Covid fight key focus of Stalin’s tenure

Updated on Jun 28, 2021 12:51 AM IST

Chennai: It has been a little over 50 days since chief minister MK Stalin began his innings with no fanfare amid a raging pandemic

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ByDivya Chandrababu

Chennai: It has been a little over 50 days since chief minister MK Stalin began his innings with no fanfare amid a raging pandemic. His team hit the ground as soon as they took charge on May 7 to contain the second wave of Covid-19. Stalin decided to hold a restricted swearing-in ceremony. He wrote to his cadre even before elections to celebrate the DMK victory inside their homes and continues to write to party workers not to gather on roads to greet him every time he visits a district to review pandemic-control measures.

Having put the seriousness of the pandemic over celebrations of returning to power after 10 years and prioritising it over every other issue for an entire month are early signs of Stalin’s way of leadership. It’s different from that of his late predecessors, including his father M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. They were quick to outdo one another, rename schemes and projects soon after they returned to power.

Stalin is choosing a different way forward, but he is also doing so by taking others along beyond his party lines. Stalin set up a committee of MLAs from all parties, which includes AIADMK’s former health minister C Vijayabhaskar, to advise the government on Covid-control measures, besides consulting experts. The committee takes decisions such as a lockdown, which has been ongoing since May 10.

Stalin has shown no interest in renaming ‘Amma’ canteens, the flagship budget canteens introduced by Jayalalithaa that were replicated across the country. It was touted that the DMK would rename it an ‘Anna Canteens’ after party founder CN Annadurai. The petty expectations aren’t misplaced as a couple of days after election results were announced on May 3, a DMK party cadre had vandalised an Amma Canteen and removed Jayalalithaa’s portrait in Chennai, but Stalin instructed that it be cleaned up and expelled the cadre. “This is a clear message that the DMK will not tolerate nuisance and anti-social activities,” M Subramanian had said at that time who now holds health portfolio, the most important amid the pandemic.

Ministers like him, who are handling significant ministries such as finance and education, appear frequently for press conferences, indicating democracy within the party. “The finance minister is speaking on temples, the Hindu endowments minister is handling Covid-19 (as additional in-charge, Chennai) and the industries minister is speaking on education. From the way the ministries are functioning, they are demonstrating real collective responsibility,” says political commentator Maalan Narayanan. “I think the flip side of that, however, is fixing accountability becomes difficult because a minister could say it’s his personal opinion and it wasn’t an official statement.”

Finance minister Palanivel Thiagarajan with his wrestling critiques has in fact captured pan-India attention more than his leader. Stalin providing a free hand to his team also comes from his position and confidence as the undisputed leader of the DMK after his father’s death. Party seniors too haven’t questioned his decisions.

Stalin is drawing on his father’s legacy such as taking an oath as ‘Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin’ instead of ‘MK Stalin’ as he was introduced by governor Banwarilal Purohit. His first five orders on his first day as chief minister included a relief package for more than two-crore ration card holders affected due to the pandemic and free bus ride for women.

On Karunanidhi’s 98th birth anniversary on June 3, he made six announcements including extending the free bus ride to trans persons and people with disabilities, a 250-crore multispeciality hospital in Chennai as well as an award and sops for Tamil writers. But he intends to forge his own ways by keeping with the times. He has changed the nomenclature of ministries and departments. Adding climate change to the environment and forest department and renaming personnel and administrative reforms department as human resources management department are examples.

In his initial days, Stalin’s government was occupied making distress calls to the union government to increase oxygen allocation and the demand for vaccines is still ongoing. Stalin has written several times to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Covid-19-related requirements but always keeps the communication cordial. The state also led in announcing capital subsidies and opening a tender for investors to locally produce oxygen, oxygen cylinders and vaccines. The second wave is now being contained with deaths still being a concerning factor but the state was able to prevent large-scale deaths for want of oxygen.

Covid-19 continues to keep Stalin and his new government occupied. Karunanidhi had a similar challenge after Annadurai’s death in office, when he dealt with a smallpox outbreak after taking charge in February 1969. Records of the fifth session of the state’s legislative assembly from March that year show that the then Harijan welfare minister, Sathyavani Muthu, had stated in the assembly that the situation was deadly from the spread of smallpox in Coimbatore.

But, beyond that, the challenges are vastly different. “Reservation was a huge issue during Karunanidhi’s time and the DMK took up a socialist model in developing public sector undertakings, introducing welfare schemes which Jayalalithaa continued in her ways,” says Narayanan. “There aren’t many social issues now. Creating employment will be a task for the new government.” He adds that some of Karunanidhi’s announcements are still in vogue. “That’s a main difference I see so far in their leadership as Karunanidhi had clear goals if not a vision,” says Narayanan. “Covid-19 has occupied Stalin so far and his government is firefighting. It appears that Stalin is yet to set his goals. What is clear is that he wants to build goodwill and be known as a non-controversial chief minister.”

On that aspect, Stalin’s pick for bureaucrats and ministers is much talked about. “It’s a mixed bag,” says Jayaram Venkatesan, founder, Arappor Iyakkam, an anti-corruption movement in Tamil Nadu. “The four secretaries to the chief minister and the chief secretary are people with high integrity which shows that there is an attempt to clean up the government. But, on the other side, it is concerning that he has given people facing cases and complaints ministership in departments from where there is potential for corruption, such as highways, public works, and municipal administration.” At least ten cases are pending with the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption against the previous AIADMK regime that are filed by Arappor Iyakkam.

Beyond the boundaries of the state, Stalin’s role on the national platform is beginning to emerge. His father had been a partner with the union government as well as played an active role in rallying the opposition together. ‘Uravukku kai koduppom; urimaikku kural Koduppom’ was Karunanidhi’s adage meaning, “Let’s lend a hand for the relationship; raise our voice for our rights.” Stalin recalled this after his first meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on June 17. They had a ‘cordial meeting’, Stalin told one of close aides in Delhi having submitted a list of 25 demands to the union government.

The meeting would set the stage for the relationship between Delhi and the southern state which is now increasingly vocal on federalism and state autonomy. Stalin has written to his counterparts in mostly non-BJP- ruled states to come together on two issues -- objecting the draft Indian Ports Bill, 2021 and calling for moratorium for small businesses. He urged them to come together like they had for the union government to revise its vaccine policy and procurement. For now, the state BJP is uncomfortable over an issue of nomenclature. Stalin and his government has been referring to the government of India as Ondriyam (union), a deviation from Madhiya (centre), keeping in line with the Constitution that India is a union of states. The BJP, which believes that fringe elements are being emboldened with this narrative, had last week sought to know in the assembly if the DMK has any ulterior motive. The chief minister replied that no one needs to fear, and he will continue addressing the BJP-led government in Delhi as ondriyam as it’s a ‘philosophy of federalism’.

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