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The Right Mix of Political Verve and Pragmatism: TN's New Finance Minister Believes in Breaking Moulds

·3 min read

He is barely into his office as Finance Minister for Tamil Nadu but PTRP Thiagarajan is already giving it a burnish and action bias. Thiagarajan, the successful Wall Street veteran whose family name resonates with the southern temple city Madurai, is taking over state coffers at a time finances have been clobbered by the coronavirus and wiped clean by weak consumer sentiment. Thiagajaran wastes no time in announcing he will bring out a white paper on the state of finances and debt, and drive efforts towards Covid-19 relief, mixing political verve and pragmatism at one stroke.

For a state finance minister, Thiagarajan is starting his inning in a typically swashbuckling fashion. Then again, he has often done things that adhere to the break-the-mould type. He didn’t show it but his entry into active politics itself must have been a rough landing.

The milieu was the run-up to the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls of 2016, meaning the DMK was baring its fangs in its ferocity to get back to power after five years of rule by J Jayalalithaa. Alternating between the DMK and the AIADMK has been the state electorate’s oscillatory equation with the Dravidian parties and, Thiagarajan entered the fray at a time the DMK was strident in its attempt to win back power.

An investment banker whose tryst with politics has been meagre compared to a whirlwind career featuring stints with Wall Street biggies including Lehman, Thiagarajan pitted himself in the dusty political bylanes of Madurai in Southern Tamil Nadu. He was the son of the soil returning after a long time; the tagline with which he approached the electorate was Meendum PTR (PTR Again) striking at the recall value of his late father Palanivel Rajan, who had been the Speaker in the state Assembly before.

Thiagarajan had made it into the Assembly but his party lost the election. It was a valiantly fought election but alliances ran against the DMK’s favour, leading to a strong opposition but a rare second term for Jayalalithaa. For Thiagarajan, being a investment banker, and having gone to schools like the MIT Sloan school of management, trying out new ventures must have been second nature, for he dived deep into the rabbit hole of political social media without much ado or need for inspiration—the anti-BJP voices were turning strident, and the Jallikattu protests of early 2017, the string of other demonstrations from Neduvasal/Kathiramangalam anti-hydrocarbon extraction to the violent Sterlite Copper protests, all of which seemed like fodder for the DMK to feed the necessary sentiment into the people.

The DMK IT wing was one of the most crucial arsenals over the last four years at least. It reached super-significance around the Parliamentary Elections of 2019, when the DMK effectively utilized the machinery to whip up anti-BJP sentiment in the state. The DMK’s leverage of the social media platform is a study in itself, something that Thiagarajan would attribute to collective team effort, and the overall sentiment of a state which had a pliant government.

Born into a political family that had seen the zenith—his grandfather PT Rajan was Chief Minister of pre-independence Madras—nearly a century ago, Thiagarajan has had deep connections with the temple circuit of Madurai. It would suffice to say that his family was instrumental in the conduct of the most-important festival at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple.

Of course, Thiagarajan is understandably tired of the beaten-to-death question: how can it be that his religiosity and temple affinities go hand in hand with the DMK. Should Thiagarajan respond eloquently, he would quote Arignar Anna (CN Annadurai, founder-DMK) as the answer: “Let us not break idols of god, nor coconuts as offerings to God.

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