Spiralling COVID Cases & Dried-up State Coffers, Tamil Nadu CM Stalin Won’t Find the Going Easy

·5-min read

The spiralling COVID-19 cases and the dried-up state coffers, besides a host of lesser evils, will make sure that the new government is on its trembling toes even before its chief minister M.K. Stalin settles down for his fine first moments in the office that was once presided over by his father Karunanidhi for five terms, between 1969 and 2011.

The newly elected DMK legislators had their first meeting at the party headquarters ‘Anna Arivalayam’ Tuesday evening, where Stalin was elected as the leader of the legislature party. On Friday, he was sworn-in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu while 34 DMK leaders also took oath as members of the cabinet. The event was non-fussy and in line with the COVID guidelines.

Managing the COVID Crisis

In the last 24 hours, Tamil Nadu has reported 24,898 cases of COVID-19, only behind Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu currently has 1,31,468 active cases of COVID-19. Nearly 15,000 people have died due to COVID and the state healthcare apparatus betrays visible cracks as patients struggle for hospital beds. Stalin needs to quickly set up his war room to deal with the worsening virus stats—not just the present crisis but also the threat of a third wave closing in sometime soon.

Apart from increasing the treatment facilities and improving the existing ones, the new government should focus on the vaccination drive to slow down the infection rates and reduce the stress on overworked healthcare professionals. For a state boasting of high literacy and all-round development, Tamil Nadu shows shameful performance on vaccination and even faces the danger of the Centre reducing future allotments as several thousand doses had been wasted, unadministered.

For instance, a report last month said over 16 lakh vaccine doses remained in storage in the state even as severe shortages were seen in most other parts of the country. Administrators quickly blamed the elections for the slack in the vaccination drive, but then, neighbour Kerala did admirably well and they had polls too.

In fact, a senior state official was quoted in the media admitting that many government health workers were drafted away for election duty—which only showed the lopsided priorities that the outgoing regime betrayed. Setting the priorities right and getting the right kind of officers to deliver would be a top priority for the new CM.

Delivering on Promises

With the states being told to fund the vaccination of people in the 18-44 age group, he must do something real fast to find the money to carry out all these urgent public needs, plus meet the bills for the big poll promises made—such as a COVID dole of Rs 4,000 to all the ration-cardholders (the newly appointed CM said the first tranche of Rs 2,000 would be released this month), Rs 100 subsidy for each gas cylinder and reducing the cost of petrol and diesel.

Stalin, in fact, has already got down to real business when he held an ‘informal’ meeting with top state officials, including chief secretary Rajeev Ranjan, at his residence on Monday to discuss the COVID crisis. The new government has already tightened the lockdown guidelines, in force from May 6 to May 20, wherein all government and private offices will have to function with 50 per cent capacity.

Strengthening healthcare infrastructure and human resources, stocking up medicines and vaccines, and above all, launching an effective public awareness campaign to improve the vaccination numbers should get priority space on the new CM’s diary.

The DMK chief has nothing to worry in terms of his own political stability as he has just won a five-year term—unless ‘One Nation, One Election’ model is pushed through—and there are no schemers for the throne within the party, so he must drum up enough courage to balance the budget outflows for populist welfare schemes with the much-needed thrust on investment in critical sectors, such as education, healthcare, infra and generating jobs.

Being Prudent, Fiscally

Also, experts have pointed out, time and again, the fiscal imprudence of the past Dravidian regimes, including fancy schemes that did not help the real beneficiaries. I still remember when photographers in our newsroom got pictures of businessmen and senior state officers queuing up to pick up free colour TV sets, pledged by Karunanidhi-led DMK in the 2006 poll manifesto.

When he meets the PM soon after being sworn-in, Stalin is expected to petition for help to handle the COVID and economic crises, apart from pushing the political agenda of seeking healthy Centre-state relations. Stalin showed political maturity while responding to the outgoing CM Palaniswami’s congratulatory tweet by inviting him to working together for the welfare of the people of Tamil Nadu.

DMK sources say their chief on his Delhi trip would be meeting Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman, apart from, of course, ally Sonia Gandhi.

In his first public response to the poll victory, Stalin thanked the voters for electing the DMK and “ignoring all those false accusations and fears spread by our rivals”. He was obviously referring to the pet theme of the AIADMK-BJP campaign platforms—that the state would witness a breakdown of law and order and the DMK ‘goons’ would have a field day if the DMK is voted to power.

Well, he had a tight leash over his party functionaries and family members the last time he was at the State Secretariat, as the deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Repeating the feat would be among the toughest of Stalin’s challenges.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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