After over two years of political and administrative turmoil, the Tamil Nadu chief minister showed that he can be king
His smile is probably his trademark. Edappadi K Palaniswami, or EPS as he is better known, accidental chief minister of Tamil Nadu, former Sasikala loyalist who was once a political nobody, has finally come into his own in 2019, smiling all the way.
His party leader, the late J Jayalalithaa’s demise in 2016 triggered a political upheaval in the state. Her confidante VK Sasikala attempted to take over the chief minister’s chair from O Panneerselvam who was standing in.
Panneerselvam, better known as OPS, took to a “dharmayuddham” (righteous war) to oust Sasikala from the party. Fortuitously for him, the Supreme Court pronounced a timely verdict, jailing Sasikala for four years in a two-decade old corruption case. All of this took place in 2017.
Resort politics ensued, with EPS firmly in Sasikala’s camp at the time. Sasikala installed EPS in the chief minister’s chair promptly after the verdict in the corruption case was announced.
The BJP intervened to force EPS and OPS to join hands, throwing Sasikala’s nephew TTV Dhinakaran out into the cold. And then began the uneasy truce and background politicking, which is not so uneasy two years since.
“The first two years I would say was very bad,” said Arun Ram, Resident Editor for Tamil Nadu with the Times of India. “I am saying this from a business and governance perspective. When I say bad I mean that he was a very unsure and uncertain chief minister. But after two years, in the third year, I would say that he has turned around – turned himself around, turned around the style of governance,” he said.
When the country went to polls in May 2019, Tamil Nadu’s 22 Assembly segments too headed into by elections. This was a crucial test for EPS – the survival of his government rested on winning nine out of the 22 seats.
The AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) led by EPS tied up a difficult alliance that would reap dividends for the party and help it to continue in power.
“He bent over backwards to bring in the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) and the DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) into the AIADMK alliance,” said D Suresh Kumar, senior journalist and political analyst.
“He gave seven Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha seat to the PMK. Though the PMK was a very strong critic of the government. I think anybody in his place would not have wanted this alliance. But he digested all the insults by the PMK and still gave them seven seats because he realised that they were important, not for the Lok Sabha seats but for the bypolls in the Assembly constituencies,” he said.
With the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in tow, the AIADMK focused all its energies on winning the Assembly seats needed to save the government. The DMK, which worked more towards the Lok Sabha polls, with an anti-BJP and anti-Modi stance, reaped dividends by winning 38 out of 39 seats in the state. While the difference in votes between the DMK and the AIADMK combines were in lakhs, skewed towards the DMK alliance in the general elections, the Assembly bypolls saw margins in the thousands or even less between the two Dravidian parties. The bypolls turned out to be a lot closer than most political watchers anticipated.
“He (EPS) may not be a politician who is articulate with his thoughts but in terms of rustic political intelligence, he stands on a much higher scale compared with his contemporaries within Dravidian politics,” continued Kumar.
Not only did the AIADMK win two other subsequent bypolls (Vikravandi and Nanguneri) comfortably but also appears to be on its way to a reasonably smooth win in the local body polls scheduled for the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the party also changed its bylaws to ensure that Sasikala would not be able to take over once she is out on parole. This, when the possibility of her getting an early parole in 2020 looms large.
Businessmen and industrialists in Tamil Nadu are overall, happy with the EPS-led government in its third year in Tamil Nadu.
Although the auto hub of Sriperumbudur near Chennai and its engineering MSMEs (medium, small and micro enterprises) took a large hit due to falling demand in the wake of demonetisation and imposition of GST (goods and services tax), the government’s efforts at bringing in new investors has received appreciation.
In January, the state’s Global Investors’ Meet (GIM) was held and at its end, claimed to have signed MoUs for Rs 3 lakh crore worth of investments in the state.
In 2015, the first GIM, held under Jayalalithaa’s watch was touted to have brought in Rs 2.4 lakh crore in investments to the state. Much of it did not materialise on ground though.
While EPS’ government patted itself on the back for having surpassed Jayalalithaa’s record, the experts are not particularly convinced.
“They show huge numbers as if a lot of investors or businessmen are setting up in Tamil Nadu,” said political analyst D Suresh Kumar. “But in reality if you see, the delivery is not on par. We have to wait to see how this translates. The DMK has been demanding a white paper and I think a white paper is important on this issue. Because we need to know which companies are setting up. He (EPS) did create an impression that he was on top of it but much more needs to be done.”
Then came the three-nation tour called Yaadhum Oorey between August and September. The chief minister and other ministers toured a clutch of countries to sign agreements and attract potential investors to Tamil Nadu from abroad.
The government claimed that it had signed agreements worth Rs 5085 crore with 35 companies in the US. It also said that these would provide 24,720 jobs.
At the end of the trip, the government claimed that it had signed a total of 41 agreements worth Rs 8830 crore, generating 37,300 jobs for the state.
Much of that is yet to be translated into reality. As of now they are only on paper. But perception is half the battle won, and EPS appears to have figured that out.
