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Southern Rethinking

Time: 2019-03-01 21:16cheongsam dress Click:

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL about an ex-Wall Street trader following the money? Well, when there is Rs 17.25 lakh crore of it, making up India’s second largest economy, it takes a particular brand of crazy to pick the numbers to the bones, and that too after pivoting, rather comfortably, to politics. Three years ago, when PTR Palanivel Thiaga Rajan traded his business suits for a politician’s starched whites, he thought he was leaving the game behind for good. Little did he know he would be playing the big stakes. Rajan made his mark in the 15th Legislative Assembly, barely two months after his election in 2016 from Madurai Central on a DMK ticket. Mocked for his timorous Tamil, the first- time MLA nevertheless tore into the aporia of a macroeconomic strategy that resorted to borrowings to balance the current account while cutting back on capital investment to keep deficits in check. Since then, Thiaga Rajan’s voice has periodically ricocheted through Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly, poking holes in the state’s finances and calling out policy makers for their maladroitness. “In 2018, capital investment dipped to just Rs 18,246 crore, with deficit spending on the current account crowding out infrastructure creation. This is simply unconscionable. The state has been on a path of steep descent since 2011,” says Rajan, whose proficiency in Tamil has galloped faster than the state’s deficit spending. We meet on the sidelines of the Budget discussion in the Assembly, and then again in his constituency, where his family has enjoyed a loyal support base for four generations.

Grandson of Sir Ponnambala Thiaga Rajan, Chief Minister of Madras Presidency for a while in 1936 and the last president of the Justice Party, Rajan also shoulders the more immediate political legacy of his father, the late PTR Palanivel Rajan, ex-minister and ex-speaker of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. It is these credentials, more than his management degree from MIT-Sloan and a stellar career with Lehman Brothers in New York (as head of offshore capital markets) and Standard Chartered in Singapore (as managing director of financial markets), that make Thiaga Rajan palatable to the DMK leadership. “I have been fortunate, to say the least. The party welcomed me even before I decided to follow my father’s example. Being smart is one thing, but political pedigree can put you on the fast track, and in a position where you can quickly make a difference,” says Rajan, 52. In politics, the past has a way of clinging to you like the rain. Rajan cannot shake off generations of wealth—“when my son asked for a flat bed on a Madurai-Chennai flight, I decided enough was enough”—but also embedded in the alloy of his identity is a propensity to question the inertia of thought. “We are Thondaimandalam Mudaliars; we have been landed for generations. In fact, until the early 20th century, we were stinking rich. Industrialisation and my father’s priorities—people and politics over business—cut into my inheritance but it didn’t matter because I had decided I would make my own money before I came to politics. In fact, the assets to the tune of Rs 35 crore that I declared in my election affidavit in 2016 are just my earnings from my career in finance. As a family, we haven’t kept proper records of the lands and properties we own across Tamil Nadu, but I can tell you there is more than enough that I don’t have to make money from politics.”

Rajan has already become part of a neo-Dravidian intelligentsia that is calling for a renewal of the movement, a return to its tenets of income equality and economic opportunity. Said to be a confidante of DMK President MK Stalin, who, in 2017, entrusted him with setting up a new, state-of-the-art IT wing, Rajan is emerging as a key figure in a party that wants to be ready for the information age. He addresses industry bodies and college events, participates in TV debates on policy, publishes scholarly articles, and breaks into places the DMK would not otherwise reach. “Thiaga Rajan’s views find favour with the educated middle class and elevate the level of debate on fiscal policy,” says deputy leader of the opposition Durai Murugan. “We need such professionals in the party.” The sharp tang of a first-term politician calling the Budget “a talentless exercise” is somewhat tempered by Rajan’s professionalism, making room for constructive debate. “PTR is new to politics; he is not new to finance and IT. Although a section of the DMK perceives him as an outsider and wants to send him to Delhi on an MP ticket, the leadership wants him here in an advisory role,” says a senior AIADMK leader and ex-minister, requesting anonymity. “We don’t see his criticism as a threat. We have had our setbacks—GST implementation, demonetisation, Cyclone Gaja, discom debt transfer, pay commission recommendations and other external forces—but the manufacturing and services sectors are on a growth path now.”

“This will be the first election where more than 50 per cent of the electorate is online in some form or the other. The role of social media and IT-based internal and external communications will be crucial,” says PTR Palanivel Thiaga Rajan

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