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Signs of rift in AIADMK as CM Palaniswami pulls health minister Vijayabaskar from briefings

AIADMK insiders and political anaylsts say Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami was uncomfortable with Vijayabaskar’s growing profile in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis.

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Bengaluru: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami’s decision to pull state health minister C. Vijayabaskar from daily media briefings on the Covid-19 situation has signalled a rift in the government, with the ruling AIADMK’s insiders and political observers interpreting it as a result of the CM’s discomfort with the minister’s growing profile.

Vijayabaskar was at the forefront of the state’s fight against the novel coronavirus, inspecting hospitals, ramping up medical facilities and providing daily briefings on the Covid situation, which made him a household name in the state.

But earlier this month, Vijayabaskar’s daily briefings suddenly stopped, and CM Palaniswami directed health secretary Beela Rajesh to conduct the briefings.

Also read: Tamil Nadu is containing Covid-19 well, and it is not following Bhilwara model

Who is Vijayabaskar? 

Vijayabaskar, who represents the Viralimalai constituency, was a loyalist of former Tamil Nadu CM J. Jayalalithaa. In the power struggle that followed her death in 2016, he supported her close confidante, V.K. Sasikala.

The 46-year-old flamboyant minister was extremely active on social media in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, briefed the media at least twice a day, and was seen on virtually every Tamil news channel as the face of the state government in prime-time debates.

But soon, questions were raised on why CM Palaniswami was not seen as the face of the ‘Stop Corona’ campaign, and Vijayabaskar suddenly disappeared from public view.

“There has been speculation among senior AIADMK leaders that Vijayabaskar was gaining a lot of popularity. Questions were being raised about why Palaniswami was not seen during media briefings. When there was a sudden increase in cases after Tablighi Jamaat attendees began testing positive, the CM decided to take over,” a party insider told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

Chennai-based political analyst Sumanth C. Raman added: “He was seen to be hogging the limelight, and was basically made to fall in line. For the first one week, it looked like it was his operation and the CM was not around. Then, they pulled back a little and health secretary Beela Rajesh was pushed to the forefront. Subsequently, the CM came into the picture.”

However, AIADMK spokesperson V. Pugazhendi told ThePrint that there was no tension between the CM and the health minister.

“All three, Chief Minister Palaniswami, Health Secretary Beela Rajesh and Health Minister Vijayabaskar, belong to the same government, and anybody can brief the media. There is no friction,” Pugazhendi said.

ThePrint reached the Chief Minister’s Office as well as Vijayabaskar for comment, but there was no response.

Allegations of inaccurate numbers 

There have also been allegations that the health minister had not been putting out accurate numbers of positive cases in Tamil Nadu.

When the Covid-19 crisis was at its peak among people who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi, the health department bulletin on 31 March stated that 124 people were found positive in a single day. But the minister, who used his social media handle to brief the press, claimed that only 74 people were found positive.

By 3 April, the number of Tablighi Jamaat attendees testing positive began to increase manifold, and the state’s numbers shot up. This, according to insiders, is one of the main reasons Vijaybaskar was sidelined.

Also read: Tamil Nadu is worst-hit by Tablighi Jamaat event, but also seeing men admit participation

Underlying tensions 

Another Chennai-based political analyst, K.N. Arun, said neither Palaniswami nor Vijaybaskar confronted each other publicly, but there is an underlying tension between the two.

This, he said, is because Vijayabaskar has been part of the AIADMK government since the time Jayalalithaa was CM, and was later known to be very close to Sasikala. He was also in the race to become CM after Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016.

“Bringing in health secretary Beela Rajesh to brief the media and the sudden withdrawal of Vjayabaskar from the media spotlight was Edappadi’s way of sending a signal to him to back off,” said Arun.

Corruption allegations

Illustrating his point about tensions between them, Arun also pointed out that when Vijayabaskar was raided by income tax sleuths, “Palaniswami maintained a stoic silence and did not extend any support towards his minister”.

Vijayabaskar has been in the thick of several corruption allegations, including in the multi-crore gutka scam that rocked the state in 2017.

The Tamil Nadu government had banned the sale of gutka in 2013. However, income tax sleuths raided the godown, offices and residences of a Tamil Nadu-based pan masala and gutka manufacturer facing charges of tax evasion to the tune of Rs 250 crore.

During his interrogation, several names spilled out, including those of Vijayabaskar and then-director-general of police T.K Rajendran. The duo, along with former Chennai police commissioner George, were alleged to have facilitated the storage, transportation and sale of the banned substance.

Vijayabaskar’s residence was raided, and an income tax official who was part of the raids was quoted by The Economic Times as saying they had obtained key evidence to show that money had been hoarded, for the purpose of distribution in the crucial 2017 R.K. Nagar assembly bypoll.

In 2018, he was summoned by the CBI on the same charges.

“Vijayabaskar has been laying low since the IT raids and gutka scam. He has been seen handling the media well during the coronavirus crisis and has cleverly used the opportunity to boost his image after the allegations,” said another AIADMK leader on the condition of anonymity.

“Another thing to be noted is that during Jayalalithaa’s or (DMK leader) Karunanidhi’s governance, no minister would dare to overshadow the CM. This time, it seemed he was overshadowing Palaniswami, so the CM quickly turned it around.”

Also read: Palaniswami-led Tamil Nadu govt springs surprise with stellar Covid-19 crisis management


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