Unlike the regimes of Jayalalitha, Palaniswami and Karunanidhi, ministers are actually getting to make decisions on their own, with the unmentioned rider that they would be held responsible and accountable, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.
IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin at the Covid Unified Command Centre in Chennai. Photograph: ANI Photo.
In the normal course, ‘Opposition chief ministers’ reserve their barbs and battles with an ideological rival ruling the Centre until after s/he had paid the formal courtesy call on the prime minister of the day. Not so for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
With the Covid pandemic restricting even intra-national flight travels, his government could not but flag his party’s ideological issues of long-standing concern in public before he called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Less than three weeks after taking over as chief minister on May 7, Stalin has declared that his government would move a resolution in the state assembly (when convened in the normal course) asking for the abrogation of the three controversial farm laws, which had led to huge protests before the Covid second wave took over.
Less than a week earlier, Stalin had written to President Ram Nath Kovind, urging freedom for the seven ‘Rajiv Gandhi killers’ still in Tamil Nadu prisons. The chosen day for the epistle, May 21, happened to be the 30th anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
While pan-Tamil groups that had been demanding freedom for the seven hailed it, it left the Congress party, a DMK ally, with a bad taste in the mouth. State Congress leaders expressed their continued disapproval to such a plan.
Should the state assembly take up another resolution on the issue, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre can expect the 18 Congress legislators to vote with them, even as the latter would be vociferous in their support for the resolution against the farm laws.
Tamil Nadu’s previous All India Anna DMK rulers backed the Centre on the farm laws and did not give in to Opposition demands for an assembly resolution of the kind that Stalin now proposes. But the AIADMK may be divided on opposing any such resolution on the farm laws while in Opposition now.
Though they may be more positive in backing any fresh resolution on the Rajiv killers, the previous AIADMK government, having written to Governor Banwarilal Purohit on more than one occasion, had also moved the Supreme Court with its own plea in the matter.
Through his past weeks in government, Stalin has lived down the image of a confrontationist, often associated with his late father M Karunanidhi, especially when in power. He has consistently resisted all temptation to respond to limited Opposition criticism, mostly coming from state BJP leaders and their social media operatives who have not lost an opportunity to criticise the Stalin government, or take an ideological dig at the DMK, from the past that the Dravidian voter had never counted, or has at least erased from his hard disk long ago.
In comparison, divided as they still are, the AIADMK’s twin pillars in E K Palaniswami and party coordinator O Panneerselvam have been publicly appealing to the CM, though often separately, on issues and offering suggestions.
Living up to his post-poll promise to be the chief minister of all Tamil Nadu citizens, including those that did not vote for his party, Stalin has been taking those suggestions/requests positively, and has also been acting on them.
Stalin went one step further by setting up an all-party legislative consultative committee, but at the government-level, on Covid management. He gave a pleasant surprise by naming the previous AIADMK government’s health minister, C Vijayabhaskar, a controversial politician while in power, to the 13-member committee, taking off from his promise to work closely with the Opposition for the betterment of the state.
While reshuffling the top bureaucracy, from the chief secretary downwards, he has retained Health Secretary Dr J Radhakrishnan, who has been heading the government’s pandemic management. An internationally celebrated civil servant for his handling of post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation operations in worst-hit Nagapattinam as district collector in-charge in 2004 under the J Jayalalithaa government, Radhakrishnan was a Stalin find, as the Chennai Corporation commissioner (1996-2001), when the current CM was the city mayor.
Radhakrishnan’s 10-year continuing stint at the health ministry is the longest for any civil servant in the same post, yet his name was linked to the alleged ‘cover-up’ of Jayalalithaa’s medical treatment and death in 2016. This has not bothered Stalin, at least for now — and at least until the Covid situation remains unresolved.
Yet, all this has not stopped the Stalin leadership from taking ideological positions that could have been delayed but not avoided. Thus, School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi caused the abstention of his bureaucrats from an online meeting on the implementation of the controversial New Education Policy, called by the Centre, sidelining ministers, as has been the Modi style of governance.
Minister Mahesh, son of the late DMK leader Poyyamozhi, a confidant of Stalin and grandson of party strongman Anbil Dharmalingam, contended that state education ministers should have been invited, instead, and he would have got an opportunity to put forth the state’s views on record. It would have been at variance from of the official position of the previous AIADMK dispensation which supported the NEP and also the NEET, another no-no for the DMK government.
On yet another of Tamil Nadu’s perennial problem of the past decades, on the Cauvery water dispute with neighbouring Karnataka, Irrigation Minister S Duraimurugan, the octogenarian DMK general secretary, declared that the neighbouring state would not be allowed to build a dam across the river at Mekedatu. But in a less competitive mode, he referred to the pending Supreme Court case in the matter — and left it at that, at least for now.
Since assuming office and even earlier, Stalin has been presenting a modest and moderate face of the Dravidian movement, not often associated with the DMK, especially by its Hindutva critics over the past decades.
On a very touchy issue like the Sterlite copper plant at southern Thoothukudi after 13 persons were killed in a police firing in May 2018, he convened an all-party meeting, which encouraged the state government to allow limited reopening of the plant to produce oxygen required in Covid treatment.
In what could be a concerted effort at facilitating a smooth ending to the larger issue of Sterlite lockdown, he visited Thoothukudi, and handed over job appointment orders to 17 members of victims’s families.
Acting on the much-delayed Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission interim report, presented to him as chief minister, Stalin also ordered the withdrawal of all criminal cases against political leaders protesting against the copper plant, leaving out those being handled by the CBI.
The hopes are that this would create a conducive atmosphere in the port town for the government to facilitate local discussions on larger issues.
