Jayalalithaa’s conviction in an assets case last week has pushed the reluctant Panneerselvam into the CM’s seat. In a party where the AIADMK chief towered over everyone else, the new CM has his task cut out, writes Arun Janardhanan
In September 2001, just before he was to be sworn in as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, O Panneerselvam, then a first-time MLA, stopped to bend and touch the feet of party supremo J Jayalalithaa. On Monday, that’s the image that came rushing back as Panneerselvam, 13 years after he first became chief minister for six months, walked up to take oath as Chief Minister. This time, he dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief to wipe away the tears that rolled down his cheeks.
It’s his fierce loyalty to Jayalalithaa that saw her picking Panneerselvam, a relative late entrant to politics who once owned a tea shop and a dairy farm, over several party veterans when she had to step down as CM for six months in 2001 following her conviction in a land case. OPS, as Jayalalithaa calls him, had then chosen not to sit on the CM’s chair and had refrained from signing important files. With Panneerselvam becoming Chief Minister again after a Bangalore special court convicted Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case on Saturday, it remains to be seen if he can step out of that loyalist frame, and transform himself from being an unabashed Amma champion to a functional chief minister. But for a government and party where Jayalalithaa towered over everyone else, that calls for some radical shifting of gears.
In the absence of Jayalalithaa, whose office openly ran most of the major departments such as home and health, can Panneerselvam and his ministers formulate policies and new schemes? Does he enjoy the autonomy to rule the state and take decisions? What happens to the social schemes that Jayalalithaa lent her name to? Besides, the state economy is at a critical juncture with the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth rate for 2012-13 falling to 4.1%, lower than the all-India figure of 4.5% and trailing far behind that of states such as Bihar (15.1%) and Madhya Pradesh (9.9%).
While this kind of vacuum at the level of the political executive might paralyse the best of governments, Tamil Nadu could be different. This is a state that has an efficient administrative machinery, with a tradition of bureaucrats governing the system ever since the times of the Madras Presidency. Some of the best social sector schemes in Tamil Nadu, such as the expansion of the mid-day meal scheme under M G Ramachandran and the streamlining of the PDS during successive governments, were conceived by the state’s bureaucrats.
M G Devasahayam, a former bureaucrat of the Haryana cadre, says that while policy-making and introduction of new schemes could suffer in the absence of a strong leadership, the administration will run on auto-pilot. “Delivery of services to the public is unlikely to get affected in Tamil Nadu. The bureaucrats here have the legacy of running the system. The law and order system, primarily controlled by district magistrates, SPs and commissioners, will also manage the show as it is supposed to. Politically paralysed ministers are not new to Tamil Nadu. We have been seeing this happen ever since the early 1980s when MGR made frequent trips abroad for his treatment,” he says.
However, as Devasahayam says, the absence of an efficient second-level leadership with little grasp over the nuances of governance will eventually affect the state.
A senior secretary who has served in both DMK and AIADMK governments says that during the DMK rule, there would be at least a few ministers who would make suggestions and corrections on policies and schemes, but under the AIADMK regime, “ministers are experts in everything except governance, with no idea about what is happening in their portfolios”. The only files they track are regarding transfers or tender contracts, he says.
Tamil Nadu’s present state of executive may well have a parallel in Bihar of the late 1990s where Lalu Prasad had to step down and install his wife Rabri Devi as CM. But there, the show went on because Prasad was lodged in a prison guesthouse in Bihar. With Jayalalithaa away in Bangalore, officials in the Chief Minister’s Office joke about a situation where they will have to frequently shuttle between Chennai and Bangalore, “carrying files on our shoulders”.
“If her bail is denied on October 7, we will have to formulate new ideas. OPS will have to make up his mind on how much responsibility he can take up. There are a dozen pressing issues and hundreds of files to be handled. But here we have a bunch of ministers who are rendered indecisive as they are all scared to take decisions in her absence,” says an official.
For now, the team that’s running the show out of Fort St George is the team of secretaries handpicked by Jayalalithaa. Though Mohan Verghese Chunkath, a 1978-batch IAS officer from Kerala, is the Chief Secretary, he is known to keep a low profile and is more known for his enviable record at playing the board game Scrabble. It’s former chief secretary Sheela Balakrishnan, a 1976-batch retired IAS officer who is now the special adviser to the government, who is hand-holding the reluctant Panneerselvam in his new role as chief minister. K N Venkataramanan, another retired officer who was principal secretary to Jayalalithaa, is in charge of the home portfolio and takes crucial decisions on official postings and law and order. The challenge before this team of bureaucrats is to run the government without ruffling feathers and urge the new CM to step up his act.
