Raja Kannappan, who is one more of the ‘AIADMK defectors’ that have performed better than the DMK originals in party and government, since the late M Karunanidhi’s sixth and final chief ministerial term (2011-2016).
Corruption has not been a live election issue in the state, barring in the post-Emergency assembly polls of 1977 and to a lesser extent (unlike otherwise believed) in 2011, at the height of the 2G scam. But it is still a live issue, whose multi-faceted possibilities may unfold systematically and periodically through the coming months, can make a difference, however small, to the electoral outcome.
Coming as it does after the Opposition allegations of failure of post-floods relief measures, first in Chennai and later in the four southern districts, all within days, the series of court verdicts, ED/IT/CBI raids, et al, have already put the ruling party on the defensive.
Add to this the recent hikes in milk prices, power tariff and property tax increases, and the government has lost the pro-active initiative script for garnering votes in the Lok Sabha poll.
Removing tainted ministers does not stop with Ponmudy. Nor could it end with jailed Senthil Balaji, at present minister-without-portfolio.
His continuance may now be questioned in party fora, especially after Ponmudy’s exit.
However, Stalin had made it an uncompromising prestige issue after he was convinced that the Enforcement Directorate officials raiding Balaji’s residence had manhandled him.
Stalin was believed to have been irked by controversial Governor R N Ravi, constantly ticking off the state government and picking up ideological squabbles with the DMK.
Ravi had asked the CM to sack Balaji first and Ponmudy later, following the arrest of the former and the HC verdict in the case of the latter.
The list of tainted ministers in the state is long. It includes Thangam Thennarasu (finance), I Periyaswamy (rural development), E V Velu (public works), K K S S R Ramachandran (revenue), Anitha Radhakrishnan (fisheries) and P Moorthy (commercial taxes and registration).
Other names are either already in the list or could get added, now or later, based mostly on the pro-active drives of central agencies, so to say.
Out of the mentioned list is the senior-most minister, S Duraimurgan; the octogenarian is also the party’s general secretary.
He is in charge of water resources and minerals, the latter pertaining to sand-mining, a controversial portfolio after Senthil Balaji-held excise and electricity.
Added to this, in 2019, the Election Commission had rescinded polling in the Vellore Lok Sabha constituency after money-seizure from places identified with Kathir Anand, Duraimurugan’s son and DMK candidate.
In the polling held later, Kathir won the seat for the party, but the IT-initiated case is still pending against him.
So is the case that purportedly flowed from the ED raid on DMK parliamentarian and former Union minister S Jagathrakshakan.
It is another matter that social media posts sympathetic to some of the DMK leaders raided by the ED, etc, have claimed that there was no recovery of huge money or laundered money in any of these cases.
The truth will be known only when these matters come up for regular court hearings.
High Court Justice G Jayachandran’s verdict against Ponmudy (and also his ‘abettor’ wife P Visalakshi) flows not from an ED case but was initiated by the state’s department of vigilance and anti-corruption (DVAC), dating back to the previous AIADMK government.
In fact, the DVAC had appealed the Ponmudy couple’s acquittal by a lower court even when the AIADMK’s Edappadi K Palaniswami was chief minister, but the verdict has come up only now, two- and-a-half years after the Stalin government came to power.
In contrast, the even more controversial Senthil Balaji case, handled by the ED, pertained to his days as a minister in the late J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK government.
While the DMK claimed that ED officials manhandled him, his lawyers have not been able to obtain a bail, from the lower courts to the Supreme Court.
The ED has successfully argued that as a minister without portfolio, Balaji, who underwent a cardiac procedure soon after arrest, could still influence the witnesses if let out on bail.
What more, Balaji’s brother, whose properties too the IT had raided, is reportedly absconding. There is a separate case against him and aides for attacking IT officials.
Justice Jayachandran has granted the Ponmudy couple 30 days to appeal his order before the Supreme Court.
For that period, he has also suspended their sentence. The question was/is if he can continue one, as MLA and two, as minister, during the pendency of his appeal period.
While ordering then chief minister Jayalalithaa’s election to the state assembly in 2001 as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court clarified that the high court’s stay of its order for facilitating her appeal applied only to the sentencing part and not the conviction.
As it turned out, she could return to office only after the Supreme Court acquitted her in a rare instance of ‘plea-bargaining’ alien to Indian jurisprudence, before and later.
Jaya chose to wait for getting re-elected as an MLA after her acquitting, to come back as chief minister.
