On just a year in office, DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on Saturday referred to the legacy of his father and former CM M Karunanidhi. “I am not ‘Kalaignar (how Karunanidhi was popularly known as)’,” Stalin told the Assembly. “I cannot speak like Kalaignar, I cannot write like him. But I had taken the pledge that I would work hard like him. Let me tell you that I kept that word, and that is my satisfaction at this moment.”
The first year was marked by long-term planning to implement Stalin’s vision for the state, welfare schemes and policies aimed at helping the poor and the marginalized, testing interactions with the BJP-led Centre, a challenging law-and-order situation, and run-ins with Governor RN Ravi.
The biggest challenge for the government, which has a seemingly better governance track record than many administrations in the recent past, is that it does not have too many loyalists in the state bureaucracy that was controlled by the AIADMK for a decade.
“Most of the DMK loyalists who played a key role in the previous DMK government have retired. Even as Stalin has categorically warned ministers and the top bureaucracy against making money from promotions, transfers, appointments, and other popular money-making ‘sectors’, corruption continues to be a challenge,” said a top government official.
But Stalin’s centralized style of working, strict financial management, a full-fledged research team under Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, a battalion of senior bureaucrats, including Chief Secretary V Irai Anbu and CM secretaries P Umanath and T Udhayachandran, kept the system over the past year.
Focus on social justice
One of the major highlights of the Stalin government has been an attempt to implement its vision from the get-go. With ministers who have deep domain knowledge in their areas (such as Rajan) and by building a solid research team backed by internationally renowned experts such as Esther Duflo, Jean Drèze, and Raghuram Rajan, the government’s every scheme and announcement so far has been with a long-term plan in mind. The schemes have been more outcome-oriented than focusing on action or temporary gains. An example is a Universal Health Coverage program that is currently being designed.
In the first year, the government worked to ensure growth and development, with a focus on social justice. Some of the schemes enacted are free travel in government buses for working women and transgender people, the appointment of non-Brahmin priests, an open call for trained women priests to be appointed in temples, a separate agriculture budget, recognition of single women separated from Their families or parents as “family” so that they can get ration cards, and the latest breakfast scheme for schoolchildren.
The DMK-led administration was also assertive in employment generation, investments, the export sector, and other industrial expansion projects. Another focus for the government was “Tamil”. It came up with schemes and projects for the Tamil language, libraries, a special interest in excavation projects in Keeladi and several other archaeological sites, and an allocation of over Rs 300 crore for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to renovate their camps and for their livelihoods.
Corruption and other challenges
“When we are doing much for the poor, weaker sections, and planning big investment, infrastructure projects for the upper class, it is the middle class that is seemingly neglected, most affected, due to the corruption,” said a senior DMK leader. “It has not changed a bit. A strong message against corruption has not gone down yet. In fact, the government is still trying to figure out the officers whom they can trust.”
The functionary claimed that the party’s success in local bodies also poses a risk. Said a DMK minister, “It is just that not many cases have come out in public but there are clear signs of DMK councillors and local leaders asserting power, abusing power, and using violence.”
The first year also wasn’t great in terms of law and order either. With cases of custodial deaths and police excesses emerging, multiple officers told The Indian Express that a combination of factors makes the police’s job difficult. A short-staffed police force and a judicial system struggling to clear pending cases contribute to the pressures on the police.
“When lakhs of cases are pending and courts turns fail to deliver verdicts, the police force collectively to normalising extrajudicial acts for instant justice. As a state with more economic activities, financial and crypto crimes are also on the rise. There was a little effort to increase the staff strength while suicides due to work pressure are happening often. At least 100 policemen have died in the state, including accidents and suicides, in the past four months. As women personnel are spared from certain security duties — besides, their maternity leave was increased from six months to nine months — the stress factor steadily builds up in the force,” said an officer of the rank of Inspector General.
BJP and federal rights
A source close to the chief minister said strategic exchanges with the BJP-led Center continue to be a big challenge for Stalin, “especially in religious politics”. While being careful in its dealings with the Centre, the state administration, in its first year, also raised the issue of federal rights and got into a conflict with Governor RN Ravi. Besides making legislation that either bypassed or denied the Governor’s powers, the Tamil Nadu government also transferred to itself the Governor’s power to appoint vice-chancellors.
Inside the DMK, Stalin and his family continue to wild unquestionable authority. The party’s senior leadership expects setbacks and criticism when the chief minister’s son Udhayanidhi is brought into the state Cabinet, a move that is expected by June. However, the man currently running the show is Stalin’s son-in-law V Sabareesan.
“Sabareesan is the key strategist. He is a good man,” said a DMK minister. Another minister said Sabaresan had no personal agenda or plans. “Whatever Stalin wants, Sabaresan works towards that,” he added. “He is like what Amit Shah was for Narendra Modi once, or like how VK Sasikala functioned for the late Jayalalithaa. He has no formal positions in the party or government but he is the man running the show. He isn’t involved in government functions daily but closely monitors party affairs. He has a huge stake in everything.”