The job-for-cash scam case that brought ED to Senthil Balaji's door
Tamil Nadu electricity, prohibition and excise minister V Senthil Balaji was arrested today after hours of being questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). While the DMK and its allies have accused the BJP-led central government of political vendetta, the Opposition party in the assembly, the AIADMK and its ally BJP, have alleged the minister of wrongdoings and demanded his resignation.
What is the case all about?
The case dates back to 2015 when Senthil Balaji was the transport minister in the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK government and allegedly was embroiled in a job-for-cash scam that rocked the state in 2014-15. It is alleged that he conspired with transport corporation officials to issue appointment orders for candidates recommended by his aides, and took bribes for job appointments in various transport corporations, including the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC).
In November 2014, the state-run MTC went on a recruitment drive posting five separate advertisements for drivers, conductors, junior tradesmen, junior engineers, and assistant engineers. A spate of allegations of corruption started to surface and the first to lodge a complaint was a man named Devasagayam in October 2015. In his complaint, he said that he had given ₹2.60 lakhs to a conductor, Palani, to get his son a job in MTC.
His son never got that job nor did he get his money back. Pertinently, his complaint did not include the transport minister Balaji.
In March 2016, another person Gopi filed a similar complaint alleging that he paid ₹2.40 lakhs to two persons related to Senthil Balaji for a conductor’s job he finally never got. Since the police failed to take any action, Gopi went to Madras high court demanding an investigation. Gopi demanded that the investigation should extend beyond the lower-rank officers and go right up to the top to include ministerial level officials.
Start of probe
After considering his plea, the Madras high court ordered Assistant Commissioner of Police, Central Crime Branch to probe the allegations. But, the probe implicated only the 12 individuals named in Devasagayam’s plea and the final report did not include the names of Balaji or his relatives. It also did not charge these individuals under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
More complaints started to emerge. V Ganesh Kumar, a Transport Department employee, alleged in 2017 that Balaji and three others had ordered him to collect ₹ 95 lakhs from job aspirants. However, these individuals never got their jobs. A case was filed in 2018 but the charge made was not for corruption but for criminal offences.
In 2018, Balaji who had moved to the DMK by then (in between he was with TTV Dinakaran’s AMMK party), was given a ticket to contest from his native Karur in the 2019 Assembly by-elections. He won the seat and in 2021, he was given a berth in MK Stalin’s cabinet.
How the ED got involved
As Balaji’s political fortunes was on the rise, the minister’s personal assistant, Shanmugam and another individual Sahayarajan, sought to quash the criminal cases against them saying that they had struck a ‘compromise’ with the complainants.
While seeking to quash the FIRs against him, Balaji too admitted that he had returned the aspirants’ money through a settlement. However, this admission of a ‘compromise’ caught the attention of ED, which was not involved in the case until then.
The ED started to dig into the case. Meanwhile, an unsuccessful job candidate and an NGO called Anti-Corruption movement challenged the dismissal of the case based on the “compromise”. The Madras high court ordered a reinvestigation into the case and the ED issued a summons to the accused. The high court however squashed the summons.
The ED approached Supreme Court in September 2022, which gave ED the authority to investigate and get accesss to all the case related documents. It further observed: “Once a piece of information relating to the acquisition of huge amount of illegal gratification in the matter of public employment has come into the public domain, it is the duty of the ED to register an information report.” Also, the SC dismissed Senthil Balaji’s plea seeking a SIT probe into the case.
In a ruling in May 2023, the court noted on the ‘compromise’ Balaji had made with the complainants: “What was compromised between the complainant and the accused is not just their disputes, but justice, fair play, good conscience and the fundamental principles of criminal jurisprudence. In fact, the case on hand is one where there are two teams just for the purpose of record, but no one knows who is playing for which team and where the match was fixed.”
The SC further asked ED to continue its probe into the charges under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
The arrest is the culmination of ED’s investigations into the case and after several income tax searches in places connected to Senthil Balaji’s brother which went on for a week from May 26, 2023. The minister has been sent to judicial custody till June 28 by the Principal Judge S Alli, while hearing a remand application moved by the ED.