However, in the more recent Rahul Gandhi case, the Supreme Court stayed the Gujarat high court’s upholding of the Congress leader’s conviction and sentence.
Rahul Gandhi lost his Lok Sabha membership automatically when the trial court pronounced him guilty, but got it restored when the Supreme Court stayed the high court order. The main appeal-case is still pending before the Supreme Court.
Independent of it all, a whisper discourse was on in the DMK if Ponmudy for a short duration between the high court’s conviction and his portfolio going to another colleague — just as Senthil Balaji could continue as minister without portfolio.
The difference is that in Senthil Balaji’s case, the trial court is yet to commence hearing and pronounce verdict.
Ponmudy’s was/is an open-and-shut case in comparison, with the ball just now in the Supreme Court.
It is this kind of debate, though not well pronounced as yet, that has led to expectations and anticipation of an imminent cabinet shake-up.
There have already been whispered complaints in the party about the non-performance, especially by veteran ministers.
They question how someone who has not acquainted himself to the realities of the social media age can capture the imagination of IT generation voters.
They have a point. However, the fact remains that more than a couple of first-term ministers have been efficient and active.
Barring these two or three, there is name and face recognition all across the state, only for the veterans.
It means that there is neither talent nor efficiency in the younger crop, whether ministers or non-minister MLAs.
Needless to point out, not one DMK legislator (or even those possibly from other parties) has been impressive through the past two-and-a-half years of the Stalin government.
There is nothing in the efficiency till for Stalin to dig from.
Unlike on past occasions, there are not many alternate claimants/aspirants to the various ministerial posts that could fall vacant if Stalin were to decide to axe controversial and at times inefficient ministers.
The expectation was that the inevitable mid-term shake-up in the ministry and party after the DMK came to power in 2021 would be taken up after the LS polls and well ahead of the assembly polls due in 2026.
The Senthil Balaji-Ponmudy saga indicated otherwise, but Stalin remains unmoved.
He seems satisfied with one ad hoc measure after another, and thus put off the inevitable until it became too late.
Already, leaderships of regional parties, especially in states like Tamil Nadu, find their hands tied in the selection of party candidates for the Lok Sabha and assembly polls.
Barring a few, veterans alone have unlimited funds at their disposal, to what has become high-cost elections.
Hence, the leadership, the DMK and the AIADMK, less so, among others, are forced to field children of veterans, when the latter hint at retiring but do not actually hang their boots.
Apart from the Stalin-Udayanidhi duo, which is a class apart, the DMK thus have father-son duo in T R Baalu, MP and minister-son T R B Raja, Duraimurugan-Kathir Anand and Ponmudy and son, Gautham Sigamani, the Lok Sabha member from Kallakurichi.
This list is even more endless, but then the DMK is not the only party, just as the Congress ally is not the only one at the national-level.
For instance, barring Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, the children of many BJP national leaders are at it one way or the other, more owing to their parent’s presence, influence and pressure on the leadership.
For now, Stalin has satisfied himself by re-allocating Ponmudy’s higher education portfolio — he lost his MLA’s job, at least temporarily, the minute the high court convicted him on Tuesday (even without having to wait for his sentencing on Thursday). Raja Kannappan, the backward classes minister, will hold additional charge.
Incidentally, Stalin had shifted Kannappan, a veteran from Jayalalithaa’s controversial first-term as chief minister (1991-1996), out of the more important transport ministry following a controversy, which as CM, he did not want to ignore. Not anymore, now it would seem.
If nothing else, Stalin, it seems, would want to wait for the Supreme Court’s initial ruling on Ponmudy’s appeal, when filed.
It remains to be seen if a vacation bench of the Supreme Court would hear his appeal if moved during the period, or a regular bench would take up the matter, post-vacation, in the New Year.
Even without it, Stalin has a procedural problem. Nominating new ministers would entail his having to seek formal permission from Governor R N Ravi, who too will have to administer the oath of office and secrecy.
Given the supremely strained relations with the governor, that too pending the state government’s petitions in the Supreme Court, over Governor Ravi’s alleged violations and misinterpretation of Constitutional provisions, the chief minister, it would seem, does not want to interact with the person of this governor, as far as possible.
That may have come as a saving grace for all those tainted ministers and some of the inefficient ministers. But that could also become an albatross for the party, the government and the chief minister, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based Policy Analyst and Political Commentator.