New Delhi / Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu: If Sriperumbudur sends T.R. Baalu to Parliament, as looks likely, it will probably do so out of a simple quest for development. “He has the means and the money,” as one resident, Suhasini Frederick, put it—the two things he would need if he desires to improve his new constituency.
The challenge, analysts say, may lie in getting him to desire it.
Sriperumbudur has transformed rapidly into an industrial hub and while it is a success story, it isn’t an unblemished one.
As previously reported by Mint, some villages in the constituency continue to wait for drinking water and health centres. And even in the industrial community, there are pockets of dissatisfaction—and they have to do, ironically, with Baalu’s domain: infrastructure.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
“Infrastructure is not totally lacking, but there were certain other things promised—like a rail link to the port, for instance—that have not happened to date,” said Rajiv Mitra, Hyundai Motor India Ltd’s deputy general manager for corporate communications. “So there’s a logistics problem, and delays in the transport of cars through the city. Then there’s the power situation. This is not just for Hyundai, but for the entire zone.”
Baalu recognizes these needs himself. “There is a need for better water supply and better sanitation for the people in this constituency,” he said. “And even for the industries, the infrastructure is not sufficient. It has to be improved; the road system, for instance, has to be better.”
As the Union minister for shipping, road transport and highways, Baalu, who was last elected from the Chennai South constituency, is familiar with the concerns of industry; Sriperumbudur, in a sense, is the ideal constituency for him. And he can be generous to his constituents: last March, Baalu’s minister of state, K.H. Muniyappa, revealed in Parliament that Tamil Nadu was the beneficiary of Rs10,000 crore worth of road projects—30 projects in all—in 2004-07. This was one-fifth of the money spent in developing national highways across the country, and the largest for any state.
But in his four terms as a member of Parliament and 13 years as Union minister, Baalu has also trailed clouds of controversy, including a 2008 attempt to procure gas for two companies owned by his two wives and two sons. When the issue was raised in Parliament, his response was: “What is wrong with it?”
These companies, desiring gas at a concession, had been denied it by GAIL (India) Ltd. But the public sector utility had to finally yield. Later, in Parliament, Baalu said: “I just put in a word…after the request of employees and shareholders of the two loss-making units.”
The constraints of coalition politics—Baalu’s party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, had held 15 crucial Lok Sabha seats—seemed to have forced the Congress to defend Baalu. “Every day we get requests from people,” said Murli Deora, Union petroleum minister. “If somebody tells me that this is a question of 2,000 people losing their jobs, I will call people, I will ask my officers to help. We are here to help, not harass people... There is no nepotism involved.”
Then, there is Baalu’s rigid stance on the Sethusamudram project, which involves dredging a canal through a chain of coral islets between India and Sri Lanka. Baalu claimed that the canal would shorten shipping routes and boost commerce; a Mint investigation concluded that the Rs2,600 crore-project would, in fact, benefit no one.
Several Hindu groups as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oppose the project, saying it would destroy an undersea formation known as the Ram Sethu, a bridge believed by Hindus to have been built by Hindu god Ram to reach Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court has since stayed the project.
Baalu’s record at road-building isn’t entirely free of potholes either.
Mint reported in December that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government failed to finish any of the highway projects it had started in 2004 that had been targeted for completion by October. According to an internal report of the National Highways Authority of India, or NHAI, prepared after the deadline expired in October, the highways regulator could not complete any of the 47 projects in the second phase of the North-South-East-West, or NSEW, corridor.
Baalu’s tenure has also seen five chairmen at NHAI in two years, says L.K. Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP—this despite an announcement by the outgoing UPA government that the minimum tenure of the chairman would be two years. Mint reported last May that Baalu had tried to change the work profiles of top NHAI board officials without consulting its then chairman, N. Gokulram. Baalu disputes both points. “I don’t have the official figures with me right now, but the rate of project completion is certainly higher than has been reported in the media,” he said.
And on the changes in the chairmanship of the NHAI, he said: “If somebody doesn’t do his job, he has to go. Is anybody indispensable to a particular department?”
Baalu, say political analysts, is uniquely a product of coalition politics, a man who wields inordinate power because of his high status within a vital regional partner—the DMK. It explains, they add, why Baalu has managed to ride his spells of turbulence and emerge, yet again, as a strong candidate for Parliament and possibly even for another ministership should the UPA return to power.
At a glance
• Born on 15 June 1941
• He graduated with a BSc from New College, Chennai, and with an LCE from Central Polytechnic, Chennai
• He joined the DMK in 1957 and has remained with the party ever since
• He changed his name from ‘Balu’ to ‘Baalu’ on the advice of a numerologist
• He was jailed under Misa, for a year, for protesting the Emergency
• Was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1996
Twenty20 is a series on 20 political leaders. Click here to read all the profiles.