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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A graduate from MIT, former banker, Tamil Nadu’s finance minister wants Centre to give state its due

New Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin has picked MLA Palanivel Thiagarajan, or PTR— with an engineering degree from NIT Trichy, higher studies in the State University of New York, and an MBA in Finance from the Sloan School of Management at MIT — to be his Finance Minister.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
Updated: May 8, 2021 7:18:00 am
Palanivel Thiagarajan with wife Margaret and sons. (Express photo)

A political scion with engineering and management degrees from top institutes at home and in the US. A top banker who lived and married abroad, and returned to become a popular MLA. An ardent devotee of Goddess Meenakshi in a party that swears by atheism.

Palanivel Thiagarajan, or PTR, as he is better known, is a study in contrasts. However, for once in his long and eventful career, the 55-year-old’s life has taken an anticipated turn. New Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin has picked this highly qualified MLA — with an engineering degree from NIT Trichy, higher studies in the State University of New York, and an MBA in Finance from the Sloan School of Management at MIT — to be his Finance Minister.

It’s a fitting progression for PTR, whose grandfather P T Rajan was the chief minister of Madras Presidency in the 1930s, and whose father P T R Palanivel Rajan served as a DMK minister. He takes over as Finance Minister after winning for the second time from Madurai Central, by 34,176 votes.

In these past five years, PTR earned his stripes as a leader. Always available for his constituents, he would put out a report card of his work every six months. “If he is given time to deliver, he will deliver. Stalin knows that,” says a senior DMK leader also sworn in as minister.

Having left India in 1987 for the US, PTR returned only 20 years later, finishing his studies, joining work there, and marrying an American classmate. Four years later, in 2011, PTR moved to Singapore for a high-profile banker’s job. When he returned in 2015, he said it was for good. A year later, he won the Assembly elections from Madurai Central.

Now settled in Chennai with his wife Margaret Rajan, school-going sons Palani Thiaga Rajan and Vel Thiaga Rajan, and five dogs, PTR told The Indian Express after the swearing-in that they were his life. However, he said, he always wanted to work for the people.

One of the top issues on his agenda would be settling Tamil Nadu’s GST dues with the Centre. PTR, who has been severely critical of the Modi government’s financial policies, said, “Just like a man is as good as his word, a government must keep its commitments and obligations. It (the GST dues) is a black and white, legal commitment of the Indian government to the states. There is nothing to be discussed.”

PTR also alleged the undermining of states under the Modi government. “Tamil Nadu is a well-to-do state. You cannot sit in Delhi and make decisions for people… Devolution is the basis of governance, not just from the Centre to the state but from the state to local bodies as well. In fact, one of the things we admire most about Kerala is the extent of devolution they have implemented.”

With Tamil Nadu differing over other Central policies as well, PTR added, “It is clear that we cannot resolve problems in our country with a single solution due to the scale of its diversity and complexity. Why should Delhi tell us when we open our barber shops (during the lockdown)?… We have a structural problem, GST is only the financial aspect of it.”

A drain on Tamil Nadu’s resources is its freebie culture, with parties showering sops before the elections. In the recent Assembly elections, the DMK promised increasing maternity leave from six months to a year, free passes for women in city buses, and Rs 4,000 cash assistance for all ration card holders (the latter two were implemented Friday). PTR argued, “I don’t start with the assumption that all freebies are bad. I would even consider doubling up or delivering certain freebies on a daily basis… Should I not give free food to schoolchildren? Should I not give laptops to students?”

He himself made three promises to his electorate, PTR said — “an integrated drinking water scheme, ensuring supply to every individual; an integrated sewage system; and the renovation of Madurai Meenakshi temple”.

The connection to the Meenakshi temple goes deep. In 1963, it was his grandfather who had done the Kumbabhishekam (part of the consecration ceremony, done once every 12 years) of the temple, and he hopes to do it at the renovated temple.

PTR sees no contradiction between his faith and the DMK’s atheist stand, saying the Kalaignar (the late M Karunanidhi) knew about his devotion to the Goddess. “After my father passed away in 2006, I took a vow to visit the temple every week or every month. Wherever I have been, I have kept that promise for the last 15 years, missing only once or twice, and this last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. I even asked for the Madurai Central constituency because of the temple. The Kalaignar knew that.”

In fact, PTR’s family also has an association with the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, which has been caught up in a row, with his grandfather who headed the Justice Party donating a deity of Lord Ayyappa to it after a massive fire in the 1950s. “After the fire, the Pandalam King (the temple caretaker) and the chief priest met an astrologer. He suggested they approach my grandfather,” PTR said

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