CHENNAI: V Senthil Balaji's arrest in the wee hours of Wednesday has thrust the spotlight back on the Tamil Nadu Electricty Minister who has been dogged by controversy over the years.
Originally named Senthil Kumar, he was born into a farmer's family in Rameshwarapatti near Karur in 1975. During his studies at Government Arts College, Karur, he became an active member of the Vaiko-led MDMK, a splinter group of the DMK, in 1994.
Initially drawn to numerology and astrology, Senthil Kumar changed his name to Senthil Balaji. After experiencing dissatisfaction with MDMK district members, he switched allegiances to the AIADMK in 2001 when the party was in power. Soon after joining the AIADMK, he secured a district-level position in the party's student wing.
Impressed by his dedication and involvement in politics, the AIADMK fielded him as a candidate for the Karur assembly constituency in 2006. In this election, he defeated the influential politician Vasuki Murugesan, who served as the Karur DMK district secretary.
His performance as a first-term MLA impressed the party leadership and he was again given the ticket to contest in the Karur assembly constituency in the 2011 elections, emerging victorious once more.
Following his second electoral triumph, Senthil Balaji was appointed as the Minister of Transport in the J Jayalalithaa cabinet in 2011. During this period, he also served as the district secretary of the AIADMK, organising events within the district. However, due to serious allegations against him, he was removed from the cabinet and relieved of his party position in July 2015.
Despite these setbacks, Senthil Balaji managed to get the ticket for the Aravakuruchi constituency in the 2016 assembly polls and was elected for a third consecutive term. Subsequently, following the demise of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and the split within the AIADMK, he aligned himself with TTV Dhinakaran's faction. Alongside 17 other MLAs, he met the Governor to seek the dismissal of the then Chief Minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami. Consequently, he faced disqualification by the Speaker of the assembly.
Realising the limited political prospects within the TTV Dhinakaran-led AMMK, Senthil Balaji decided to switch loyalties to the DMK in December 2018. He contested and won the by-election for the Aravakuruchi assembly constituency on a DMK ticket in 2019. Additionally, he played a pivotal role in securing numerous seats for the DMK in the rural local body elections held in 2020. Once again, he was nominated by the DMK for the Karur assembly constituency in the 2021 elections and emerged victorious.
In the cabinet led by Chief Minister M K Stalin, Senthil Balaji was entrusted with the Electricity and Excise Department portfolios.
Balaji continued to prove himself as an able organiser. A former DMK district secretary told The New Indian Express, “Senthil Balaji has always been known for organising grand events, whether he was in the AIADMK, AMMK or DMK. He was the first person to conduct a meeting of DMK president MK Stalin at 530 places in the district through video-conferencing. He joined the DMK along with 50,000 members and conducted a government function in Karur district and other Kongu regions for providing government welfare measures to one lakh people in a single function.”
But, Balaji was haunted continuously by the cash-for-jobs scam dating back to 2014.
It has been alleged that aides of Balaji took cash from aspirants for jobs in the Metropolitan Transport Corporation. While jobs were allegedly given to those who paid up, some were kept pending in view of the impending elections with the promise of accommodating them thereafter.
In 2018, four complaints were filed against Balaji and others, and an FIR was filed against them on charges of cheating, criminal breach of trust and criminal intimidation. The following year, the case was investigated and a charge-sheet filed before a special court for MPs and MLAs. In 2021, Balaji approached the Madras High Court to quash the FIRs. He submitted that he had entered into a settlement with 13 aspirants, who were arrayed as witnesses in the case, and returned their money. Accepting it, the judge quashed the proceeding of the special court. However, the police and others challenged it and filed an appeal in the Madras High Court.
Meanwhile, the Enforcement Directorate took cognisance of the case and registered four cases in connection with the scam, naming Balaji as an accused in them. Further, the ED issued summons to Balaji and others for an inquiry. Challenging the summons, Balaji again approached the Madras High Court, contending that there were no jurisdictional facts for the ED to initiate any proceedings under the PMLA. Allowing his petition, in September 2022, a bench stayed the FIRs and quashed the summons issued by the ED. In swift retaliation, the ED challenged the high court’s order before the Supreme Court.
In October last year, a Supreme Court bench, headed by then Justice S Abdul Nazeer, set aside the order of the high court and restored the criminal complaint against Balaji and others.
Meanwhile, the ED had completed its probe and filed charge-sheets in all the cases. Challenging it, Balaji again approached the high court. On October 31, 2022, a single judge observed that there were irregularities in the investigation conducted by the ED.
Further, the judge directed the ED to conduct a fresh investigation into two cases. Challenging the single-judge order for a fresh investigation, the ED filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. A few victims and Arappor Iyakkam, an NGO that campaigns against corruption, also filed an appeal challenging the Madras High Court order.
A bench of the Supreme Court, on May 16, refused to discharge Balaji in the cash-for-jobs scam and set aside a 2022 Madras High Court order for a fresh investigation against the minister and others in the case. The Supreme Court granted the state police two months’ time to complete the investigation and submit the final report. It also directed the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to continue its probe into
the charges under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).