Late-night flip-flop: Tamil Nadu Governor dismisses minister Senthil Balaji, then keeps order in abeyance

CM Stalin told reporters that Governor RN Ravi had no powers to remove a minister, and that his government would seek a legal remedy.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Jun 29, 2023 | 10:28 PMUpdatedJun 30, 2023 | 3:42 AM

Tamil Nadu Governor removes minister Senthil Balaji

In an unprecedented move — deemed unconstitutional by legal experts —  Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi dismissed V Senthil Balaji from the Council of Ministers on Thursday, 29 June.

Hours later, news agency PTI quoted sources as saying that he had kept the order in abeyance for the time being, and informed Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin about it.

In a late evening communication to the chief minister, Ravi said he would consult the attorney general and seek his legal opinion about the move.

The order to dismiss Balaji from the Council of Ministers has been kept in abeyance by the governor until further communication, PTI quoted the sources as saying.

Earlier, the Governor’s unilateral decision, made without consultation or recommendation from the government as mandated by the Constitution, left the MK Stalin government fuming.

Balaji, arrested by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on 14 June, is currently recuperating in a hospital after undergoing bypass surgery. Stalin retained him in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio, snubbing the Governor who asked for him to be dropped from the Cabinet.

The Raj Bhavan’s latest move, which raised questions about Constitutional validity, came after Ravi’s recent four-day visit to Delhi.

Related: No ‘specific order’ from Gov removing Balaji from Cabinet: HC

Raj Bhavan’s earlier communique

“Minister Thiru V Senthil Balaji is facing serious criminal proceedings in a number of cases of corruption including taking cash for jobs and money laundering. Abusing his position as a Minister, he has been influencing the investigation and obstructing the due process of law and justice,” the Raj Bhavan said in a communique.

“Currently he is in judicial custody in a criminal case being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate. Some more criminal cases against him under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal Code are being investigated by the State Police,” it said.

“There are reasonable apprehensions that continuation of Thiru V Senthil Balaji in the Council of Ministers will adversely impact the due process of law, including a fair investigation that may eventually lead to the breakdown of the Constitutional machinery in the State.

“Under these circumstances, Hon’ble Governor has dismissed Thiru V Senthil Balaji from the Council of Ministers with immediate effect,” the communique added.

Government sources told South First that the Raj Bhavan sent the Governor’s order dismissing Balaji to the chief secretary.

The Governor, who is supposed to act on the recommendations and advice of the chief minister, ordered the dismissal of Balaji with no due process or consultation with the government, sources said.

Related: Tamil Nadu CM Stalin warns BJP, ‘don’t dare touch us’

Will challenge it legally, says Stalin

Responding to the Governor’s earlier move to dismiss Balaji from the Cabinet, Chief Minister MK Stalin said the government would take legal recourse against the Governor. “He has no powers to remove a minister. We will challenge it legally,” Stalin said.

The CPI demanded the Governor repeal the “unconstitutional and unacceptable” order.

“If the Governor respects the Constitution, he should withdraw his order dismissing Senthil Balaji. Since ministers are appointed on the advice of the chief minister they can be removed only on his advice. The Governor’s act is unconstitutional and unacceptable,” CPI state secretary R Mutharasan said.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan felt the Governor was playing mind games.

“It cannot be merely seen as a removal of a minister from the Cabinet. The Governor is trying to threaten the chief minister psychologically. He wants to disturb Tamil Nadu politics with his anti-Constitutional activities and interference in the day-to-day affairs of the state’s government,” he said.

Related: ED raids Balaji; search and seizures even at Secretariat

‘Unprecedented, unconstitutional’, say legal experts

Legal experts said it was for the first time that a Governor has dismissed a minister ever since the Constitution was adopted.

Speaking to South First, retired Justice Hari Paranthaman of the Madras High Court said that the Governor’s action was “unprecedented and unconstitutional”.

“Article 191 of the Indian Constitution clearly says about the disqualification of an MLA. Unless he is proven guilty and convicted by a court of law, he cannot be disqualified,” the former justice said.

“Only an MLA can become a minister and it is the prerogative of the chief minister (to induct an MLA into the Cabinet). To my knowledge, this is the first time in India that a Governor is dismissing a minister from the Cabinet. The stand of the Governor will not sustain before the court as per the Constitution,” he added.

Advocate Judith Darshini said Article 163 of the Constitution mandates a chief minister and a Council of Ministers in the states “to aid and advise the Governor in the exercise of his functions”.

“Article 164 (1) also mentions that the chief minister and other ministers shall hold the office at the pleasure of the Governor. The term ‘Pleasure of the Governor’ has been interpreted by several Supreme Court judgements that it is the ‘Wish of the Chief Minister’,” the advocate, practising in the Madras High Court, said.

“If a Governor is allowed to dismiss a minister, it means he can dismiss a chief minister too. Both chief minister and a minister enjoy the same immunity and the act of the Tamil Nadu Governor will set a bad precedent and is against democracy and the Constitution,” she added.

It may be recalled that Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan had in October last said that he would not hesitate to remove ministers if they continued their activities targeting his office. However, he did not act like his Tamil Nadu counterpart, but demanded the sacking of Kerala Finance Minister KN Balagopal.

Madras HC observations

Incidentally, while hearing a batch of petitions challenging the continuation of Minister Balaji in the Cabinet, the bench of Chief Justice SV Gangapurwala and Justice PD Audikesavalu wondered how a Governor could remove a minister from the Cabinet.

“Where has the Governor set aside the appointment of that person as a minister? He was appointed as minister by the Governor. So that aspect is satisfying. Where do we get the powers of the Governor to remove a minister,” the high court asked on 26 June.

“The Governor did not agree to keep him as a minister without portfolio but he did not pass an order dismissing him as a minister. There is a difference between not agreeing and doing a positive act. The chief minister has not requested the Governor to allow him to continue as a minister. He only asked for him to continue as minister without portfolio,” the bench observed.

Run-up to the crisis

Soon after Chief Minister MK Stalin returned from his two-nations official trip on 1 June, Governor RN Ravi had written to the chief minister asking him to drop Senthil Balaji from the Cabinet citing the case pending against him.

In reply to that communication, Chief Minister Stalin had refused to drop Balaji from the Cabinet.

Following this, on 15 June, after Balaji’s arrest by the ED, Stalin recommended to the Governor that the electricity portfolio held by Balaji be assigned to Thangam Thennarasu as additional charge, and prohibition and excise to S Muthusamy — effectively keeping Balaji in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio.

A day later, Governor Ravi approved the recommendation on the change of the portfolios held by Balalji to the other two ministers.

However, Governor Ravi did not agree to Balaji continuing any longer as a member of the Council of Ministers, as he was facing criminal proceedings for moral turpitude and was in judicial custody.

The same day evening, the chief secretary passed a government order, or GO, retaining Senthil Balaji in the ministry as a “minister without subjects”.

(With PTI inputs)