For Panneerselvam, his experience in handling the finance portfolio during the Jayalalithaa regime will come in handy as he takes the wheel. Experts say he will have to start by ensuring that the state gets due attention and share in Centre-sponsored schemes.
“He will have to make announcements beyond populist welfare schemes and come up with schemes for employment growth,” says Suresh Babu, professor of economics at IIT Madras. Pointing out that Tamil Nadu has clocked its lowest growth — 4.1% for 2012-13, according to the Economic Survey, 2014 — he said, “If Tamil Nadu is not able to revive its rate of growth, then perhaps it could be the beginning of a downslide. It is even more alarming because from 2005-06 to 2012-13, the average GSDP growth rate in the state was 9.5 per cent, which would have been even higher but for the slowdown of last year,” he says.
Experts attribute this slowdown to the state government’s equations with the Centre. While the DMK government, which was an alliance partner in the UPA, had managed to introduce key infrastructure projects in the state such as the Rs 1,800 crore Port-Maduravoyal Elevated Corridor in Chennai, the AIADMK regime has been at loggerheads with the Centre since 2011.
But there has been good news too. Last year, the Raghuram Rajan Committee had ranked Tamil Nadu third among India’s most developed states on a composite development index of states, with only Goa and Kerala ahead of it. The committee’s index used measures such as per capita consumption and poverty ratio to rank states.
If Panneerselvam wants to push up growth, he will have to make sure investments keep flowing in. Despite stiff competition from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Tamil Nadu has in the past held its own, with the DMK government signing MoUs worth Rs 66,000 crore during its term. But of late, investments have been slowing down. With reason, say experts. “One reason is that there is deficit in basic infrastructure such as power and ports. Second, with labour costs rising, the state is losing the cost advantage it had,” says Babu.
Experts say that Panneerselvam also has the tricky job of ensuring he doesn’t dilute the brand that Jayalalithaa built around herself. Jayalalithaa had branded herself as the benevolent Amma who lent her name to everything from idlis to water to medicines. It was this branding that played a crucial role in the success of the AIADMK in the Lok Sabha elections, in which the party won 37 out of 39 seats. But policy experts point out that many of these populist schemes were introduced without a long-term vision, without drawing up the source of revenue.
Last year, key sectors such as water, sanitation and energy saw a drop in capital expenditure over the previous years. This, experts say, was to sustain the slew of welfare schemes. “It is amazing to see that the budget expenditure in 2013-14 for distribution of mixies, grinders and fans was Rs 1,500 crore while capital expenditure on energy was just Rs 1,000 crore,” says Babu.
Despite the fact that the Jayalalithaa regime had announced several big-ticket projects in alternative energy, power shortage remains a looming problem. The state, which generates 40 per cent of the country’s wind-generated electricity, is likely to face its worst-ever power crisis this year with a shortage of 6,690 million units (MU), 21 per cent more than last year. Though the government had promised to lift scheduled power cuts for all customers from June 1, three days before her conviction, the government had to announce a 20 per cent power cut on high-tension industrial and commercial consumers during non-peak hours.
A senior state secretary who works closely with the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited said the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board is likely to run up a Rs 50,000 crore loss this year primarily because of the power purchase from the private sector. “Purchase of 600 MW power a day at the rate of Rs 10.91 is the best example of inefficient management without any long-term plan,” he says.
But things could look up next year, when both the Koodankulam nuclear power units are expected to begin commercial operations. Tamil Nadu is set to receive the largest share of power, 1,025 MW, from the 2,000 MW plant.
The new government will also miss Jayalalithaa for the political heft she lent to the Cauvery issue with Karnataka. Writer and political activist Gnani Sankaran says Jayalalithaa is the only leader in the AIADMK who could handle such issues.
How Panneerselvam handles the state’s police force also remains to be seen. The National Crime Records Bureau data shows a 90 per cent increase in custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu in 2013, under the AIADMK regime. The government recently went in appeal against a Madras HC order seeking a CBI probe into a recent rape case in which a middle-aged woman was allegedly tortured, stripped and violated using a baton.
For now, calendars in Tamil Nadu have been set to October 7 when Jayalalithaa’s bail plea will come up for hearing. “If she comes out on bail, she will control the government with a remote control from her residence. Till then, it will have to be Panneerselvam. It is a fact that there is nobody better or worse than him for now. Except for Jayalalithaa, everyone else in the party resembles Panneerselvam,” says Sankaran.