Bringing in a breath of fresh air...Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin talks politics of cooperation

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
In less than a month of becoming the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MK Stalin, has settled into the chair quickly and worked out a clear-cut action plan to strengthen governance delivery mechanism as one of his key result areas.
With nearly five decades of ‘on the job training,’ so to speak, as an apprentice to his father and DMK patriarch and many time Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, Stalin is no stranger to positions of power. He was the Deputy Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu till 2011 when AIADMK swept to power and stayed on till Stalin dislodged it in polls held last month. Counting of votes took place on May 2 and he was sworn in a few days later.
His task was cut out : Battling Covid-19 pandemic whose second wave had gripped the State, along with the rest of the country ranked as the topmost priority.
Why one needs to take a look at Stalin and his style of functioning, at least so far in the early days, marks a refreshing change as he has taken the Opposition along with him and in fact has sought suspension of ‘politics and politicking for few months till the State is fighting the pandemic. And it was not only talk, but he also followed it with action.
First and foremost, he sought the cooperation of the outgoing Government and sought to draw upon the experience and expertise of the Ministers and Government functionaries – something that neither his father nor his bete noire J Jayalalithaa did. In fact, in Tamil Nadu, no leaders, no party men and women, dared to speak to the other person and were scared to be seen even at social gatherings with their counterparts from the other Dravidian party. Such was the animosity and such was the terror that they would be immediately be dispensed with–in DMK and AIADMK.
But Stalin’s gesture, in inviting and including former Ministers in the task force to fight Covid is a refreshing change in his nature of politics – of cooperation and not confrontation–that Stalin has sought to bring about in Tamil Nadu.
Such niceties are sure welcome in every State, going by the manner in which so much animosity has crept in between the opposing political formations. This becomes very evident on television debate programmes at prime time night telecast on channel after channel, wherein participants spew venom at one another and nearly come to blows.
This is the reason why his approach to leadership and governance needs to be looked at a bit more closely, though he rules a State that is located over 3000 km from Imphal.
If we take his decisions regarding tackling Covid-19 pandemic, he left the thinking, strategizing, planning and execution to the experts in Governance delivery (officials known for their proven efficiency), or consulting Health Minister from the previous AIADMK regime, and releasing details of CM Public Relief Fund to set high standards in transparency.
His politics of cooperation seems to be working, as a former State Minister has publicly praised the Chief Minister and his efforts to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic–especially when Tamil Nadu has become the State with the highest number of cases.
Stalin’s appeal for donations from the Tamil diaspora, have not only brought cash donations but also in kind–Oxygen converters and ventilators that have been donated by persons of Tamil Nadu origin in the USA. Last week, Stalin released the accounts of the CM Relief Fund: Receipts of 69 crore and expenditure of Rs 50 crore for purchase of Remdevisir drug, and oxygen containers to transport oxygen from other States through trains.
The TN Government released the figures of the Fund stating Rs 69 crore had been received as contributions towards Covid relief to the CMPRF. This included receipt of Rs 29.44 crore via online and Rs 39.56 crore in person.
Stalin also participated in a meeting hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Covid-19 preparations and sought help for TN’s rightful share of vaccinations and medicines, as also oxygen supplies.
Stalin maintained clear cut communications with the people–the actual situation and steps being taken by the Government, leaving no scope for confusion at all. He even came out with a video containing a message to the people on masking up, social distancing, sanitizing, and washing hands.
For the present, he has retained the same officials largely, barring a few key changes so that continuity remained in the governance delivery systems. He also deployed known and proven efficient officials in key assignments to make the fight against Covid-19 effective.
To meet TN needs -- oxygen, vaccines, and drugs for treatment of Covid patients – the Government has asked the private sector to set up joint ventures and has declared a 30 percent capital expenditure subsidy for manufacture of essentials.
On the political front, Stalin is trying a tightrope walk, maintaining a cordial working relationship with the Union Government headed by the BJP against whom he campaigned vigorously,  and putting up a tough posture on a hoast of issues the DMK feels strongly about.
Take for instance the New Education Policy, over which the DMK has severe objections. The DMK feels that the Central Government was trying to sneak in Hindi through the NEP and had already declared during the election campaign that it will strongly oppose any attempt to “impose Hindi” even if under the guise of popularizing Sanskrit.
The Stalin Government skipped a virtual meeting convened and chaired by Union Minister Nishank Pokhriyal on New Education Policy 2020, citing unhappiness with Central Government response on DMK demand on the Ministerial discussion on the issue first.  Language issue plays out big and the Stalin Government insisted that it favoured two language formula – Tamil and English.
"Through the NEP, the Centre insists that there should be two Indian languages. Tamil will naturally be the first language here. But the Centre is talking as if English does not exist," the State Education Minister said.
“Ours is a multi-cultural and multi-linguistic society...we can't accept the imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit. Implementing the three-language policy will not benefit our rural students. DMK stands by its policies," declared the Minister indicating clearly one of the big flashpoints with the Centre.
On the finances front, it remains to be seen as to how Stalin finds money for the welfare programmes, and for the fight against the pandemic.
For this, however, he has roped in a person with necessary knowledge of finances, economics, and business – a Wall Street veteran and MIT graduate Palanivel Thiagarajan, son of veteran DMK leader PTR Palanivel Rajan as the State Finance Minister.
A tough time to take over the State Finance Minister when Tamil Nadu’s debt stands at Rs 5.78 lakh crore and is undergoing a financial crunch. Stalin understands this and backs him to the hilt.
After being sworn in as the State’s Finance Minister PTR, as the State Finance Minister is popularly known, told reporters “It (GST dues) is a black and white, legal commitment of the Indian Government to the States. There is nothing to be discussed.”
A severe critic of the Modi Government’s financial policies, PTR maintained that “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.”
Problems of the country cannot be solved with a single solution due to the scale of diversity and complexity, the Finance Minister said.
The writer is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman