Privatisation cannot be the answer to every malaise: Palanivel Thiaga Rajan

Tamil Nadu’s Finance Minister on fighting corruption and social media wars

Updated - October 10, 2021 05:50 pm IST

Published - October 09, 2021 04:00 pm IST

A 40-minute slot seamlessly transcended into a 140-minute off-beat conversation with Tamil Nadu’s Finance Minister, Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, at his ancestral home in Madurai. The 55-year-old Wall Street banker-turned-politician is as candid and articulate as he is known to be. “I dislike pretensions,” says the two-time MLA, whose sharp tongue often courts controversies. He attributes his sense of inner stability to two major events — a miraculous escape during the 9/11 attacks (he was in the basement of Twin Towers, on his way to his office in the next building to WTC, known as World Financial Centre) and his job with Lehman Brothers during the 2008 freefall. “You realise nothing is permanent in life,” he says.

From a happy-go-lucky childhood to a jet-setting corporate career, and now a minister with an important portfolio in a resurgent DMK government, he believes his life has been a journey of luck and good timing. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What is the difference between your earlier corporate life and your political one now?

In a corporate set-up, the alignment of incentives inside a large company is the same, as everyone wishes to succeed. You just need to add your own value to the shareholders, the company and to investors’ bank books. In public life now, I deal with all kinds of people to add value to society. Resolving people’s problems gives immense satisfaction.

What are your chief challenges as a politician?

It bothers me every day that wrongdoers are able to get away. It is a flaw of the system, which persecutes innocents and fails to prosecute the crooked and powerful. There are thousands of cases of malfeasance and no government wants to open a can of worms. There is pressure that does not let the system improve, and it is not easy even with the best leadership at the top.

We are working towards inclusive growth, where everybody has access to everything within the boundaries of social and economic fairness, unlike in the past when everything was grabbed illegally and the State did nothing. Four months in power is too short a time to flush out the rot, but we have succeeded in stemming it. For instance, the water table of the Vaigai is up for the first time after many years, after I created a hue and cry about pilferage of Periyar water in Theni.

Is this why you give vent to political frustration on social media? Is it wise to engage in virtual conversations with known rivals and unknown people?

I rarely get provoked for personal reasons. I ignore those who twist words, misrepresent and conflate. But yes, sometimes I feel there is societal benefit in exposing the fakes and lies, the empty shells, and the semi-literates who act as geniuses.

But you are often accused of being arrogant; many on social media tell you to back off and focus on work...

I call it self-containment and confidence, not arrogance. If I have attitude and cold-shoulder you, then call me arrogant. But not when I am compassionate towards people and genuinely do not have the time.

Many politicians accuse me of bragging about my lineage. If I am doing nothing other than name-dropping, then I am wrong. My achievements through hard work are in the public domain. I do not need to name-drop. I am who I am. And yes, every chance I get, I invoke my ancestors because it is our Tamil culture to pay respect to our forefathers.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a politician?

I get dragged into multiple issues and problems. I should learn to say no. My strength: I believe in outcomes and don’t get distracted by mere symbolism.

Do you think it is time for Tamil Nadu to play a bigger role in national politics?

Absolutely. It is a golden opportunity for us to show what really compassionate, competent, social and technically sound governance means. If the BJP could win the 2014 election riding on the Gujarat model, which was only a mirage, then we can certainly show what the Tamil Nadu model is and how significant it can be for the rest of the country. Why would people with big holes in their pockets vote again for falsehoods and dichotomy? We do not feed propaganda and hate. With our good governance, we can swing 2024.

There are charges of irregularities against the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. Privatisation might help restore and maintain temples more efficiently, so why do you insist that temples must remain under government control?

The government controls only those temples that belonged to the kings, like the Pandyas, Pallavas and the Cheras, because those are as much about culture, history, and architecture as about religion. I don’t understand how privatisation can make temples more efficient. I am aware of the irregularities and get hundreds of complaints. It frustrates me as much as any other temple-goer. Madurai Meenakshi Temple is in my constituency and I am still not able to make changes for the better. If I set up a Board, how will you decide who will be on it to run the temple? There is no easy apolitical solution. Name a department that doesn’t have problems. Are government hospitals, corporation schools, water supply, garbage collection flawless? What else shall I denationalise? Privatisation cannot be the answer to every malaise; then the government should shut down everything?

And if this is wrong, then why and how was it right for Uttarakhand to nationalise temples even in recent years? Why did Modi’s Gujarat nationalise temples? How can we have different rules for different States?

Would you be inclined to bring your sons into politics?

They are still young at 16 and 14. I am not going to put any pressure on them. I came [into politics] 10 years after my father passed away. But each year I spent overseas, I felt the weight of my alleged legacy. I felt I was on borrowed time because my father and grandfather always wanted me to work for the people.

I want my sons to study well, see the world, do what interests them. After that, if they still feel like entering politics, it is entirely their choice.

How hard has it been for your spouse to adjust to life here?

I am fortunate to have been blessed with a strong partner. Margaret and I met at university. I was a tad unsure about how she would adjust, but today my family, voters, everybody is so fond of her. She keeps our sons grounded. Though it hurts, we deny them certain luxuries because we want them to understand that certain values are important.

How do you unwind after your strenuous work schedule?

I love to spend time with my family. They are my lifeline and laughter is our medicine. Our pets bind us. The five dogs and a kitten at home are my best stress busters.

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