On Thursday evening, the state governor sacked a cabinet minister in the DMK government—and then rescinded his order in the wee hours of the morning. But the unprecedented decision to intervene in the workings of a lawfully elected government is still astonishing.
Editor’s note: Today’s edition of splainer was late due to an unexpected tech glitch. Our apologies!
Who got sacked? And why?
Say hello to Senthilbalaji: The state’s electricity minister was arrested on June 14 in connection with a money laundering case. According to the Enforcement Directorate, as transport minister between 2011 and 2015, he presided over a jobs racket—taking bribes from applicants to public transport positions like driver, engineer etc. What’s somewhat amusing: at the time, he was a member of the AIADMK party—which is now the primary opposition party and a close BJP ally. He joined DMK in 2018—after being kicked out of his party for backing the wrong horse in an internal party feud. FWIW, the arrest triggered heart problems—and he was rushed to the hospital—and later underwent bypass surgery.
DMK vs guv mahayudh: Ever since the union government appointed RN Ravi as governor in September 2021, he has been enmeshed in a bitter battle for power with MK Stalin. The government passed bills to limit his powers, and its leaders boycotted events hosted by Ravi. The governor, in turn, delayed signing off on important legislation—so much so that the DMK asked President Droupadi Murmu to remove him for unconstitutional conduct.
Things became heated in January when Ravi called out the state’s leaders for their hostility toward the Centre. He even challenged the name of the state—saying ‘Nadu’ (land) suggested that Tamil Nadu is a sovereign state. And it should be more appropriately called ‘Tamizhagam’. His remarks were so incendiary that BJP ally AIADMK rushed to distance itself from him.
The lead up: On May 31—even before Senthilbalaji’s arrest—Ravi wrote a letter asking Stalin to remove him from the cabinet. The CM responded in detail underlining that the Governor had no authority in such matters—essentially asking him to mind his own business. After Senthilbalaji was arrested, Stalin reallocated his portfolios to other ministers—but kept him in the cabinet as a ‘Minister without portfolio’. Then all was quiet until the out-of-the-blue move by Ravi.
Shots fired: On Thursday evening, the governor escalated the battle to an unexpected crescendo. His office announced that Senthilbalaji has been removed from his post by the governor:
There are reasonable apprehensions that continuation of Thiru V. Senthilbalaji in the Council of Ministers will adversely impact the due process of law including fair investigation that may eventually lead to breakdown of the Constitutional machinery in the State. Under these circumstances, Honourable Governor has dismissed Thiru V. Senthilbalaji from the Council of Ministers with immediate effect.
The statement did not offer any constitutional justification for its unprecedented decision. It merely pointed out that Senthilbalaji was “facing serious criminal proceedings in a number of cases of corruption.”
Stalin’s response: He actually didn’t say much, telling reporters: “He doesn’t have those powers (to dismiss the minister). We will face this legally.” The assembly speaker M Appavu was more vocal: “The issuance of such an order by the Governor is tantamount to self-ridicule."
The bizarre U-turn: Having escalated the war, Ravi suddenly backed down in the middle of the night–or at least, unnamed sources say so. According to The Hindu:
Sources in Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s office told The Hindu that Mr. Ravi had communicated that his order dismissing Mr. Senthilbalaji was being put on hold with immediate effect. “The Governor said his decision was being kept in abeyance,” a source privy to the development said.
NDTV cites a different source to confirm the same: “Late night, sources in the Governor's office said he was consulting the Attorney General on the matter and the decision was on hold. Mr Balaji will remain minister for now, they said.”
Ok, so why is this a big deal?
Breach of the Constitution? No governor has ever sacked the minister of a lawfully elected government. The Constitution clearly lays out the balance of power between the executive (governor/president) and an elected state or union government. And here’s what it says about the state cabinet:
Article 164 (1) of the Constitution states that the Chief Minister shall be appointed by the Governor and “the other Ministers shall be appointed by the Governor on the advice of the Chief Minister, and the Ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the Governor.”
The Supreme Court ruling: In 1974, the highest court in the land further narrowed the governor’s power, declaring that a Governor must exercise “formal constitutional powers only upon, and in accordance with the aid and advice of their ministers, save in a few well-known exceptional situations.” As The Wire notes:
The bench was categorical in this case that the constitution has not given the governor arbitrary or imperial powers to decide what is or is not detrimental to the interests of the nation. The elected representatives are capable of taking that call, it held. The bench said that should such a remarkable situation arise, the governor would be obliged to report to the president, leaving it to her to decide on the next course of action.
But all Ravi offered in the statement is a vague claim that keeping Senthilbalaji in his post “may eventually lead to breakdown of the Constitutional machinery in the State.”
Also this: In his concurring opinion in the case, Justice Madan B Lokur specifically states “if the Governor chooses to ‘withdraw his pleasure’ in respect of a Minister he must exercise his discretion with the knowledge of the Chief Minister and not by keeping him in the dark or unilaterally.” More recently, the Court expressed its displeasure at the role the governor played in toppling the Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition government in Maharashtra:
He (the Governor) cannot exercise a power that is not conferred on him by the Constitution or a law made under it. They certainly do not empower the Governor to enter the political arena and play a role (however minute) either in inter-party disputes or intra-party disputes.
But, but, but: Ravi’s startling move may have been triggered by a recent high court pronouncement. Hearing a petition to remove Senthilbalaji, the chief justice said he was unsure if the court can remove a minister of an elected government unless this: “If there is an order by the Governor and the Minister was still continuing in the post, then there might be some justification for the court to interfere.”
Weaponising the governor: There is growing concern over the union government using its appointed governors to interfere in opposition-ruled states. The CPI government in Kerala is engaged in a similar battle:
Last year, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan had written to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, asking him to take “constitutionally appropriate action” against state Finance Minister K N Balagopal and cautioned against a possible “withdrawal of pleasure”. In response, Vijayan, at a press conference, said that the Governor‘s powers were “very limited” on the issue.
In Telangana, Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan is at loggerheads with BRS CM K Chandrashekar Rao—and is also blocking legislation by not clearing bills. Mamata Banerjee bitterly feuded for years with Jagdeep Dhankhar—until he left the governor’s mansion in 2022. As one retired justice puts it:
Governors’ offices in non-BJP ruling states have turned into BJP’s headquarters. The new breed of Governors posted in south India, excluding Karnataka, are functioning in the same pattern and posing challenges to the ruling government,
Point to note: Indira Gandhi didn’t bother with governors. In February 1980, she directly dissolved nine state assemblies in one fell swoop—to ensure opposition parties could not elect Rajya Sabha members.
The bottomline: If the BJP wants to decide who should be a cabinet minister in Tamil Nadu, it should win the next election in the state.
The Hindu has the latest on this saga. Indian Express has more on the constitutional angle—while The Wire offers a scathing criticism. For more on weaponsing governors, read Scroll and DTNext. This Indian Express story has more on the row over Tamil Nadu’s name.