Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin is a man in a hurry. After assuming office, on May 7 he assessed the precarious Covid-19 situation in the state and opted for a bold but unpopular decision. Putting lives over livelihoods, he imposed a fortnight-long lockdown from May 10 in an attempt to break the chain in the spread of the virus.
At the first cabinet meeting on May 9, he underlined the seriousness of the situation to his colleagues in the cabinet before despatching 22 of them to 14 high prevalence districts. They will be stationed there during the lockdown to oversee all Covid-related initiatives. Continuity and change, a mix of the old and the new has been the standout feature of Stalin’s choices for his cabinet. So old warhorses like S. Durarimurugan (irrigation), K.N. Nehru (municipal administration) and I. Periyasamy (cooperatives), now in their seventies and eighties but still active, are in the mix with relative newbies like P.T.R. Palanivel Thiagarajan (finance). Duraimurugan, also the party treasurer, Nehru, Ma Subramanian (health), E.V. Velu (public works) and T.R. Baalu (Lok Sabha MP), form the core group around the chief minister. Their inputs, say analysts, would have contributed to Stalin’s choice of ministers. Significantly, 15 of the 33 ministers in his team are new faces.
Before travelling to the state secretariat, Fort St George, for the first time after the swearing-in ceremony presided over by Governor Banwarlal Purohit, Stalin cleared key papers in keeping with his pre-poll promises. Beginning May 15, the first half of the Rs 4,000 cash grant will be distributed as Covid relief to 20.7 million rice ration card holders through the public distribution system. For this, tokens are being delivered to their doorstep indicating the time and place where they can collect the grant. This will cost the exchequer over Rs 4,150 crore. The state will also meet the medical expenses of all Covid patients, even those being treated in private hospitals, through an existing insurance scheme.
In keeping with another promise, women get free rides on state transport buses in Chennai and other urban areas. This will cost the state transport corporations about Rs 1,200 crore in annual revenue. Working women and girls pursuing higher education account for around 40 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s bus passengers. Policy experts say free public transport can empower women, giving them greater access to jobs and education. Persons with disabilities and transgenders have since requested Stalin to extend them the same facility.
Another pre-poll sop implemented immediately has been slashing milk prices of the state-owned Aavin brand by three rupees, with a corresponding cutback in its procurement price as well. Though they seem like popular decisions, it is in the implementation that Stalin’s administration will be gauged. Fulfilling another key pre-poll promise, the chief minister on May 8 handed over the thousands of petitions that he had received during the campaign under the ‘Ungal Thoguthiyil Stalin (Stalin in your constituency)’ programme to an IAS officer, Shilpa Prabhakar Sathish, who has been appointed as Special Officer to dispose of these petitions within 100 days. Stalin has set up a separate department for the petitions and plans to launch a website which will post updates on their status. Personal grievances that are beyond the administrative ambit will be guided towards alternative resolutions.
The chief minister has assured an honest and transparent administration and asserted that the government is for all the people. “I am proud to have got the opportunity to fulfil my dreams about the state, which is based on my experiences and meetings with people across Tamil Nadu over the past several years. I want to transform the state into one of the best places to live in the world,” Stalin wrote in the party daily Murasoli on May 9, his first letter to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) cadre since taking over as chief minister. “I do not see myself as the chief minister, but as a frontline worker. I gear up for this work, keeping in mind the fact that governance is not a bed of roses but one full of thorns.”
“Though this is a government led by me, the president of the DMK, this is not the government of the DMK party this government is for all the people, it will take along all sections of society without any differentiation,” he promised. Stalin urged partymen to work towards resolving the people’s problems by taking along workers of other parties in a spirit of friendship. “There is a lot of expectation among the people who have faced disappointments in the past 10 years. There is no point blaming the past. It is better to light a lamp than to blame the darkness. Rather than criticising autumn, let us invite spring,” he wrote.
