Tamil Nadu’s New CEO Stalin is Making the Right Moves—by Appointing the Right People

·8-min read

Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin of the DMK has taken charge as the chief minister and plunged headlong into handling the critical crises of the scary COVID spike and the crippling economic downslide, besides finding the funds to honour at least a few of his poll promises that have turned out to be a bit too tall under the given circumstances. There is no honeymoon period normally allowed for any new CM; in fact, M.K. Stalin started working with experts and senior state babus even before he took oath on May 7.

The swearing-in by itself was pretty spartan, held at Raj Bhavan in a much smaller space compared to the huge Nehru Indoor Stadium where his father M. Karunanidhi took oath in 2006 and the University Centenary Auditorium that hosted Jayalalithaa’s swearing-in ceremony a decade later. Contrary to the filmi glitter of the Dravidian coronations, Stalin’s was low-key as he was keen on following the COVID protocol to prevent crowd calamities. Sadly, the virus affected what would most certainly have been a gala celebration of the DMK’s 68-year-old prince realising his long-held dream.

The joy over the multitude of congratulatory messages pouring in from all over, including the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora hailing him as its future hope, got quickly swept away by the flood of depressing COVID stats. The scary state of the state exchequer dried up those smiles just as fast.

Amid such turbulent start to his innings as the state’s CEO, Stalin has made all the right moves so far—getting some of the best brains available to handle the crucial areas in the senior bureaucracy and his cabinet; particularly, the choice of Palanivel Thiagarajan (finance), Ma. Subramanian (health) and Thangam Thennarasu (industries) as ministers and V. Irai Anbu as the Chief Secretary stand out.

Getting Back on Track, Financially

Fifty-five-year-old Thiagarajan is clearly the most qualified among all the finance ministers in the country, and perhaps the most suited to handle such crises. He has an engineering degree from NIT-Trichy, a Masters in Operations Research and Doctorate in Human Factors Engineering/ Engineering Psychology from State University of New York plus an MBA in Financial Management from the MIT Sloan School of Management. After holding some highly-rated positions in the US, he became the MD of the Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, before finally returning home to Madurai in 2015.

He comes from a highly respected aristocratic family that has been associated with the world-famous Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and also the Sabarimala Ayyappan temple in Kerala; grandfather P.T. Rajan was the chief minister of the Madras Presidency in 1936 and father P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan was the Assembly Speaker and later a DMK minister.

Apart from all those family decorations, Thiagarajan is said to be a finance wizard and was the chosen DMK voice in the last Assembly—his first term as MLA—to pick holes in the AIADMK regime’s annual budgets. He is presently busy working on a white paper on the state’s financial mess and preparing the drafts for Stalin’s upcoming Budget. He has in recent media interviews spoken of using “innovative measures” to try getting Tamil Nadu out of the red, rather than sticking to the age-old fiscal practices.

Informed sources say Stalin wanted his finance minister to ‘somehow raise money’ without increasing people’s tax burden or reducing welfare allowances. Seeking Central help, including the release of the GST dues, will be on top of the agenda when the CM and his team land in Delhi in the next couple of weeks, possibly after the COVID lockdown ends on May 24 (there is a strong possibility it could stretch till the end of May). It is possible that the new government could hike booze prices—the state controls the liquor retail sales through ‘Tasmac’ (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Limited) outlets that reportedly registered a turnover of Rs 30,000-35,000 crore last year. There is talk that ‘lottery’ could return to deliver a bonanza to the state exchequer.

“Increasing liquor prices and bringing back the lotteries would punch holes in the pockets of the poor more than any other section; but then, the government can always give the excuse that these measures became unavoidable and counsel public prudence in their spending,” said a former bureaucrat, requesting anonymity.

Fixing the Industrial Climate

Health minister Ma. Subramanian is expected to draw upon his impressive experience as Chennai’s mayor (2006-11), particularly in captaining a large network of officials through the maze of public health in the metropolis that has now ended up as the COVID capital of the South. Winner of several awards in marathons over the years, MaSu, as he is affably known, is spending over 16 hours a day on the COVID beat as Tamil Nadu is battling shortage of oxygen, vaccines and hospital beds; and the virus stats worsen every day.

