The Tamil Nadu voter may not be in the mood to test new talent, not when the state and the people are going through unprecedented and unanticipated crises, of which coronavirus is only the first.
All of it boils down to an election between the ruling AIADMK and the Opposition DMK next year, with small-timers, had-been parties and promised parties left on the sidelines, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
With the worldwide Covid pandemic taking its own course and time in Tamil Nadu, the state government and Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam may have lost the early bird advantage they enjoyed in terms of seeking to tackle the evil before most counterparts across the country even realised the threat that was already assuming gigantic proportions.
However, the silver lining, purely in political terms, is that the weeks-long Covid crisis has put EPS, more than even his government and party, at the centre of the state’s assembly election due in May next year.
The possibility of the elections being held on time will depend a lot on how fast governments, both at the Centre and states across the country, bring the pandemic to its knees.
Already speculation is beginning to do the rounds about the Centre considering the option of imposing President’s rule in states that are to face assembly polls over the next one year, and have the same after society, if not the economy, has stabilised.
The political side of such speculation is that the BJP ruling the Centre would seek to exploit the President’s rule to embarrass predecessor governments in states like Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal, and those other states where assembly polls may become due in the coming months.
In the case of Tamil Nadu, grist to the mill has been provided by the Centre reportedly directing the state government to hold back further action on the Rs 1,800-crore ‘BharatNet’ tender, pending further probe into a complaint by Arappor Iyakkam, an NGO fighting for a corruption-free administration in Tamil Nadu.
The Opposition DMK had flagged the issue weeks ago. The DMK had also alleged a possible scam in the emergency procurement of Covid test-kits from China, which was later cancelled.
As the main Opposition party, the DMK can be expected to revive its current campaign once the Covid threat fades and the election mood picks up.
The DMK was on the top after a near-sweep against the AIADMK-BJP alliance in last year’s Lok Sabha polls. Both the party and the state’s media were already in poll mode for next year’s assembly elections when Covid struck. But EPS’s early handling of the emerging situation may have become a cause for the rival party’s concern.
However, the past week might have changed at least the voter’ mood to remain open to future suggestions, complaints and campaigns, as much from the DMK and other parties as by the ruling AIADMK. They all can be expected to flag issue after issue, complaint after complaint, as and when the situation improved, and the government too is forced to think of convening the mandatory assembly sessions whenever they become due.
While the government medical teams across the state, and their private practitioner counterparts in some cases, have been doing a wonderful job almost from day one, risking their own lives, the inability of the state government to provide adequate protection gears has left a bad taste.
Added to that is the unplanned clamp-downs, where many people saw the state government following the Centre’s directive to the ‘t’, without seeming to have any say in the matter, as may have been perceived by the bureaucracy, industry and labour interests in Tamil Nadu.
Within the government and the ruling party, EPS has seemingly used the Covid crisis to shore up his public image as much as being seen as doing enough and more within his government’s limited capacity, to do more to fight and fend off the deadly virus. The local media has highlighted how Health Minister C Vijayabaskar was allegedly sidelined in briefing the media about the Covid crisis on a daily basis, and the job handed over to a civil servant.
Even without it all, EPS has been shoring up symbols of power as his AIADMK cadres understand it and Tamil Nadu has known under his mentor, late chief minister Jayalalithaa, almost from the day he patched up with estranged predecessor O Panneerselvam, or OPS, purportedly at the instance of the ruling BJP at the Centre, in 2017.
Though OPS is the designated deputy chief minister and AIADMK coordinator (EPS is the joint coordinator), most, if not all decisions in both the government and the party are taken almost exclusively by EPS.
In terms of symbolism, EPS follows the Jayalalithaa format of official meetings, where he seats himself at the head of a large office table, with officials sitting across him, as used to be the case in Jayalalithaa’s time.
Ministers, if any, are seated in a long row with their backs to the wall, often at a distance from the CM’s earshot.
If the discussion is between the CM and his ministerial colleagues, the officials are seated like a set of temple idols, in the long row of chairs.
There is a major difference between Jayalalithaa and EPS in terms of his current stage in their respective careers as chief minister. Jayalalithaa would often meet the media at the time and occasion of her choosing. EPS, until he began facing embarrassing questions on Covid management, was addressing news conferences almost on a daily basis.
This gave him the kind of exposure, if not outright acceptance, of the Jayalalithaa kind. In this era of television news channels and social media, that is saying a lot.
EPS, however, has stuck to Jaya’s other habit, borne out of political confidence than electoral arrogance. All government news releases stand in his name (where the message is deemed positive, be it on Covid or otherwise). Like Jayalalithaa, and much less like MGR and Karunanidhi, the releases are in first-person singular, ‘I’. Thus, for an EPS news statement to claim that ‘I have decided/directed…’ is more common than statements like, the ‘Government has directed’ or the ‘Cabinet has decided…’
Independent of EPS’s popularity ratings, whether good or bad for the AIADMK one year from now, the Covid crisis may have put paid to politico-electoral ambitions of actor-politicians, including superstar Rajinikanth with a non-starter of a political party.
After seeing, feeling and living with the Covid crisis, voters across the country, especially in states going to the polls in the next few months to a year, are bound to reflect deeply on the kind of leaders and governments they need to elect for the next five years.
Given the complexity of the health, social, societal, political and economic issues facing governments and individuals, voters in Tamil Nadu, too, would be looking around for parties with politico-administrative experience and leaders with a certain expertise, starting with their inherent ability at delegating powers to ministers and officials.
In this particular department, OPS fared better when it came to delegating powers to his ministerial colleagues, and giving them freedom and responsibility to address the media, and also represent the state government’s case in television talk-shows and interviews.
At the height of the ‘Vardah’ cyclone that hit state capital Chennai, he also designated work and responsibility to the bureaucracy and gave them the required freedom to deliver on their own assessments and recommendations.
This was also the style that DMK president M K Stalin, also the party’s chief ministerial aspirant, followed both as local administrations minister and later as deputy chief minister (2006-11) under his late father M Karunanidhi. The latter, as also his rivals MGR and Jayalalithaa, either did it themselves even for their less competent ministerial colleagues or let the bureaucracy take over and take direct instructions from the big boss, short-circuiting the ministers so very completely.
Despite all these internal and inherent vagaries of the existing political system, this is what the Tamil Nadu voter has got used to and seems to be comfortable with. They may not be in a mood to test new talent, not when the state and the people are going through unprecedented and unanticipated crises, of which Covid is only the first.
All of it boils down to an election between the ruling AIADMK and the Opposition DMK, with small-timers, had-been parties and promised parties left on the sidelines.
The other option is for them to join the alliance floated by the two majors, and/or hope to fight another day, in another election.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.