Above: Justice AD Jagadish Chandra of the Madras High Court allowed the petition against CM Palaniswami
After Jayalalithaa’s death, Tamil Nadu has hurtled from one crisis to another. Now, the Madras High Court’s order to probe allegations of corruption against the CM has serious ramifications
By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai
The political crisis in the ruling AIADMK deepened after the Madras High Court ordered a CBI probe into corruption charges against Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. Justice AD Jagadish Chandra allowed a petition by RS Bharathi, a Rajya Sabha MP and organising secretary of the opposition DMK, after a report submitted by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) gave a clean chit to the chief minister. The DVAC is an arm of the Tamil Nadu police and directly reports to the chief minister.
Initially, the AIADMK announced it would appeal against the High Court order in the Supreme Court but later denied it. The DMK has anyway moved a caveat in the Supreme Court.
It all began after the death of then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016. O Panneerselvam (OPS) took over as chief minister and on February 3, 2017, the AIADMK elected VK Sasikala, a close friend and associate of Jayalalithaa as their new legislative party leader. Immediately, OPS sent in his resignation to then Governor Vidyasagar Rao, who accepted it and asked him to stay on till alternative arrangements were made.
But two days later, OPS announced that he was forced by Sasikala’s relatives to submit his resignation. On February 7, Sasikala met the governor and staked her claim to become the chief minister and submitted a list of 132 MLAs who supported her. But the governor refused to invite Sasikala.
On February 14, the Supreme Court convicted Sasikala and two others in a corruption case involving Jayalalithaa. Sasikala surrendered at a Bengaluru court but before that, she chose
Palaniswami as the new chief minister. However, two months into his tenure, he turned against the Sasikala family and started attacking her for all the problems faced by the AIADMK. OPS, who had 11 MLAs on his side, joined the Palaniswami team in August 21, 2017, as deputy chief minister.
On June 13, 2018, the DMK filed a detailed complaint with the DVAC charging Palaniswami and his relatives with amassing Rs 3,500 crore in road-laying tenders. But instead of taking action, the DVAC gave a clean chit to them. The DMK challenged this in the High Court, which then ordered a CBI inquiry.
In his 86-page judgment, Justice Chandra said: “It does not need the wisdom of Solomon to infer that right from the receipt of the complaint and the registration of the preliminary enquiry, the conduct of the DVAC had been aimed with a sole objective of closing the case by filing a negative report as no case was made out. The manner in which the enquiry had been conducted even without calling the complainant (RS Bharathi, DMK MP), speaks for itself that the investigation had not been done in a fair and proper manner.”
He further observed: “Being a constitutional court, it was aware of its limitations in ordering transfer of the investigation. The extraordinary power must be exercised sparingly, cautiously and in exceptional situations wherein it becomes necessary to provide credibility and to instill confidence in the minds of public.”
Justice Chandra directed the DVAC to submit all relevant material of this case to the CBI in Chennai within a week. “The CBI joint director should appoint an officer in the rank of Superintendent (SP rank). That SP should conduct a preliminary inquiry within three months and register an FIR, if any cognizable offence was made out,” the judge ordered.
He wondered how the DVAC could come to the conclusion that there was no prima facie case made out in the complaint filed by Bharathi. “How could you (DVAC) come to a conclusion even without examining the complainant? Another important thing is why the DVAC has not inquired even one single official of the World Bank. Since one of the highway projects was funded by the World Bank it is nothing but imperative to inquire concerned World Bank officials.”
He added: “The World Bank guidelines prohibit award of contracts to close relatives of chief ministers/ministers to avoid conflict of interest. But the DVAC took a stand that the CM’s son could not be termed as a close relative and that there was nothing wrong in awarding contracts to them because they were into this business since 1991.” The judge asked: “When allegations of such serious nature have been made, an honest endeavour should have been made by the persons in power to voluntarily transfer the case to an independent agency to clear the cloud, so that it would instill confidence in the minds of citizens.”
Though the AIADMK has 134 MLAs in the 234-member assembly, the situation is not rosy for Palaniswami. Eighteen AIADMK MLAs were disqualified by the Speaker, P Dhanapal, after they met the governor on August 22, 2017, and presented a memorandum stating that they lost confidence in the leadership of Palaniswami. The AIADMK whip in the assembly gave a memorandum to the Speaker stating that the behaviour of these 18 MLAs invited disqualification. The Speaker accepted this and disqualified them on September 18, 2017. Incidentally, these 18 MLAs are supporters of TTV Dhinakaran, an independent MLA.
An AIADMK MLA told India Legal on condition of anonymity: “The recent Madras High Court order of CBI enquiry against Edappadi Palaniswami is indeed a terrible jolt for him and his supporters. There are scores of MLAs within the CM’s camp wanting to cross over. The fun has just begun. Just wait for a few weeks and you will witness lots of fireworks from TTV Dhinakaran and his supporters.” When asked what position he would take if a floor test was ordered, he replied: “I can’t reveal my cards now. There are dozens of MLAs like me and they are all waiting for a right opportunity to strike at Palaniswami. He did not fulfil his promises to us. I can’t openly reveal what those promises are.”
Meanwhile, the mood in the DMK camp is upbeat. “We have concrete documentary evidence against Palaniswami. Our lawyers’ team had worked meticulously before approaching both the DVAC and the Madras High Court. The game has just started,” said Bharathi to India Legal.
The entire opposition in the state, except the BJP, had demanded the immediate resignation of Palaniswami. The AIADMK has neither reacted strongly nor adequately to the Opposition onslaught.
Already, three ministers are under the scanner of the CBI and income tax department. One is Health Minister C Vijayabaskar who is facing a CBI investigation in a multi-crore gutka scam. Another case is being handled by the IT department. Last year, while raiding Vijayabaskar’s home in Chennai, the IT department unearthed several documents which revealed that Rs 89 crore had been spent by him to bribe voters in the RK Nagar byelection. The IT department sent a detailed report to the Election Commission and on the basis of this, the EC countermanded the byelection on April 11, 2017.
It is obvious that something is rotten in the state of Tamil Nadu.