As the state needs to quickly and effectively lift the sagging morale of the businesses and industries, affected by the ‘insensitive’ handling of the predecessor AIADMK regimes and now COVID, Stalin picked Thangam Thennarasu, who had distinguished himself as the school education minister during the last DMK government led by Karunanidhi, as the industries minister. The engineer-turned-politician has already held discussions with a host of business and industry heads on pitching in with supplies of oxygen and other COVID treatment hardware, besides evolving long-term plans to revive the units and minimise layoffs. Needless to say, the industry and business captains have presented their wish-lists; at the top of their list would be the plea to be heard and consulted, which was not available for last several years.

‘Thangam’ means gold in Tamil and that’s how the new industry minister is known in his party circles and among friends; he would have to draw upon that golden touch seen during his days as the education minister in the earlier DMK regime to salvage the sunken image of Tamil Nadu as a safe investment destination. A multitude of ‘inspired’ agitations had disrupted industrial peace and scared away prospective investors. One loud instance was the Russians pulling out their joint-venture factory to produce AK-47 rifles from the state, which then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman wished to have close to Trichy, where she spent her school years. She couldn’t stop the unit moving to Amethi after the Russians showed her the huge count of agitations in just one year in her home state.

Another classic case of the government bungling on its responsibility to protect industries was the closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi in May 2018 after 13 people were killed in police firing when some protesters ‘inspired’ by environmental concerns turned violent. As a result of the plant closure, copper-exporter India turned into an importer of the critical metal, causing a huge drain of its forex reserves.

“They could have constituted a committee of experts, including top doctors from premier medical institutions in the country, to evaluate the environmental concerns raised by NGOs and others, such as the charge that the Sterlite effluents caused cancer. Instead, the government just ordered the plant’s closure and that was wrong as it not only altered India’s copper status from exporter to importer but also sent alarming signals to prospective investors about TN’s industrial climate,” said former Union revenue secretary M.R. Sivaraman, the author of PAN during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as finance minister.

Managing Tamil Nadu-Delhi Relationship

Stalin has now heralded a healthy political culture of inclusivity by treating opposition leaders courteously and consulting them on issues—a trait not seen in Tamil Nadu politics for decades; the high point was the all-party meeting he presided over at the State Secretariat on May 13 to discuss COVID, where he had the opposition pledging wholesome support to his government’s measures to contain the pandemic— which his father Karunanidhi as CM would not have dared to seek from bête noire Jayalalithaa.

Chief secretary V. Irai Anbu is a no-nonsense IAS officer dumped into ‘insignificant’ positions by the previous regimes, seemingly because of his honesty and integrity. By bringing him as the head of the state bureaucracy, even overlooking 12 seniors in the cadre, Stalin has sent the message loud and clear that he really meant it when he promised ‘absolute transparency in governance’ during the poll campaign. It remains to be seen if the CM-CS duo will be able to carry to the end the ‘zero-corruption’ resolve, considering that in the sullied Indian political system, Tamil Nadu has etched out a special place as one of the most corrupt poll battlefields. And, the local body elections are due next year.

Interestingly, the new chief secretary’s brother V. Thiruppugazh is an IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre and said to be close to the Delhi dispensation. He is presently with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA); and who knows, the brothers can help in bridging the ties between the state and the Centre.

Talking of the Tamil Nadu-Delhi relations, Stalin will have to do some serious internal tweaking while enacting his expected role as a member of the ‘troika’ that includes Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan to take on the Centre on not just protecting the states’ rights and seeking better allocations of funds but also in other agitational politics. He would have to do some deft balancing between his responsibilities towards his own state as its CM and the ambition for a role in national politics, while taking into consideration that his ally, the Indian National Congress, does not seem to be in any hurry to bid for power in Delhi.

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

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