On 16 February 2017 when Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) took over as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, no one saw him lasting more than a few months. “It is a matter of six months to one year,” leaders of some political parties and political analysts would say.
Two years down the line, EPS seems to be going strong with the principal opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) clueless about how to bring down the All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam (AIADMK) government of EPS that has just got the bare enough majority.
DMK is unable to make any headway despite at least 18 members of Tamil Nadu legislative assembly (MLAs), elected on AIADMK ticket, falling out with EPS and being disqualified.
The 18 MLAs had sided with T T V Dinakaran, the nephew of late AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala, who floated his own Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) last year after being expelled from AIADMK.
Last month, two incidents showed the remarkable progress of EPS since he looked shaky after taking over as the Chief Minister.
First, his government successfully hosted the Global Investor Meet (GIM). It signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with 304 companies that have come forward to invest over Rs 3 lakh crore in the state. The MOUs signed were far higher than the GIM organised by the Jayalalithaa government in 2015.
EPS leadership was evident by the way the government and its officials prepared for GIM. At least three state cabinet meetings were held and officials got adequate time to prepare for the meet.
There is an interesting sidelight to the GIM. During 2015 GIM, Ford India came forward to invest in setting up a research and development (R&D) centre in Chennai at an outlay of Rs 1,300 crore. However, with Jayalalithaa falling ill and then passing away, the investment plan got held up due to land issues.
Ford India officials would privately rue how they were caught between their higher-ups in the US and Tamil Nadu officials, who were tardy in making progress over a land issue for the R&D centre.
Come 2018, things changed with EPS getting a grip over the administration and ironing out various problems in his government. It helped to solve Ford’s land issue. During the current GIM, Ford announced the opening of the R&D centre that will look at producing cars for markets abroad and provide jobs for over 10,000 people.
The success of GIM has left the opposition outfoxed and DMK even tried to play spoilsport by trying to create traffic bottlenecks on arterial Anna Salai on the last day of GIM. DMK president M K Stalin termed the signing of MOUs an eyewash, though his criticism has largely been ignored.
The second event that showed EPS’ capability was how his government handled the nine-day teachers’ strike in Tamil Nadu. Nearly seven lakh teachers stopped work from 22 January, demanding implementation of the old pension scheme instead of the current contribution pension scheme, regularisation of services and payment of 21 months’ arrears after the pay commission recommendations were implemented.
The AIADMK government used the age-old carrot and stick policy to handle the issue that had the opposition parties stumped.
First, the government told the Madras High Court, where the parent of a student petitioned against the strike, that it was not ready to hold talks with the striking teachers.
Even before the strike began, the government issued a circular warning of disciplinary action against teachers who join the strike and made it clear that the administration would follow a “no work no pay” policy.
On his part, EPS made it clear that he wouldn’t mind slogan shouting but in no way the striking teachers can block roads or stop others from working.
The Chief Minister also seemed to have picked up a valuable lesson from his government’s experience in 2003. Striking government employees were then arrested by the Jayalalithaa government. In a way, the 2003 arrests played a role in the ouster of the AIADMK government in the 2006 elections.
The AIADMK government targeted only trouble makers this time, while two other ministers came up with the proverbial carrots. First, Personnel and Administrative Reforms Minister D Jayakumar issued a statement pointing out at the precarious financial situation of the government. The minister said that the government was sympathetic towards the demands of the teachers but its hands were tied in view of poor financial situation. He also assured that the demands would be considered at “an appropriate time”.
Though the striking teachers expressed willingness to hold talks, EPS put his foot down and asked them to resume duty first.
Education Minister K A Sengottaiyan chipped in with his part, offering teachers, who resume work, transfer to the place of their choice. This took the wind out of the sails of the strike as nearly 97 per cent of the teachers returned to work.
All these ensured that the absenteeism of teachers due to the strike drop to 3 per cent on 29 January from over 50 per cent on 22 January. An opposition-inspired government staff strike on 30 January also fizzled out following the poor response.
These developments coupled with other progress the government is making in industry, economy and finance have made people to sit up and take notice of EPS’ performance.
For example, in late 2016, there were murmurs in the industry about the government not evoking its confidence due to lack of response from officials. By the end of 2018, all those murmurs and bitterness seemed a thing of the past.
This has resulted in people equating EPS with P V Narasimha Rao, who headed the first coalition government of Congress during 1991-96. No one gave Rao a chance to last five years but he proved a tough nut and completed his term without much problems.
“EPS has learnt how to handle even opposition MLAs. That’s the secret of his government’s recent progress,” says a veteran Dravidian leader.
“He is keeping even opposition MLAs happy and DMK President Stalin doesn’t know what to do. EPS might lose if elections are held but he has learnt the art of survival much like Rao,” says the leader.
But not all agree with these views. EPS represents a dominant community — Gounder — from western Tamil Nadu. It has given AIADMK more MLAs than the other dominant community — Thevars — in the state and AIADMK.
The western districts are yet to forget the nightmare they faced in getting power supply during DMK’s 2006-2011 regime, while the people in southern districts still recall the land-grabbing incidents during the same time by the some local DMK party leaders.
That probably gives EPS an advantage if not an equal footing, if he gets his poll arithmetic right, lining up a strong coalition.
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