Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin called for “Opposition unity” on 16 June, saying, “The coming together of Opposition all over India will be the final nail in the coffin of ‘autocratic’ BJP.” But this call was not a prelude to Lok Sabha elections 2024, as the CM was addressing a protest attended by DMK allies – including the Congress – to mark their opposition to Enforcement Directorate’s arrest of TN Minister Senthil Balaji. Balaji was arrested on 13 June and the protest meeting was held on 16 June in Coimbatore.
Balaji was arrested over cash-for-jobs scam which had come to light in 2015, when he was the transport minister in the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet.
Balaji and his associates were accused of taking bribes from candidates who aspired to get state government jobs in the transport department. Balaji was dropped from Jayalalithaa’s Cabinet in 2015 to subsequently join the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2020. While the evidence gathered in the cash-for-jobs scam by Central Crime Branch (CCB) of Tamil Nadu still stands, the ED arrested him under the provisions of Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA). At the time of his arrest, he was the electricity minister in Stalin’s government.
Stalin, who visited Balaji in a government hospital where he was admitted following coronary discomfort, is believed to have viewed the arrest as the Centre’s affront to the DMK government ahead of Lok Sabha elections 2024. In the protest meeting which was held in Coimbatore, this feeling was emphasised by both the DMK and its allies including Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan.
Anti-BJP Sentiment, the DMK and the Congress
Speaking at the event, VCK’s Thirumavalavan said, “The DMK and its allies have been supporting Rahul Gandhi, a leader who has been opposing the BJP vociferously. This arrest is the BJP government’s (Centre) attempt to clampdown on DMK which supports of Rahul Gandhi who is capable of becoming the country’s next PM.”
While Thirumavalan’s rhetoric may have been slightly off the mark as Gandhi’s approval ratings in the country are still below that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the sentiment at the meeting was to pledge support for an anti-BJP front – a strategy which had worked for the DMK and its allies before they swept Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
While political players like Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress (TMC) and N Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP), had not largely benefited from being at forefront of the anti-BJP front in 2019, Stalin and his DMK and its allies had won 31 out of the 37 Lok Sabha seats in the state. In contrast, the TMC’s tally had comedown from 34 to 22 and the TDP faced a major rout winning just three out of the 25 seats in AP.
Balaji’s arrest is expected to boost the anti-BJP sentiment in Tamil Nadu, where the saffron party and its newly appointed state president K Annamalai have been training their guns against the DMK over the past few months, DMK sources predicted.
“In Tamil Nadu, people’s sentiment is still largely against the Centre’s attempt to infringe upon the rights of the state. The ED arresting a sitting minister is only going to reinforce this anger and the DMK and our allies like the Congress can benefit from this as our focus has always been to keep in check the Centre’s attempts to takeover states’ autonomy,” a DMK source said confidently.
The Cloud of Corruption
However, the DMK’s protests were not widely supported in Tamil Nadu because the case against Balaji is related to corruption. Whether Senthil Balaji was indeed guilty of corruption was, however, discussed widely on social media and in political circles.
To add to DMK’s troubles, it was only recently that the BJP’s state unit released audio clips of former Finance Minister P Thiaga Rajan accusing MK Stalin’s family of hoarding party funds. Another corruption case coming to the fore, shortly after the release of these purported clips, does not bode well for the Dravidian party which is in power in the state, sources said.
“It is widely known that the Centre uses both Governors and central enforcement agencies to rein in non-pliant state governments. But there is a general consensus over Balaji’s involvement in the scam and that has not helped his case. The DMK supporting this minister can taint the government,” a political observer close to the DMK front said.
However, the ED questioning an ailing Balaji for 16 hours prior to his arrest has elicited public sympathy. As the government doctors who were treating him also recommended a coronary bypass surgery, people have largely been sympathetic to the minister’s plight. Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi refusing to allow transfer of his portfolios to another minister has also raised questions about the Centre’s involvement in Balaji’s arrest.
“Balaji’s arrest has led the TN government to withdraw general consent to the CBI, another investigating agency which is used by Centre to target Opposition parties. In the future, the DMK will strengthen its protest against the Centre’s draconian measures that hurt the states,” a DMK source predicted.
Whether Balaji’s arrest could harm or help the DMK is still not known. However, it is certain that the Dravidian party has decided to stand by Senthil Balaji through thick and thin.