N Sathiya Moorthy
How the post-Jayalalitha leadership of new Chief Minister O Panneerselvam takes forward her initiatives remains to be seen
It’s not only in the political arena that the demise of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa be felt for a long time to come. In the larger area of policy-formulation too, it would be felt — even more. And this not just in the State. How the post-Jaya Tamil Nadu leadership of new Chief Minister O Panneerselvam takes forward her initiatives on this score, or stops, listens and proceeds with greater caution than Jaya could afford given her larger-than-life imagery at the national-level and greatest popular acceptance of all times for a political leader in the State.
In the mid-teens of the twenty-first century, CM Jayalalithaa is known for the populist schemes of her Government, like free laptop, cheap cooked food and the like, cutting hugely into the State’s budget. Some economists have even argued that populism of the Tamil Nadu kind, whoever was in power under the Dravidian flag especially, was a drain on the State’s economy. Others have even argued that Tamil Nadu was setting a bad and tempting example for other regional party leaders and chief minister aspirants to follow.
Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for the first time when as Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao introduced across-the-board economic reforms, driven by market forces, as never before and possibly never again. She caught on with the reforms without much loss of time and was among the first Chief Ministers to open up any State’s economy for big-ticket FDI. Chennai suburbs rediscovered itself as the Detroit of India during the period, with the likes of Ford and Hyundai pitching their tent. She was also tough on subsidies at the time.
It did not stop there. After returning to power in 2001 after a gap of five years (when she had lost the 1996 elections), Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister pioneered expenditure reforms in ways no government ever had attempted, then or since, at the Centre or in the States. Her Government cut down hugely on paddy and rice subsidies and increased milk, power and transport price/tariff, in a first conscious effort to balance the State budget.
Reforms with human face
Pointing out that 85-90 percent of the State’s spending went to meet Establishment expenses, including salaries and pensions, she refused to negotiate with Government and public sector transport unions, leading to the overnight sacking of 100,000 State Government employees –- only to be praised by the Supreme Court of India as a bold and welcome initiative. But it was also a lesson that Jayalalithaa learnt. She lost the 2004 parliamentary elections as badly as she had lost the General Elections in 1996. What Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister Manmohan Singh would say as ‘reforms with a human face’ after the Congress Party too lost the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, Jaya made a U-turn mid-stream, and there was no going back after the voter had become convinced by 2011 that she was a changed person, a changed leader.
It’s thus that the new-look Jaya became an even more popular and populist Chief Minister, never to lose another election in her lifetime, after returning to power in 2011. Going beyond her mentor M G Ramachandran’s electoral record, Jaya won the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 Assembly elections without any serious alliance partner worth the name and capable of contributing to the ‘collective vote-bank’. It was thus that high incidence of subsidy-driven populist schemes of the more recent years came to be identified with her, including a renewed focus on the rural sector, where villagers got sheep and goat free, even as their urbanised children joined the rest in getting free laptops.
Today, when Jayalalithaa is no more, the question arises if her successor Panneerselvam would be able to take the State along those popular/populist lines, if only to try and keep the vote-bank intact. The question becomes even more relevant for two reasons – one, the State has run into a debt-trap of unprecedented proportions and there is no knowing how and when it could get out of it. Two, the new leadership of the Government and the party cannot afford to cut down on subsidies and still hope to retain the charisma that they do not share with Jayalalithaa, even collectively.
Sri Lankan issue
Jayalalithaa, being a tough fighter, never ever ceased to take on the Centre on issues closer to the Tamil hearts. On the Cauvery and Mullaperiyar water disputes with neighbouring States, and the fishers/Katchchativu rows and the ethnic concerns involving the neighbouring nation of Sri Lanka, not a week passed without Jaya having taken up them with the prime minister of the day, through a series of letters, reiterating her position on the record, time and again. Her personality and tough-talking mattered, so did her charisma and vote-gathering capacity. The question thus remains if her successors could put their heart into such issues and take forward the concerns that she had successively, if not always successfully, flagged.
On the policy-front, Jayalalithaa did one full circle through her political and chief ministerial career. As propaganda secretary of the AIADMK under mentor and Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, she was instrumental in finalising MGR’s more famous ‘nutritious noon-meal scheme’, a budget-driven programme after the original mid-day meals programme of predecessor Congress Chief Minister, the late K Kamaraj, in the mid-Fifties. That programme died a natural death as it was a voluntary scheme, not supported by the State budget. Yet, none of it bit her when Jaya became Chief Minister in 1991, to shift gears from populism to pro-market capitalism, only to try and strike a balance, to be able to fund subsidies through higher revenue earnings from FDI projects, which bête noire Karunanidhi had tried in between, and failed equally miserably. It was thus that her much tom-tommed Global Investor Forum (GIF) of 2015 became a hope to try and fill the gap – but never really did, despite great promises.
Truth, thus be acknowledged, that many, if not all forms of populist projects adopted, either by the Centre or Governments in other States, had have their origins in Tamil Nadu, after the earlier versions had been dismissed as impractical ‘socialist’ schemes. Jayalalithaa is the latest and continuing face of it. But she also leaves behind a huge hole in the State budget. This is a challenge that she leaves behind to her successor in the Government and the party. How they are going to promote future schemes, and fund it, is a question that the State — and those ruling the Centre with their own brand of Jan Dhan-driven populist schemes, and counterparts in other States — would have to wait and watch.