“I was recently talking to a foreign investor who has an investment of Rs 2000 crore in the state,” said Arun Ram. “The executive director of that company told me that in the first two years, they were all scared. Because after J Jayalalithaa passed away, they did not know where to go and how to do business. And this happened when they were all at the cusp of expanding their businesses but they did not know how to go about it. They said there was a complete paralysis.
But the same person tells me that after two years, the government is active, it is accessible. They are expanding their business, they have committed to another Rs 1000 crore. What I hear from businessmen and industrialists is that at least there is a perception that government is back on the rails.”
R Ganapathy, President of SICCI told The Lede that the government is perceived to have made an effort to improve the business and investment climate of the state, although a lot still needs to be done.“Government has done its best to reach out to potential investors despite global headwinds and macros,” said Ganapathy.
“But for Tamil Nadu to become an exciting and interesting place for capital, a lot more needs to be done. We must remember that capital goes to a good parking space. Tamil Nadu’s strength has been manufacturing. The state has to get into the comfort zone of manufacturing. For this, they have to strengthen MSMEs,” he said.
Ganapathy says that there are four issues that the government needs to address.
“Cost of money, cost of labour, cost of land and cost of power. At least a couple of these are within the power of the state government. They can find innovative ways of getting competitive in terms of power and land – this is within their control. I would say this government is net positive but there is still a lot of headroom for making Tamil Nadu as a destination exciting,” said Ganapathy.
On 19 June, Chennai officially faced its ‘zero day’ when all of its reservoirs reached zero storage capacity. The writing was on the wall for at least a month before then but EPS and his ministers refused to see it.
Chennai and its suburbs and neighbouring districts faced one of the worst water crises of the decade last summer. Plastic pots, long queues to draw water from tankers, dried up borewells and fights over water erupted.
What made things worse was that the government denied that there even was a crisis.
“They were in denial mode until the very end,” said D Suresh Kumar. “If the government had informed the people well in advance, they would have been more judicious in their use of water. But when it came to a point where households were getting water once in 10 days or 20 days, the government insisted that there was nothing to worry in Chennai. Government failed to inform the people about the enormity of the water crisis in Chennai,” he said.
It was almost a month later, in June that water trains rolled into the capital city with a million litres of water from Vellore. Although this garnered a lot of attention from the media, a few million litres was hardly enough to quench the thirst of a fraction of the city’s residents. It was not a novel idea either, as Jayalalithaa, in the early 2000s had brought in trains carrying water from Mettur to Chennai as also water tankers from Veeranam in Cuddalore when Chennai had then faced a water crisis.
Subsequently though, the monsoons set in and the rains saved the skins of EPS and his ministers. The good that came out of the drought period was that the Chennai city corporation managed to insist upon rainwater harvesting structures in apartment complexes and homes and sent out large teams of officials to check and advice residents on how to renovate structures that had become dilapidated over time.
What did fructify though was the chief minister’s pet project – Kudimaramathu – a community based, localised water conservation program once practiced at the village level in Tamil Nadu.
“I support community-led water conservation but I would not blindly support Kudimaramathu since there was traditionally a caste hierarchy in the system,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, trustee of Care Earth, an NGO working in the field of conservation. “The so-called “upper” castes would do the conservation work in such a way that it served them, while the so-called “lower” castes would be left out.
But the current re-tailored, revised Kudimaramathu is something I am very happy about. It is community-led water conservation but not shackled by traditional caste constrictions. When you take up such large programs, you cannot say that it has been done well. I have seen examples where it has been done well. Overall it is tilted more towards the positive,” she said.
Vencatesan warns that this should not be a one-time affair if it is to yield benefits. “This has to be carried on for another 3-4 years at least, if not longer. It has to be a long term practice. The core idea of Kudimaramathu is annual conservation of water bodies,” she said.
Since its inception in 2017, the scheme has been sanctioned about Rs 931 crore for a variety of conservation works including desilting, strengthening lake bunds, repairs of sluice gates among others.
While 2020 is likely to be more of an election campaign year, with Assembly polls scheduled for 2021, experts say EPS would do well to improve on a number of aspects.
“The government needs to complete infrastructure projects on time, concentrate on improving basic primary education, improve higher secondary schools so they impart quality education, focus on exam reform so that students are able to bear up in the competitive exams,” said a retired bureaucrat who did not wish to be named.
“Another key aspect is that the government should increase transparency and reduce corruption by introducing citizen friendly e-governance initiatives wherever possible. They also need to introduce modern techniques in agriculture to improve productivity,” said the bureaucrat.
“What is lacking is a vision and this can be forgotten in the day to day work. The chief minister and his government need to have and work towards a vision.”
But at the end of the year, it is indeed EPS who has stymied his rivals and even his own teammates with his emergence as a leader to be reckoned with.
“I would not compare this government with the earlier governments, say the Jayalalithaa government of the early 1990s or later governments under Karunanidhi. That was a time when there was liberalisation. Tamil Nadu, riding the crest of a large wave, made great strides. So I would not dare to compare that with this. But if we compare the last three years, I think 2019 was a year of good performance by the EPS government. He has surprised us,” said Arun Ram.