In the past, the DMK cadre have been known to ride roughshod over opponents. Indeed, during past campaigns, a constant opposition refrain was to remind people of this. This time, though, things might be different. Stalin has laid down the law and has already expelled a few party workers who, after the election victory, ransacked the subsidised Amma canteens in Chennai demanding that they be renamed Anna canteens (after the first chief minister C.N. Annadurai).
At least thrice in the past week the DMK chief has emphasised that this will be a government for all of Tamil Nadu, and not just a party regime. Stalin seems to be serious about this, and the DMK government will be keenly watched to see if it succeeds in making it so. The chief minister’s initial moves seem to suggest that he will be more accessible to the people, unlike demigods such as M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa, or the fourth and fifth term Karunanidhi terms, and even immediate predecessor E.K. Palaniswami. Stalin has been a keen tourer of the villages during his campaigns in the past decade, and may continue his visits to the districts once the Covid situation eases up. “There is an undercurrent of sincerity and seriousness that has not been felt in the past many decades,” says political commentator N. Sathiya Moorthy.
In the administration, Stalin will also have to balance political interests, especially when it comes to some of his veteran party colleagues heading ministries. That is where he will be tested but he will not fail for lack of experience. The chief minister has spent close to 50 years in public life; he’s been the mayor of Chennai, minister, deputy chief minister (2009-’11) and also the leader of the opposition in recent years.
The economy, jobs and education are the three sectors that need the urgent attention of the government besides the Covid situation. The DMK poll manifesto has also outlined the need to manage the state’s mineral wealth better, indicating that the mopped up funds may be used to help ease the fiscal situation. Covid management and funding, GST dues, NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for undergraduate medical students) and NEP (National Education Policy) are among the issues he will take up with the Centre on priority. “Stalin does want to bring some freshness to his administration. He seems to be a lot more confident since he is not dependent on any quarter for survival,” says Ramu Manivannan, head, department of politics and public administration, University of Madras. “He will rely on the bureaucracy more than his father. The decision to change the names of some government departments is more than cosmeticwe can expect new directions in governance from this administration.” Stalin has also not just relied on personal experience but gone by established credentials to pick the state’s chief secretary and the officials for the Chief Minister’s Office (see box: Calculated Change).
The Tamil Nadu chief minister is conscious of the fact that his performance in handling the Covid situation over the next few months could make or mar his term in office. Going by the change of the state’s chief secretary and the choice of four IAS officers for the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO), Stalin has signaled clearly how governance is likely to be steered in the next five years. He picked V. Irai Anbu to be chief secretary, overlooking the seniority of 12 IAS officers. Anbu is widely regarded as a fair administrator with a good track record in sprucing up the government machinery and is also among the few civil servants in the state who is popular as a public speaker, especially in the semi urban and rural areas.
Inducted into the CMO are T. Udhayachandran as the first secretary, along with P. Umanath, M.S. Shanmugam and Anu George, the three other secretaries. The CMO retains the organisational structure of earlier ones that the AIADMK used. In other changes, Gagandeep Singh Bedi, who was the popular district collector of Cuddalore during the 2004 tsunami, has been made the Greater Chennai Corporation commissioner. “His choices to lead the bureaucracy have been positive, identifying honest and efficient officers, some of whom had been cold-stored in the past 10 years,” says political analyst Sathiya Moorthy. “It is not about the choices alone, but the kind of message Stalin has sent down the line to the people.”
So what can the people expect in the next five years of DMK rule? Analysts argue that Stalin is more conscious of his and the DMK’s image. He will, therefore, do all that it takes to strengthen the party (he’s even tactfully kept son Udayanidhi out of the ministry). The chief minister will be more emphatic about Dravidian identity and will rally the party on that plank. Within minutes of the swearing-in, Stalin took to Twitter to describe himself as ‘Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, president of the DMK, belongs to Dravidian stock’. On the cards is a paradigm shift in economic management, without losing sight of the Dravidian social justice commitment, restoration of a clean government (even if in relative terms), and attracting more investments to the state than before. “Apart from a stable approach to governance, a revival of Centre-state issues, stoking anti-BJP moves in the state and across the country and redefining development priorities will be high on the DMK agenda,” says Manivannan.
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