In a swift midnight action reminiscent of palace coups, O Panneerselvam (aka OPS) the trusted lieutenant of the now demised Jayalalithaa, took over as chief minister for the third time. Only that this time, it is unlikely to be a stop-gap arrangement. At the funeral, OPS, the man who had begun life selling tea, appeared to be the one person who hadn’t yet come to terms with the departure of a giant. Prime Minister Modi, hugging a sobbing chief minister at the footsteps of the Rajaji Hall, and consoling him with the words, “anytime, on any issue, feel free; we are with you,” should be of great comfort.
The change of guard naturally demands a change in approach. For now, OPS does not have the charisma, the resoluteness, and decisiveness of Jayalalithaa. Amma was a different genre, came from a different background with sack-load of accomplishments and could stare at any prime minister eyeball to eyeball. She was made of sterner stuff with a different background in her achievements and reputation earned in films. The ill treatment suffered by her, first at the hands of MGR, after his demise at the hands of party-men and still later by the DMK steeled her resolve. I was present at the assembly on 25 March 1989 when she was mauled badly by several DMK legislators that hardened her: she swore to return to the Assembly as chief minister and she did in 1991!
In a way, this move away from mass based leaders who consolidated power and neglected essential features of democracy is welcome.
It is thus a godsend opportunity for OPS to revert to the Kamaraj-type of governance. If he develops a compact cabinet of clean, competent and efficient ministers and allows the civil service to function impartially and independently, he would go down in history as one of the finest heads of government. He would develop his own charisma and emerge as a leader from out of the shadows of Amma.
Corruption to the fore...
Jayalalithaa’s rule, like that of her predecessor, focused on social welfare to the neglect of development and fiscal prudence. It wasn’t a sustainable model. Little wonder, the over-emphasis on welfare landed the finances of the state in dire straits. The emphasis on winning elections led to amassing wealth for the party and its leaders through unfair means. Over the last five decades Tamil Nadu has earned a notoriety for corruption, bribery and generation of illegal money. These have been institutionalized to the extent that would make it almost impossible to revert to legitimate means of administration.
Look at the many cabinet changes effected by Jayalalithaa on complaints of corruption. Agriculture minister S S Krishnamoorthy was sacked on charges of corruption. Income tax officials launched a search operation on the premises of the properties owned by former state power minister Natham R Viswanathan. Within hours he was divested of his position as minister of electricity. A probe on the plaint alleging bribery charges against former Transport Minister V Senthil Balaji is on. And to top it all, Rama Mohana Rao, the chief secretary, has been sacked following a raid at his house and office that threw up unsubstantiated wealth. Things haven’t sounded so venal after UPA-2 demitted office.
Luckily there are 54 months of the remaining term of the Assembly in which AIADMK commands a comfortable majority. OPS should run a clean administration. In this, the focus should be on the accountability of the civil service for performance through time bound responses to public needs. In this schema penalty should be imposed for sitting over files.
Crass abuse of power...
I cite three instances of the havoc caused by such an attitude.
* The head of a manufacturing company narrated this experience a few weeks ago after 8 November. The company applied for permission for additional power load. The file was kept pending at a senior engineer’s office at TANGEDCO, with the officer demanding Rs. 30 lakh. The company did not respond. The officer was due for retirement that month. Three days before the R-day he offered to reduce the speed money to Rs. 20 lakh and a day before to Rs. 10 lakh. On the day of retirement, he was frantic and was willing to settle for a much lower retirement gift!
* In a second instance, an entrepreneur applied to the town planner for permission to build an additional 50,000 square feet for his expansion needs. The Planner sat on the file and demanded Rs 20 lakh for clearing it. The file didn’t move. There was no pressure of retirement and thus there was not much scope for any reduction.
* A third example is that of an exporter who described the demand at the Madras port for speed money for quick loading of the container. It costs him Rs. 3 lakh per month to ensure this. What if he refused? The official threatened to force open the container to check the content. This process may entail indefinite delay and upset the delivery schedule for an American OE manufacturer.
If only the concerned officials are imposed penalties for not responding to applications within the stipulated time, there would be less scope for corruption. But they still have the power to raise several queries and return the file!
The Centre has been focusing on transparency and time-bound responses. This has kept Delhi free from delays in sanctions and corruption. It should be possible for OPS to bring in such a system to the state’s administration as well.
The state has a compelling reason to attract investments to expand employment and record growth. These have all fallen in recent years pushing the state far behind in the index for ease of doing business and far ahead in corruption. If this state of affairs continues, the deterioration can be even more rapid.