Senthil Balaji’s continuance does not augur well says Madras High Court; leaves decision to CM Stalin

The petitioners had argued that Senthil Balaji continuing as a minister without a portfolio was a loss to the public exchequer.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Sep 06, 2023 | 2:32 AM Updated Sep 06, 2023 | 2:35 PM

Senthil Balaji’s continuance does not augur well says Madras High Court; leaves decision to CM Stalin

Observing that the continuance of V Senthil Balaji as a minister without portfolio was within the prerogative of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the Madras High Court on Tuesday, 5 August, left it to the wisdom of MK Stalin to decide to retain Balaji as a minister in the Tamil Nadu Cabinet.

The first bench, comprising Chief Justice SV Gangapurwala and Justice PD Audikesavalu, while disposing of a batch of petitions filed by two advocates and former AIADMK MP Dr J Jayavardhan, said that Balaji’s continuance did not augur well with the purity of the administration and constitutional ethos.

Closing the petitions, the judges refused to pass orders to the chief minister. The court emphasised that the final decision rested with the chief minister, as per Constitutional and statutory provisions.

While the quo warranto petitions filed by Jayavardhan and advocate Ramachandran asked under what authority Balaji was holding the post of a minister without portfolio, a PIL filed by advocate ML Ravi sought a direction to quash the order of the Tamil Nadu Governor dismissing Balaji and his subsequent order to keep the previous one in abeyance.

Related: Cash-for-jobs scam designed, implemented by Senthil Balaji, says ED

The arguments

During the hearing, the petitioners argued that Balaji, who is lodged in prison in connection with a Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) case, continuing as minister was a loss to the public exchequer.

They also pointed out that the chief minister removed Balaji’s portfolios after his arrest, but allowed him to continue as a minister.

The petitioners sought the intervention of the high court under Article 226 of the Constitution, which empowers the appellate court to declare a person unfit to hold a post.

Objecting to it, the government’s advocate submitted that unless a person was convicted of an offence, he or she was not disqualified from holding the post of a minister.

The advocate also submitted that Balaji could not be disqualified from the Cabinet for the sake of registration of an FIR.

Senthil Balaji was arrested by the Enforcement Department on 14 June under the PMLA, and is currently in judicial custody.

What the Judgement Says

Stating that V Senthil Balaji is a Minister without Portfolio, meaning thereby, no work is allotted to him, the Judges said, “He is a Minister for namesake. In other words, a Minister without any work. Such a person certainly will not be entitled for any allowances because he will not be officiating any work, nor any work is allotted to him. Certainly, no purpose is served by just ceremonially retaining him as a Minister.”

Pointing out that the ministers without portfolios do not have any specific Ministries, nor they do have carved out responsibilities, the Court observed that the Chief Minister is an Executive Head and it is the responsibility of an Executive Head to assign Ministerial responsibilities to an elected representative.

 “However, if he feels that a particular elected representative cannot be assigned the responsibility of a Minister, there cannot be moral or Constitutional basis to retain such a Member of the Legislative Assembly as a Minister without portfolio, which would be opposed to the ethos, good Governance and Constitutional morality or integrity”, the Bench stated.

“Minister without portfolio is a constitutional travesty”

Further, the Court in a scathing remark observed, “The Founding Fathers of our Constitution may not have comprehended corrosion of good and clean Governance to an extent that a person would be retained as a Minister without portfolio, that too while in custody nor did they envisaged that the Executive Head would reward an elected Member the status of a Minister, though finding him not fit to discharge the responsibilities of a Minster. A Minister without portfolio is a constitutional travesty.”The Judges opining that the present petition brings to the fore the erosion of the high standards of character and conduct demanded from the Members of the Legislature.

“The petitioners expect, and legitimately so, high standards of moral conduct by the persons in power,” the bench observed.

“Chief Minister may be well advised”

“The Chief Minister is the repository of the people’s faith. Political compulsion cannot outweigh the public morality, requirements of good/clean governance and the Constitutional morality”, the Court said.

Further, the Court said that the Chief Minister may be well advised to take a decision about the continuance of V Senthil Balaji (who is in judicial custody) 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.