For two days last week, Opposition parties disrupted proceedings in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, demanding a debate over allegations that senior members of the government and bureaucracy had accepted bribes from a company that manufactures gutka, the sale of which has been banned in the state since 2013. On Wednesday, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam staged a walkout in the House while demanding that the Central Bureau of Investigation look into the “gutka scam”, in which the names of Health Minister C Vijayabaskar and two senior police officers have surfaced.

Tamil Nadu banned the sale of gutka – a combination of tobacco, areca nut and multiple flavourings – four years ago after activists blamed the product for an increase in mouth cancer cases in the state.

Despite the serious allegations, one of the officers embroiled in the case, TK Rajendran, was on June 30 appointed as the Director General of Police, the top post of the state police force. Rajendran, who was set to retire on Friday, will now get a two-year extension and will head the state police department till June 2019.

Almost all members of the state police force were watching for developments on Friday night as the orders appointing Rajendran as the DGP arrived after 11.15 pm. Forty five minutes more and the officer would have been forced to retire without the promotion.

The “gutka scam” emerged after a letter sent by the income tax department to the state chief secretary last year surfaced and was published first by The Hindu and later followed up in detail by Times Now. It alleged that about Rs 40 crores in bribes had been paid to the health minister, several police officers and officials in various other departments, helping the tobacco industry overcome the gutka ban by ensuring slack implementation on the ground.

How the scam unfolded

On July 8, 2016, the income tax department raided the premises of people involved in manufacturing the MDM brand of gutka in Chennai. A month later, BR Balakrishnan, the principal director of income tax investigations in Chennai, wrote to the chief secretary seeking action against those involved in the bribery scam. The letter contained excerpts from documents and ledgers seized from the home of an accountant employed by the company. Madhava Rao, a partner in the company, had also reportedly corroborated the bribe payments, as noted in the accounts.

According to the documents, the payments were made in several tranches over a one-year period starting in late 2015. Page 92 of the accounts seized showed Rs 60 lakhs was paid to the police commissioner of Chennai city between April 21, 2016, and June 20, 2016. The documents also showed payments made on three other dates starting September 2015.

On page 87 of the documents, notings revealed a payment of Rs 56 lakhs between April 1, 2016, and June 15, 2016, to the health minister, though it did not name him.

The documents also revealed payments to officials in the central excise department and food safety agencies in Tamil Nadu.

Going by the dates in the documents, two officers occupied the post of commissioner of police during that period – S George and TK Rajendran.

However, in a curious development in December, three months after the income tax department’s letter to the chief secretary, George wrote to the government alleging connivance between senior police officials and what is now widely called the “gutka mafia”. The letter was written a day after the income tax department on December 21 raided the office and the residence of , P Rama Mohana Rao, who as then chief secretary, and allegedly seized Rs 30 lakhs in post-demonetisation Rs 2,000 notes and 5 kg of gold.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Duraimurugan alleged this letter by George was written only to cover his own tracks in the scam and demanded the suspension of both Rajendran and George.

TK Rajendran was one of two officers to hold the post of Chennai police commissioner during the period the bribes were allegedly paid. (Credit: YouTube)

Rajendran becomes police chief

Despite the cloud, Rajendran, who was till Friday director general of police (intelligence) with additional charge of law and order, was appointed to head the police force. His appointment will give him a two-year extension as the Supreme Court has made it clear in the Prakash Singh case in 2006 that once an officer is appointed chief of police, his tenure should not be disturbed for two years, irrespective of the expected date of retirement.

Others in the race included Archana Ramasundaram, K Radhakrishnan, KP Mahendran and JK Tripathy. Their names were included in the panel of officers eligible to become police chief following a meeting between Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan and the Union Public Service Commission on Thursday. Ramasundaram is the most senior officer on the list. The police department was also agog with rumours on Thursday night that the Union home ministry had sought a report on the bribery scandal from the Tamil Nadu government.

A riveting drama unfolded on Friday evening as the chief secretary had to return from Madurai to Chennai to issue the appointment orders, which were reportedly cleared by Governor C Vidyasagar Rao only hours earlier. A senior official said while the Governor office was indeed worried about the allegations about the officer, the appointment had to go through to avert a constitutional crisis as the police force was a state subject and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy had recommended Rajendran’s name for the post.

The bribery scandal has shaken the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government. Health minister Vijayabaskar is already facing heat over allegations that he bribed voters during the campaign for the bye-election to the RK Nagar Assembly constituency, which was necessitated by the death of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Vijayabaskar’s house was raided in April in connection with the cash-for-votes case and days later, the Election Commission of India cancelled the bye-poll following allegations of widespread corruption.

On Thursday, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy assured the Assembly that the state government’s Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption was investigating the bribery charges. However, with the health minister and top police officials involved, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam working president MK Stalin alleged that an investigation by the state government would only result in a cover-up.