A framed portrait of Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in front of him, Finance Minister O Panneerselvam chaired Tamil Nadu’s first cabinet meeting in Jayalalithaa’s absence Wednesday.
The portrait on the desk has been the standard followed at all high-level meetings of the government since Jayalalithaa was admitted to hospital on September 22. After the hospital made it clear that treatment of Jayalalithaa’s lung ailment would require her to be in hospital for a longer time, the governor’s office allocated all her portfolios to Panneerselvam on October 11.
The cabinet meeting was necessitated after Governor C Vidyasagar Rao prorogued the assembly, clearing the decks for the government to pass an ordinance to appoint special officers to govern local bodies as the terms of councillors and mayors end on October 24.
“The ordinance to appoint special officers will be issued in a few days,” said one of the ministers who attended the meeting, on condition of anonymity. “We also discussed the Cauvery waters issue and some pending files from industrialists and firms on an earlier commitment from the government.”
Jayalalithaa, he said, was keeping abreast of the proceedings of Wednesday’s meeting from her hospital bed. If her framed photo was prominently visible at the meeting, in the back rows was retired IAS officer Sheela Balakrishnan, adviser to Jayalalithaa.
“This may have been Pannerselvam’s first cabinet meeting,” an official noted. “He did not chair a meeting when he
was the CM after Jayalalithaa had been convicted in 2014.”
The meeting at Fort St George, the state secretariat, lasted an hour starting 9.30 am. This came across as uncharacteristically long to two senior leaders who had been part of earlier cabinets headed by Jayalalithaa. “Usually, we would be briefed about the agenda a day or two in advance. The meeting itself would last hardly 15-20 minutes,” said one of the leaders.
“There would be no need for discussions at cabinet meetings as Amma would have done the homework herself and come prepared to present her decisions for ratification ratified by the cabinet.”
The nature of these cabinet meetings has been a feature of the way Jayalalithaa’s style of running the government has evolved. “During her first stint in 1991-96, cabinet meetings used to be the rarest of rare events,” said a former minister, who had served in Jayalalithaa’s first two regimes. “Then, she managed to do things efficiently on her own, mostly from her Poes Garden home. Any visit she made to the secretariat used to be a big event,” the leader said.
“But that practice would bring trouble, as she realised later,” the leader added. “Many corruption charges including in the TANSI case, Pleasant Stay Hotel case and television scam were targeted against her alone, as she had taken all the decisions herself. Her second term (2001-06) saw the most cabinet meetings. The third term (from 2011) too was a busy one, until she was convicted in September 2014 in the disproportionate assets case.”