Chennai: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s man to man the finances of the state at a time when the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic has derailed the state economy as well, Palanivel Thiagarajan (PTR), is the man you might want to be in the hot seat.
A highly educated professional with an MBA from Sloan School of Management at MIT, Thiagarajan learned and fine-tuned his economic principles and theories under the tutelage of Nobel laureate, Italian economist Franco Modigliani. All that is now coming in handy for the Tamil Nadu state finance minister as he whittles down complexities of GST, revenue-sharing formulas, and public accountancy issues into a language the common man understands and gives shape to the state’s responses on financial issues. Of course, within the ambit of political niceties and boundaries were drawn up by Chief Minister Stalin.
In fact, it was Thiagarajan on whom Stalin relied on when he entrusted Thiagarajan with anchoring the party’s discourse on state budget discussions, inside and outside the assembly all through Jayalalithaa’s second consecutive tenure as the Chief Minister.
So, it was not surprising at all for the DMK watchers in Tamil Nadu, that Thiagarajan was entrusted with the finance department after Stalin took over as the Chief Minister last month following a convincing victory in the assembly elections. For the record, Thiagarajan is an engineer from the prestigious NIT Trichy, and later did his Masters in Operations Research and a doctorate in applied computers.
For good measure, he also did Masters in Business Administration following which he became an investment banker in Lehman Brothers and later with Standard Chartered in Singapore. It was back home to family and politics for him as he returned and became an MLA in 2016. Rich on his own after working in investment banking for many years, Thiagarajan returned to India in 2007 when his father, a DMK leader, PTR Palanivel Rajan had passed away. But he later went to Singapore on another assignment and returned to India again in 2011 and later entered politics in 2016 as a DMK candidate in Madurai and won.
As an MLA from Madurai, Thiagarajan would put up monthly progress reports and financial details of the works carried out, as an example of transparency. People blessed him again. From Day one as a minister Thiagarajan came under media glare and has had his share of controversies or rather “picked quarrels” with Sadhguru and countered the Coimbatore-based spiritual guru and his campaign to free temples from government control.
Sporting Kumkum Bindi on his forehead as if declaring his Hindu religious identity, Thiagarajan is often the person fielded by the DMK to counter the BJP whenever it throws an anti-Hindu barb against the Dravidian party. Thiagarajan’s family had contributed immensely to the development of temples and naturally took on Sadhguru who was seen furthering the BJP’s campaign issue on the temples. Quickly moving on from here, deep into the pandemic management, Thiagarajan entered the GST council as the representative of Tamil Nadu in the important forum that decides on GST rules and regulations as also on taxation issues. A person with clear cut understanding of the economy, and finances, Thiagarajan made quite a splash at his first outing at the GST council. Referring to a wide range of issues from the design of GST Network to the enforcement model fragmented between Union & State government inspectors, to the laws with ‘draconian’ enforcement actions, the TN finance minister said the current GST model needed thorough reforms. Because he said, the current model does not serve the interests of taxpayers. Citing many technicalities of the intrinsically Centre-driven approach to the tax revenue collection system, he said it had led to more burden rather than relief for states. “The Union’s seeming goodwill in raising the States’ devolution from the Divisible pool of Taxes to 42 percent has been largely offset by the expansion of Cesses (up 80% from Rs 1.4 lakh crore in FY ’14 to Rs 2.55 lakh srore in FY ’20),” he said, hitting the nail on its head.
In effect the central government had diverted money away from the state, the Tamil Nadu finance minister said and added, the gradual, but eventually, almost a complete shift of all taxes on Petrol & Diesel from Excise to Cesses, (almost Rs 50,000 Crore) from the Pool of Divisible Taxes, has led to states losing out on payments worth Rs. 20,000 crore. It was once again Thiagarajan who was fielded by Tamil Nadu to counter the central government claims on the Coronavirus vaccination policy over which the union government has accused the states of playing politics and “making a U-turn” over procurement of vaccines. A huge row had broken out with opposition ruled states demanding that the central government procure all vaccines and distribute the same to states, which will take up the task of vaccination like other vaccination programmes that took place in the country earlier.
It is interesting that even the Supreme Court has asked some tough questions to the central government on its vaccination policy, parts of which the apex court described as “arbitrary and irrational”. Batting for states, irrespective of the party in power, Thiagarjan maintained that the Centre was not giving away something that was it owned when it gave vaccines free of cost to the people. “Where does the Centre get its money from. It is people’s money and must be spent on vaccines for the people. There is no question about it,” the TN minister said quoting Narendra Modi as having said the same thing when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The combative Thiagarjan also countered the suggestions that health was a state subject and that state governments were playing politics by articulating that it was the centre that sought to use anything and everything to its advantage and cited NEET as an example. TN will not be allowed to decide on its medical education but when it does not suit them, health becomes a state subject. This will not do, we are in a pandemic and the central government should buy up vaccine manufacturers’ entire production at the fixed rate of Rs 100 per dose, buy 200 million does a month and supply to states. In a TV interview, he came up with a radical suggestion: nationalization of the two vaccine manufacturing firms for six months till we have vaccines for entire population, and cited previous instances of nationalization of banks when it was needed to be done.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with PTI, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, Hindustan Times. He can be reached on email@example.com and Twitter handle @kvlakshman