Chennai: Giant cutouts of former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa that adorned the entrance to St George Fort, the seat of power in Tamil Nadu, were naturally replaced with similar cutouts of Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and his father M. Karunanidhi when he entered the Secretariat after taking the oath. One of the first directives he gave to the officials were to remove the cutouts and posters near Secretariat premises.
Stepping out of his father’s shadow, Stalin heralded subtle changes in his approach and outlook to politics and political rivalry when the DMK put up a poster in salute to Jayalalithaa at Marina beach after she passed away.
In the recently concluded era of the two giants of Tamil Nadu, arch-rivals Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa behaved more like sworn enemies rather than political opponents. In fact, such was the unwritten blanket bans that even MLAs and party leaders would be scared to be seen talking to leaders from the other side.
Stalin began re-scripting the political environment when he offered assistance to the Edapaddi Palaniswamy government on occasions and also sought the cooperation of the outgoing Chief Minister, and his valuable advice drawn from his vast experience.
Stalin himself has over five decades of experience as his father’s understudy and had served as the Mayor of Chennai and also later as the Deputy Chief Minister and brings to the table his rich and varied administrative experience.
First Day First Act of Stalin, soon after swearing-in, orders for free treatment to Covid patients in government and private hospitals, slashing of milk prices by Rs 3 per litre, free travel for women in government buses, and the first tranche of cash payment of Rs 2,000 each to every rice ration cardholder in the state as promised during elections, and more importantly, the creation of a new department to deal with all the grievances of the people Stalin collected during campaigning. This department, headed by an IAS officer, has been tasked to solve the grievances of the people within 100 days.
For Stalin, there is no option other than to hit the ground running, given the raging second wave of Covid pandemic. On this, as also to assure the state that it is an entirely new DMK regime in place, Stalin has the onerous task of checking his own party cadres and leaders and arrest any decline in governance delivery mechanism, and check law and order, which were the issues that brought the DMK government down in 2011.
As the de-facto leader of the DMK, following his father’s illness, Stalin resisted all temptations to destabilize and overthrow the AIADMK government that was in the grip of an intense internal war between Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswamy and former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam after the death of Jayalalithaa in 2016. Preferring to wait and work hard for the people’s mandate, Stalin’s victory proved his decision was right, even though at that time he was perceived as a weak leader.
With a clear-cut victory, a majority for the DMK on its own as well with 134 members out of 234, Stalin has stamped his authority within the party and established self as the true inheritor of his father’s political legacy.
A leader now in his own right, Stalin has declared his Dravidian-ness on his Twitter profile too, that can be interpreted as his message to everyone the importance and the value he puts to the Tamilian identity, its culture, language, and heritage. But still, he knows the big shoes he needs to fill and the challenges up ahead of him.
The political team that assists him, the cabinet is a judicious mix of experience and youth. The key portfolio of finance has been entrusted to Palanivel Thiagarajan, a graduate from MIT, a former banker. As an MLA he used to put up his report card in his constituency every six months. Most importantly, he knows numbers and financials and is systematic and methodical. Very critical of the way the Central government’s financial policies, Thiagarajan believes that GST dues is a black and white, legal commitment of the Indian government to the states and that there was nothing to discuss on it. The mounting public debt of the state and financial crunch are the issues that confront the new government.
On the administrative front, Stalin has assembled a crack team of officials to assist him in governance delivery as also to implement the promises he made to the electorate, and spur all-round economic growth of the state. Yes, Covid management is on top of his priorities as also tackling mounting public debt at a time when revenues have taken a hit, and avenues for states to raise resources drying up after GST.
Within hours of his swearing-in, Stalin brought in the multi-faceted senior officer, V. Irai Anbu as the Chief Secretary, replacing Rajeev Ranjan and appointed three more key officials to help him run the state smoothly. Irai Anbu is a writer, motivational speaker, and a former columnist with the Hindu when serving in Madurai. An affable man, he is known for helping and guiding students to crack the civil services examinations and has a big fan following among the youth.
For the person heading the bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu, he perhaps fits the bill to the T. Moreover, his brother, also an IAS officer of Gujarat cadre, has worked with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The first round of bureaucratic reshuffle came in for praise from different quarters. After a review meeting, the Chief Minister declared a 14-day complete lockdown in Tamil Nadu from 10 May in a bid to contain the spread and intensity of coronavirus. He asked the officials on the ground across the state to present the real picture to him, so that effective strategies could be framed and proper decisions are taken.
Already Tamil Nadu has witnessed two separate ghastly incidents of deaths in hospitals due to lack of oxygen. Stalin lost no time in writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking help to procure medical oxygen, as the state was expecting the demand to double to 840 MT in the near future. Highlighting the fact that the National Oxygen Plan had allocated only 210 MT to the state, Stalin sought revised allocations to the state.
He knows that the time of political rhetoric was over and it was time to build good, working relations with the Central government in the overall interests of Tamil Nadu. Stalin promised his unstinted support to the Prime Minister in his efforts to tackle the unprecedented pandemic to save the nation.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on kvlakshman@gmail.com and Twitter handle @kvlakshman