'Amma' deftly meshes populism with vision

'Amma' deftly meshes populism with vision

Putting as large a state as Tamil Nadu -- in financial disarray and collapsing infrastructure -- back on rails, was no easy task. But with an overwhelming mandate for a ‘responsive and people-friendly government’ the state electorate gave her in May 2011, the AIADMK supremo and chief minister J Jayalalitha was more than willing to bite the bullet, if only to ensure that there was no trust deficit with the masses.

As she completed on Wednesday one year in office in her third term as chief minister, any objective assessment would be hard put to ignore that ‘Amma’ has done a balancing job remarkably well. Apart from having to fulfil a slew of new popular schemes which the AIADMK’s poll manifesto had promised to the people, amid what looked like an insurmountable DMK-Congress combine in the run-up to the polls last year, Jayalalitha’s tasks and hurdles were enormous with little cash on hand.

However, even as she began implementing her party’s poll promises, starting with the free rice scheme for about 1.85 crore ration-card holders in the state, the free ‘mangal sutra’ scheme with gold for girls, enhanced old age pensions including for ‘Ulemas’, hiking maternity assistance for women, free laptops to government higher secondary school students and upwards, to even a new travel subsidy for Christians making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jayalalitha and her bureaucracy were re-visiting the state’s finances thoroughly.

Social security

So much so, the total allocation for the social security net and other welfare schemes in this year’s (2012-13) budget is a massive Rs 30, 331 crore, a fact which prompted her Odisha counterpart, Naveen Patnaik to comment that in welfare schemes, Jayalalitha has set ‘high standards’ for other chief ministers in the country to emulate. In fact, the social sector outlays in Tamil Nadu, including for the noon-meal scheme for school children has been one of the highest in India since 1990s’, significantly coinciding with the economic liberalisation.

Yet, as the money for all these programmes had also to be simultaneously found, Jayalalitha risked an increase in prices with hikes in bus fares, milk, and the latest hike in electricity tariffs, besides a slew of other measures in this year’s budget which are expected to give a decent surplus in the revenue account. Despite criticism from some quarters including the PMK for the state’s over-reliance on liquor revenue, Jayalalitha has won praise for her efforts to restore a modicum of the state’s fiscal health. Jayalalitha recently unveiled a ‘Tamil Nadu-Vision 2023’ document, coinciding with the next two ‘Five Year Plan’ periods, that has set a very ambitious target to mobilise some Rs15 lakh crore for multiple infrastructure development projects in private-public partnership mode, to make the state more attractive for huge investments in manufacturing and other sectors.
Though some opposition ranks, notably actor-turned-politician Vijayakant-led DMDK, have been very skeptical of her grand vision, ‘Amma’, has firmly laid a roadmap for a perspective plan on the state’s development goals. 

Jayalalitha’s handling of the over five months long agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP), on hindsight turned out to be a win-win situation to a power-starved state, even as her initial sympathetic approach to the anti-KNPP protest led by S P Udayakumar ensured that the genuine fears of the locals post-Fukushima disaster were given a fair hearing for remedial action by the Centre and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL).

 In the last one year, whether it was the sudden flare-up on inter-state river water issues like the Mullaperiyar dam, or issues concerning the setting up of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), Jayalalitha deftly combined assertion of the state’s rights in a federal polity with a measure of restraint to help keep political emotions at bay. This approach was also discernable when the issue of stopping the hanging of the three death convicts in the Vellore prison in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, had threatened to disturb public order.

Politically, a whole new agenda is opening up for Jayalalitha, with the next Lok Sabha polls not too far away. Also the Opposition led by DMK, Left and DMDK are on a warpath over what they term the ‘travails of democracy in the Tamil Nadu Assembly’ in recent weeks. Known for her mercurial ways, Jayalalitha’s decision to revoke the expulsion of her long-time confidante, Sasikala, has again stunned her own partymen.

Political observers point out that Jayalalitha has displayed a lot of ‘gumption and steely resolve’ during her one year in office in the present term and that continues to be her ‘USP’ in weathering many a storm.

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