Two roads converged. One was Wall Street, the other Chokkikulam. The first involved shaking hands with global CEOs as the Managing Director of an MNC bank in Singapore; the latter called for folding palms before ordinary citizens in the temple town of Madurai. From signing off on annual reports and million dollar deals to redressing grievances on potholes and drinking water, this suave and dapper political scion scripted a phenomenal ‘reconciliation statement’ of his life.
And just as well. Although it was his illustrious father – Former Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker & Minister P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan who “pushed” him to go abroad for higher studies, the political lineage, what with his grandfather P.T. Rajan having served as the Chief Minister of the then Madras Presidency, precipitated an irrepressible Arnold Schwarzenegger style “I’ll Be Back” resolve. “If I did not walk in their footsteps, I would have let them down” is a remarkably candid explanation for his political plunge, aside of the “natural fit” he sees himself as, for public life. Return to India he did – with not just a political ambition but also his charming American classmate turned wife Margaret.
The baptism by fire, as it were, first came in the form of the mantle of the Head of the DMK’s IT Wing. With a Master Plan in last quarter of 2017, Thiaga Rajan, assiduously built the party’s online presence into a force to be reckoned with. In the process, the flamboyant leader emerged as a Change Agent. Quite expectedly, the silver tongued spokesperson was one of the most sought after panelists on national television debates. Safeguarding his father’s bastion – Madurai Central constituency, he trounced his opponent by a margin of over 34,000 votes.
So when Chief Minister M.K. Stalin had to pick a Finance Minister to retrieve the State from financial doldrums, what with its unenviable revenue deficit and hopefully rescue it from the quicksand of debt, PTR’s Curriculum Vitae obviously stood out. Just look at the string of degrees and the academic pedigree. Chemical Engineering from NIT Trichy, a Masters in Operations Research and a doctorate from the State University at Buffalo, New York, an MBA – Finance from Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then consider his work experience. Head of Offshore Capital Markets at Lehman Brothers, Managing Director of Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore. And an MLA on a hat-trick who had submitted progress cards to his constituency during his maiden innings.
A domain expert, Thiaga Rajan’s take on the State’s coffers and the way forward reveal erudition and perspicacity. Flagging the “flawed GST model that has made many States give up their rights, almost like a hagiographic cult”, the Finance Minister wonders why “States must enforce the law, while the Centre collects all the money”. Harping on “debt restructuring” and “out of the box” solutions, he seems unfazed by the challenges that lie ahead.
Ask him about freebies and the ‘sop opera’ and he is quick to deny any “financial profligacy” in what critics label as ‘populism’. In a viral audio clip of a free-wheeling tete-a-tete, he breaks down many schemes, referring to his previous presentation before the 15th Finance Commission. “The noon mean scheme is shown as revenue expenditure but it is, in my view, capital expenditure for the development of human beings. Laptops for students are an investment for the future.” Ditto with Health Insurance or Marriage Assistance. “In developmental economics, it is one thing to lift a person up, quite another to keep them there. Without proper credit facilities, a wedding can set you back a decade, given usurious interest rates.”
Pulling no punches, the DMK leader opines that the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is “excellent if productive work happens. Otherwise, it can lead to inflation. Terming the erstwhile government’s subsidy for 2 wheelers, he cites the 12 crore loss a day in public transportation, pollution and the vehicle explosion on our roads, inter alia, to conclude that it is “bad in design, conception and implementation.” Alluding to the scale of “revenue mismanagement” in the previous regime, the corporate honcho turned politician argues that “had this been a company, the board would have been fired!”
For all his eloquence, feats and I dare say that swashbuckling exterior, Thiaga Rajan has a humble streak. Attribute that to the “three lessons” that were imbibed in him at a formative stage. “Do good or at least no harm. Remember that all power comes from the people. And titles are temporary.”
Call his induction into the Cabinet a jackpot or a no-brainer in this crucial Finance portfolio, Thiaga Rajan is justifiably the toast of the media. Almost every newspaper, tv channel and magazine has been making a beeline for interviews. Despite the pressure, that he returns calls and speaks without airs, is a reflection of his down to earth approach. The Minister’s family pediatrician swears that whenever his two sons – Palani and Vel visit the clinic, “they don’t throw any celebrity weight around but wait patiently for their turn.” The personal balance sheet just got a big credit! Reminiscent of the adage: “it’s not your position but your disposition that matters.”
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)