Published Date: March 7, 2021
His grandfather served as the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency and was the last president of the Justice Party His father was a DMK minister and Speaker of the Tamil Nadu State Assembly. Though he was born into a family with such an illustrious political history, PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan, who holds a doctorate in engineering from the US, chose to spend decades in the corporate world before entering politics. Now, Thiagarajan heads the IT wing of the DMK, and is an incumbent MLA representing the party from Madurai Central.
Speaking to Express, Thiagarajan explains the difference that, he feels, electoral politics has undergone over the years.
“(For one) the penetration of technology-based communication platforms has increased engagement of youngsters,” he says. “The other change is the decay of democracy. We are in the last leg of democratic dissolutions,” he argues.
Stating that he views the party’s IT wing as a digital communications unit of the party, Thiagarajan believes that unlike in the North, people in Tamil Nadu are well acquainted with facts.”
The biggest factor that is likely to change this year, Thiagarajan feels, is the personal touch -- thanks to Covid. “In politics, you need charisma. There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings with people,” he stresses.
So, what are the chances for DMK to win the polls? “There’s a serious anti-incumbency factor playing out in the State,” feels Thiagarajan. “At the macro level, the economy got worse. Joblessness is higher. Inflation, petrol prices are all soaring. All these will play an important role. Again, unlike in the North, people here show their disappointment in ballots not in streets (protest).”
As the IT Wing Secretary of a party, and hailing from a traditional political family, how do you see the changes in elections and how important is this election for DMK?
This election is very special for three reasons. First, it is the end of an era. During the last elections, Kalaignar (DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi) and Jayalalithaa (AIADMK supremo) were alive. After the two giants have fallen, it is the first election to determine the trend of the next era in politics. But more than the lack of leaders, the fundamental difference is that we are playing in a completely different environment.
Second, I say that in two ways. One is the penetration of technology of communication platforms. The kind of youth engagement is higher than ever before and it's a sea change. Normally change happens incrementally. The internet penetration in Tamil Nadu has gone to 85% in a short span.
The other change I see is that the nature of democracy has decayed a lot. We can see that from judiciary to election commission to all the arms of the government, and from the enforcement side, the police, CBI, IT, ED, etc. The neutral bodies like RBI, Statistical institutes, Economical Research centers, Niti Aayog etc have become politicised. So we are now in the last legs of this kind of democratic dissolution and the only part of democracy that survives is the general election.
That too doesn't survive freely. It survives in some limited forms because the election commission games the system towards the ruling dispensation and yet it remains as the last resort. That's why this election is unique.
How do you tackle fake news and negative campaigns?
We have to adapt our strategy and model to the basic facts. The circumstances are completely different compared to the North. The environment here is completely different and we have to adopt different digital strategies. I don't call it an IT wing; rather, in broad terms, I call it digital communication of a party.
In north India, political parties have to worry more about preventing fake news, whereas in Tamil Nadu people are fairly discriminating and well aware of the actual facts.
The method of campaigning has changed post-Covid. Will technology-driven campaigns yield results?
I think execution is the key. In politics, you need charisma.
There is no substitute for reaching people face to face. If I have to rank it, then the number one route to political success is to interact with people face-to-face. I mean, one on one, one on 50, one on 5000 conversations. But not one-on-five lakh. If you want to convert it into a vote then you must have a face-to-face conversation with the people or a 'personalised' communication.
Late DMK chief Karunanidhi used to say that DMK's Manifesto will always be the hero of an election. What can we expect from DMK this time?
It's a bit premature for me to say that. I am not on the manifesto committee. I will say two things. The first is a bit unique. We have two different kinds of releases or strategies. On March 7, our leader (MK) Stalin releases his long-term vision for Tamil Nadu. An aspirational vision. He is going to look at seven areas, from the economy to environment, industry etc. What is the kind of Tamil Nadu and Tamil society that he (Stalin) wants built will be in it.
The actual election manifesto will come on March 11. That will be much more concrete. The only thing that I can say is I had quite extensive discussions with the chairman of the manifesto committee, T R Balu. He took inputs from many people. I am one of them. We discussed some financial and economic consequences of certain policies and budget possibilities
What is the DMK's agenda for the development of the State? Are you going to scrap everything and start afresh or you will complete the projects left?
Of course, it's the leader's (Stalin) vision that will set the course. But my instinct is, as a part of the party, that we will simultaneously focus on two things. One is repairing the finances of the State. But at the same time we have a very clear agenda driven by social and economic justice. So we're interested in ensuring that the people at the bottom of the pyramid get their fair share.
Will DMK stick to Dravidian policies in the digital era?
In my mind, there has been no greater success of any social movement in modern history, after the colonial era. No other social movement has been as successful as the Dravidian moment.
The Dravidian movement has been one of foresight. I lived in the United States for 20 years and I don't recall the phrase 'social justice' at any point figuring in any political debate during that time. Now I hear the word almost every week in political debate, news articles, social media texts. The notion of social justice has become global. So we are a shining example to the world.
The focus of the DMK’s IT wing is to build a platform that sustains the Dravidian movement for the next 50 to 100 years. Our job is to strengthen and lengthen the scale and impact of the Dravidian movement for the generations to come.