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July 22, 1998


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Karunanidhi minister faces probe

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Tamil Nadu Electricity Health Minister Arcot N Veeraswamy could become the first Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader to resign from the government since the 1996 election. With charges of conspiracy, cheating and misuse of power against him, All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J Jayalalitha has quickly stepped in to demand his removal.

The demand came following an order by R Banumathi, principal sessions judge, Madras, ordering a police investigation against the minister and his brother N Devarajan.

The court order, passed last week, came after a city advocate, P Rathinavel, charged that Devarajan, owner of the Seven Stars advertising agency, erected 1,000 hoardings in the city, far exceeding the licence obtained for 87 hoardings from the Madras Corporation.

Rathinavel, who also named David Jayaraj, authorised officer (hoardings), of the corporation, in his petition, sought an inquiry into the allegations under sections 120-B (conspiracy), 168 (public servant unlawfully engaging in trade), and 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code, and the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Passing the order on July 8, Judge Banumathi directed the director-general of police to order an inquiry by an officer not below the rank of superintendent of police and report to the court in two months. She also referred to the petitioner's submissions that various norms laid down by the Madras high court on the erection of hoardings, through a 1996 order had been flouted.

As a minister, "Veerasamy is likely to thwart and intimidate the police during its inquiry, according to the directions of the court," she said in a statement, adding that the governor's intervention might be necessary if the minister did not step down on his own.

What has added a new dimension to the developments was a surprising statement from Veerasamy last week, alleging 'harassment' of his brother, and some tenants of the minister by the income-tax department. Even before 'this, Veerasamy had denied any involvement in his brother's business. That was soon after the court ordered the enquiry.

Devarajan too had filed a defamation suit against Rathinavel before Judge Banumathi. But he had to file it before the chief metropolitan magistrate's court again after the principal sessions judge returned it citing jurisdictional norms.

"Harassment and intimidation", Veerasamy alleges, was begun following Jayalalitha's "command" to Prime Minister A B Vajpayee "to break the DMK or destroy Veerasamy's family". Here, he was referring to the interest the income-tax department is showing in his relatives. The department, he said, was trying to implicate his brother and himself by forcing their tenants and the manager of the Anna Nagar Towers Club in the city to give "false statements". The minister used to be an office-bearer of the club.

Income-tax department sources say only a "routine enquiry" is being made against the minister's brother. "But the minister's subsequent attempts to politicise it, and terming the enquiry as an attempt to 'destroy the DMK' only make us wonder whether there is more to it than meets the eye," one of them said.

He said the enquiry against Devarajan had been initiated in January, "when the United Front was in power, and when the DMK had its own ministers at the Centre. He said the tax officials had "second thoughts now in the light of the court order to the police". For, at no time "was the minister's name involved until he issued the statement."

If Veerasamy is forced to quit, it will be for the second time. In 1990, he had to quit as food minister in the second Karunanidhi government following allegations of malpractices in the purchase of rice from Andhra Pradesh that raised the price of rice in Tamil Nadu.

Opinions about Veerasamy, a Karunanidhi acolyte, is polarised, even within the DMK. Eyebrows were raised when he was offered two major portfolios, electricity and health. Frequent power cuts in the past few months have already shown him in poor light.

People close to the minister say Veerasamy need not quit "just because Jayalalitha demands it". He points out that Jayalalitha did not quit when Justice C Shivappa of the Madras high court found a prima facie case against her while she was in power."

They also argue that a court-ordered enquiry need not be constructed as prima facie evidence of ministerial misconduct.

"Even AIADMK leader Sedapatti R Muthiah was made to quit the Vajpayee government only when charges were framed against him."

But another group within the ruling party strongly resents Veerasamy staying on, though its members prefer not to be named.

"We have been charging Jayalalitha and her aides of 'ministerial misconduct' while in power. It will not do any good to the DMK's image if Veerasamy continues after the court-ordered enquiry," one of them said. Whatever be the legal interpretation, in the eyes of the common man, it means nothing, he says.

Leaders like these also object to Veerasamy using the party as a shield against the income-tax enquiry. Says one of them: "He had no business to either involve the name of the DMK, or drag in the name of Vajpayee." They say Veerasamy has strained existing relations with the Centre and, if he is found guilty, will show the party in poor light. Also, they point out, if the chief minister does not distance himself from Veerasamy now, a conviction could put him and the party in a tenuous position.

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