A lot will also depend on Stalin’s handling of the specific issue of bringing forward criminal cases against ‘errant’ police officers and civilian officials, involved in controversial decisions that led to the police firing.
At the height of the Covid containment efforts, any precipitate action now could demoralise both sections of the officialdom.
If the AIADMK Opposition is looking elsewhere and relieved, state BJP leaders are looking askance about how to target the DMK on the Sterlite issue. They are also equally confused about attacking the ruling party on ‘religious beliefs’ after Minister Sekar Babu directed his departmental officials to put out online, the rental dues from occupants of vast acreage of government-administered temple properties all across the state.
According to local media reports, his opening of a complaints page on the ministry’s Web portal has also received enthusiastic response from temple-goers.
Yet, there are issues.
Already, the Stalin government has been hauled up before the judiciary. The Madurai bench of the Madras high court stayed the order for procuring essentials for distribution through rations shops, by violating tender rules.
The government had cancelled the earlier contract, near-similarly awarded to another party by the EPS government, alleging big-time corruption, forming part of the then DMK Opposition’s memorandum to Governor Purohit. It can embarrass the state government, whatever the justification.
At the level of personalities, Stalin’s finance minister, P T R Palanivel Thiagarajan, who became a media celebrity overnight for his academic qualifications, professional experience and clear-cut ideas on fiscal management, was caught in the eye of a storm after he took on spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev over a couple of controversies involving the latter.
If his idea was to send home the message that there were equally religious and spiritual people like him in the DMK fold, the purpose was at best half-served.
Ahead of the assembly polls, Jaggi Vasudev moved the Madras high court, as if in a hurry, asking for returning the administration of Hindu temples, taken over by then Madras Presidency’s Justice Party government close to a hundred years back, to devotees, citing mismanagement.
Proving the point that starting with grandfather P T Rajan, who was a Justice Party chief minister and father P T R Palanivel Rajan, a DMK leader and minister, were all believers, Thiagarajan recalled how both of them were also trustees of the famous Meenakshi Amman temple in native Madurai.
Thiagarajan also pointed out that the idol of Lord Ayyappa adoring the sanctum at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala was donated by his grandfather after the temple was destroyed in a fire.
No one could have defended the DMK better on the touchy religious issue, but Thiagarajan may have blotted his copybook early on by passing sweeping comments on Jaggi Vasudev, from the death of the latter’s wife to allegations of forest land encroachment by his Isha Foundation headquarters in Coimbatore.
Another avoidable controversy relates to HR&CE Minister P K Sekar Babu reportedly ticking off north Indian voters in his Harbour constituency, Chennai. Inaugurating a foodbank programme, he told the host audience how their preference for the BJP over Dravidian parties in elections since 2014 had not dissuaded the likes of him from serving them too.
His reference to booth-level voting figures in the April election was avoidable, but as the wag puts it, unless there was some truth in his claims to serving the community, they would not have invited him for the programme, in a rush.
However, the BJP’s national women’s wing chief, Vaanathi Srinivasan, who defeated actor-politician Kamalahassan for the Coimbatore South assembly seat, and some of her party colleagues saw it as part of the DMK’s ‘divisive politics’ — and predictably so.
Another issue centres on a prestigious Chennai higher secondary school, where the police have arrested a male teacher under POSCO, on charges of obscene behaviour towards girl students in online classes and also through social media links.
Peripheral pan-Tamil groups have targeted the school’s Brahmin promoters, whose family members are vocal BJP propagandists on social media — and who have also revelled in seeking to exploit unrelated caste and political issues as if that were the controversy.
All these do not go down well with apolitical sympathisers of Stalin, some of whom were willing to give the ‘devil its due’.
Chastened, possibly by his chief minister, Thiagarajan soon issued a statement that his hands were full as finance minister of a debt-driven economy and its welfare commitments — and anyway, the Jaggi issue under debate did not concern the departments under his care. Something that slipped his mind when he seamlessly rolled into the affairs of HR&CE and forest ministries, under the care of other party colleagues.
There is another major, yet positive departure for Stalin from the earlier regimes of chief ministers Jayalalithaa and EPS, and even his late father Karunanidhi. After the forgotten short and last stint of OPS at the helm, government ministers are actually getting to make decisions on their own (possibly in consultation with the CM) and go public on such decisions — with the unmentioned rider that they would be held responsible and accountable, all the same.
Under EPS, barring some senior ministers whom he could not tick off, or the veritable loose tongues whom he gave up controlling, he as chief minister seemed to have taken decisions and also announced them, inside the assembly or outside, a trait inherited from Jayalalithaa.
In his last terms especially, Karunanidhi too did so, with the Dravidian polity attracting limited political talent with administrative acumen. Stalin now wants to change the trend and set a healthy new precedent, forgotten in what used to be an efficiently-administered state, for long.
The most recent in what is becoming a welcome series in equitable power distribution, Stalin despatched Industry Minister Thangam Thennarasu, along with parliamentary group leader T R Baalu, to meet with Union Minister Piyush Goyal.
Given the pandemic vaccine shortage, the state government wanted permission to take over and revive a central PSU unit in Chengalpattu district, as earlier appeals from other stakeholders in the state has not produced any response. According to the state minister, Goyal has promised to revert within a week.
Such breaks from the past by themselves should go a long way in making — or marring — the image of the Stalin style of governance. On this score alone, his critics, both regional and national, may have a lot to answer, if and when cornered on the style of functioning of their respective leaderships, which needless to say would be dubbed undemocratic to the point of being autocratic.
At least as long as Stalin continues with this style of administration.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.