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Sunday, April 11, 2021

In Tamil Nadu, from personality politics to deepening democracy

The absence of towering leaders has led to a refreshing devolution of powers. The state needs more of this

Written by Kannan Sundaram |
Updated: April 5, 2021 8:48:13 am
Madurai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami during a public meeting (PTI)

Tamil Nadu has a history of strong governments and powerful chief ministers: C Rajagopalachari, K Kamaraj, C N Annadurai, Mu Karunanidhi, M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa. Few states have had a line-up of such chief ministers whose stature equalled that of prominent national figures. The one exception, until 2016, was M Bakthavasalam, who ruled for less than four years and presided over the demolition of the Congress in Tamil Nadu.

But this trend of political giants ended abruptly when Jayalalithaa passed away in December 2016, followed by Karunanidhi in August 2018. In the upcoming election, whichever coalition wins, there will be no titan to preside over the government. Neither the current chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, nor the potential chief minister-in-waiting M K Stalin, have the charisma to swing votes through evocative speeches or by their mere presence.

Stalin, who is widely predicted by the intelligentsia to be the next chief minister, appears to be riding a double anti-incumbency wave: The AIADMK has completed two terms in office and its national ally, the BJP, is into its second term.

In February 2017, when Palaniswami was sworn in, many dismissed him as little more than a paper tiger keeping the chair warm for T T V Dinakaran, the nephew of V L Sasikala, the “adopted” sister of Jayalalithaa. Dinakaran, in turn, was said to be a proxy for Sasikala. However, the ambitions of Sasikala and her “Mannargudi mafia” did not materialise. Palaniswami proved to be more than a match for Dinakaran, whose declared ambition to take over the AIADMK now lies in shambles.

The AIADMK split into two factions in early 2017, one led by O Panneerselvam and the other by Palaniswami. The ruling Palaniswami faction was in a minority in the Assembly. It was expected to crumble soon and make way for a DMK government or another election. The factions, however, united to oppose attempts by the Sasikala family to assume power. For the next two years, Palaniswami flip-flopped when challenged, rolled over when confronted and survived till 2019, when his faction gained the House majority after the byelections of May 2019. While the DMK swept the Lok Sabha polls, Palaniswami garnered enough seats to gain a simple majority and lead a stable government. Following this, he began to assert himself as a leader of the party and the government.

Since December 2016, Tamil Nadu has been helmed by a cabinet of experienced politicians, none of whom have had a commanding public presence. The Panneerselvam-led government had in 2016-17 handled the issue of flooding in the state much better than the Jayalalithaa government had in the previous year. After Panneerselvam was eased out, Palaniswami succeeded him. Later, the factions merged, with the OPS faction joining the cabinet. This collective leadership of sorts reactivated the democratic process in the state.

Ministers now wield the power their position assigns them, something that seemed an impossibility in Tamil Nadu for decades. Ministers and leaders have spent the last few decades in various postures of discomfort, including the infamous “helicopter asana”: The art of bowing before the great “helmsman” as the helicopter lands, taking care not to show your back to the leader while looking up at her reverentially. It is difficult to forget how Deputy CM Panneerselvam would sit next to Jayalalithaa in the Assembly from 2001-06 — at the very tip of his chair, leaning away from the chief minister like the Tower of Pisa.

However, these ministers have now become more assertive. They have learnt the art of addressing press meetings — a skill that still seems to elude the tallest of national leaders — to make announcements and counter the Opposition. Bureaucrats take decisions in their domain, which was again a rarity for many decades. They now hold periodic press briefings — one is hard pressed to recall when this last happened. The media has become more assertive and reporters are learning afresh the art of posing tough questions.

These changes have had a positive impact, particularly in the way the government addressed the COVID-19 crisis. The state is mentioned among the list of those that have competently responded to the various challenges posed by the pandemic.

Save for a brief period of time in the larger cities, Tamil Nadu was never short of hospital beds. The treatment given to patients was unprecedented in terms of medical management, therapy and food. And now, during the vaccination phase, government hospitals continue to excel. This was made possible partly because there was no towering personality at Fort St George loomed large over the process. Bureaucrats did not have to wait in Poes Garden or Gopalapuram/ CIT colony to receive their orders. The chief minister was easily accessible and gave the go-ahead when required.

The chief minister’s official statement regarding the COVID crisis laid out the state government’s broad policy, but district collectors were the final authority of their respective regions. This uncharacteristic devolution of powers was crucial to the efficient way in which the pandemic’s effects are being handled.

Both leading parties of the state, the AIADMK and DMK, are facing the upcoming election as two major coalitions. However, both have announced that the government they set up will not be in a coalition form. This must change. A coalition will be far more representative of the aspirations of people and will empower different sections of society. The devolution of power from two parties to two coalitions can only deepen the roots of democracy in Tamil Nadu.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 5, 2021 under the title ‘In TN, a break from helicopter asana’. The writer is publisher, Kalachuvadu Publications

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