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Why Was TN's Finance Minister Removed?

May 11, 2023 14:19 IST

Palanivel Thiaga Rajan was on the hit-list, not because the chief minister was unhappy with his performance, but because there were constant complaints from other ministers that he was sitting on their files far too long, explains N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, then the state finance minister, speaks in the Tamil Nadu assembly.

If Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin thought he would usher in his third year in office with a lot of fanfare, it's not to be.

His long delayed plans to spruce up the sagging image of the government, which was caught in continual complaints of corruption, intemperate language used by senior ministers and inefficient bureaucratic execution at all levels, has been timed just wrong.

With the result, state Bharatiya Janata Party President K Annamalai can momentarily claim victory for his 'crusade' against big-ticket corruption in high places in the government and outside.

Stalin may have wanted the induction of third-term legislator Dr T R B Rajaa, party veteran T R Baalu's son, and a doctorate-holder in management psychology, to steal the limelight.

Instead, the much-rumoured shifting of nationally well-known and equally popular finance minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (PTR) to the relatively less-important IT portfolio, is being talked about even more ever since the talk of ministerial reshuffle began doing the rounds over the past several weeks, and more so closer to the pre-fixed swearing-in schedule.


PTR was on the hit-list, not because the chief minister was unhappy with his performance, but because there were constant complaints from other ministers that he was sitting on their files far too long, thus delaying project implementation at all levels and making the government that much (more) unpopular with the people.

At one time, close to 1,000 files were awaiting his approval, but on the chief minister's persistence he cleared almost all of them in a jiffy.

However, on most files he reportedly noted that he had 'no opinion to offer' or used some such phraseology -- which was seen as not becoming of the all-important finance minister that he was.

The current perception is that his transfer has to do with the BJPs Annamalai-issued two audio tapes in quick succession, in which PTR purportedly shames the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its first family.

In the first, a voice, which Annamalai claims was PTR's, says that Stalin's son Udayanidhi, at present a minister, and son-in-law Sabareesan had amassed Rs 30,000 crores (Rs 300 billion) in just about a year.

In the other, the voice praises the BJP's kind of one-man-one-post, and criticises the DMK for not following the same.

While PTR came up with statements claiming that the tapes were doctored and supported it with expert opinion, the damage had been done.

This is more so after Annamalai said that there was more to follow in what could now be dubbed 'PTR-gate' in the absence of a better reference-title.

Yet, the fact remains that PTR's transfer had nothing much to do with the audio tapes, as both Udayanidhi and Sabareesan were said to be among those wanting him to continue, citing his continued popularity with the grassroots-level and also at the popular level.

As is being pointed out even after the portfolio change, he is one of the few ministers against who charges of corruption and/or inefficiency has been never laid, in private or public. However, Stalin cannot wish away the opprobrium attending on his current decision, whatever the reason, whatever the justification.

If there were unsaid expectations in Opposition circles and equally unmentioned apprehension in the ruling DMK that PTR may quit the government as his ego might have been hurt, they were not to be.

He has since tweeted his greetings for his successor, Thangam Tennarasu, the equally popular and even more efficient industries minister.

He has also accepted his new portfolio with equal grace, declaring that his long years overseas would come in handy to acquit himself well in the new portfolio (with equal success).

The simultaneous induction of Dr T R B Rajaa, a PhD holder in management psychology, and entrusting him with the all-important industries portfolio, flows from Stalin's confidence in the 47-year-old third-term legislator, first as the convener of the party's NRI and IT wings, and membership of the state planning commission.

Yet, with Tennarasu having put in place plans for an investors conclave, Rajaa, a 'man for details', has his maiden ministerial job cut out. It is as much as a challenge as it is an opportunity the son of DMK veteran and former Union minister T R Baalu, at present the leader of the DMK parliamentary party.

Even without it, Rajaa's induction comes with its own share of bouquets and brick-bats for the leadership.

On the positive side, he is the first minister in the Stalin team from the Cauvery delta and had missed the bus when the DMK came back to power in 2021. It owed to competition among party legislators from the Thanjavur region.

However, there is another side to it. Including Rajaa, there are six ministers from the Mukkulathore community in the mandated upper-limit of 35 whereas some communities might not have got adequate representation.

This apart, there are complaints that 'family rule' dominate the DMK, though a clear distinction is being drawn in Udayanidhi Stalin's case. He is readily accepted as the party's future.

Individual second-line leaders and legislators thus complain that they stood no chance if this rule was to be followed all across the board. This may have consequences as even in the rival All India Anna DMK, direct family rule is limited to a few -- and mostly was centred on the OPS faction, not the majority EPS-led party.

The successful IT minister that he was, Mano Thangaraj has since been shifted to dairy development, where Avadi S M Nasar became the only one to lose the job.

On the face of it, for Thangaraj, it could be seen as a demotion (like in the case of PTR), but Stalin wants him to set right the new department, which was/is in a mess, directly affecting daily milk supplies to consumers across the state for a period.

However, Nasar's exit has left K S Masthan as the only Muslim minister. It may have some consequences as the sacking comes around the time the state government has refused to ban the highly controversial film, The Kerala Files, but after possible counsel that the judiciary could strike it down, if moved.

A section of social media has also pointed to the Jayalalaithaa-led AIADMK government, with its pro-Hindutva image, had banned Kamal Haasan's Viswaroopam, respecting the Islamic sentiments of the local community.

Ultimately, the courts ordered the movie released, after a lot of high drama on the streets, in which Kamal Haasan, as the film's producer, too played his part.

The cabinet reshuffle has definitely deflected some of the attention from Annamalai's attacks on the government.

For once, his critics, both in the local media and others, have stopped questioning him for a convincing response to the source of income for him to buy a high-end Rafale wrist-watch, a collector's item, or the reason for his friends to spend on his high living expenses over the past months.

They may now return to him, but the greater interest is in knowing if he would come up with more of the PTR-gate stuff, and if it would produce similar impact.

In between, the state government has hauled up Annamalai for criminal defamation against Stalin, for claiming that he had taken Rs 200 crores (Rs 2 billion) in bribes as deputy chief minister in 2011.

It is not unlikely that Annamalai's defence team would challenge the legal propriety of the government suing their client on an allegation that did not pertain to Stalin's chief ministerial job, but to a different period and designation.

There is also no knowing the future of the Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) defamation suit the DMK threatened to file against Annamalai if he did not apologise for making that charge in the much-hyped but relatively empty 'DMK Files' some weeks ago.

Annamalai responded by serving a notice for Rs 500-crores-plus-one, but again there is no momentum in either case.

Now that the much-expected cabinet reshuffle is beyond him, the CM is expected to focus on reshuffling the top bureaucracy, as both Chief Secretary V Irai Anbu and state Director General of Police C Sylendrababu are retiring in the coming weeks, one after the other. There are expectations of shuffling of top officials at other levels too, including those serving in the CM's secretariat.

The expectations are that Stalin, learning from the experience of confusing honesty with efficiency in his earlier choices, would pump in the kind of energy at the official level, to ensure that the people feel that the government was working and for them, too.

Such sentiments manifest even more at a time when Jawahar Nesan, convener of the state education policy-framing team, quit, naming the chief minister's first secretary, T Udayachandran, IAS, as seeking to influence them to come up with a report aligning with the BJP-ruled Centre's National Education Policy.

Nesan's other complaint was that despite his submitting a detailed report to the chief minister some time ago, no action was initiated.

Rather, there are no reports that the chief minister made personal or official inquiries regarding the complaint, especially since the DMK as a party and the Stalin as chief minister have been opposed to the NEP all through.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

N Sathiya Moorthy