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Updated: November 30, 2010 15:21 IST

Business of politics in Tamil Nadu

J. Sri Raman
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Tamil Nadu’s politics has always provided a curiously different theme for pundits and plebeian observers alike, particularly the non-native ones. No other State in India has spawned the same species of regionalism that evolved from secessionism, nor has witnessed many a social movement morphing into political outfits, nor has had comparable specimens of cinema-politics mix. All these and several other facets of the phenomenon figure in the book under review, the latest addition to the literature on the subject.

A couple of words of caution are in order. First, the book is solely and wholly about Tamil Nadu, not the entire southern region as the title suggests. Secondly, what Andrew Wyatt, a political scientist teaching in the University of Bristol, attempts is a purely academic study. While students of the subject in his and allied disciplines may find a lot of material to mull over, those looking for a more entertaining fare of the media-purveyed kind may be disappointed.

Essentially, Wyat deals with the party system since 1989, its transition “from a two-and-half-party system to bipolar multiparty-ism.” The study covers in some detail the conflicts or “cleavages” (which are “more than social divisions”), over which party systems are built. The primary role in the process is, however, assigned to “political entrepreneurs”.

The concept of “political entrepreneurship” is derived from the rational choice theory, which sees a political player as guided, above all, by cost-benefit considerations. In other words, it views politics as business, not essentially in the sense of ‘corruption’, although that may be a desired dividend in some cases.

According to Choi Rosewood, the term ‘political entrepreneur’ refers to a “political player who seeks to gain certain political and social benefits in return for providing the common goods that can be shared by an unorganised general public. These common goods that political entrepreneurs attempt to provide to the populace generally include foreign- and domestic-related public policy, while the benefits they hope to gain involve voter support, public recognition, and personal popularity.”

Caste has been a major “cleavage” in Tamil society, and many of Tamil Nadu’s political entrepreneurs have achieved their success by “opening” it up, as Wyatt puts it. He says that caste, which is a “social formation”, has to be “understood as a “[changing] political formation because it makes such an important contribution to determining the status, power, wealth and exclusion of individuals and groups.”

By way of illustration, Wyatt cites case-studies of three parties in particular: The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Dalit Panthers of India (or Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) and the Pudhia Thamizhagam (PT). He mentions the case of the PMK’s S. Ramadoss — a medical doctor who rose to the helm of Vanniya leadership and thence to the status of a State-level political leader — as a striking example of ‘cleavages’ contributing to the emergence of new parties. The cases of VCK’s Thol. Thirumavalavan and PT’s K. Krishnaswamy, Dalit leaders with their own distinctive styles of approach and functioning, are also presented in detail.

The author goes on to make the point that political entrepreneurs also seek out opportunities by “closing” the cleavages. In this context, he notes how the two major Dravidian parties — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — attempted to broaden their appeal by avoiding too close an identification with caste blocs. He also discusses how the ethnic identities of the Marumalarchi DMK’s Vaiko and Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam’s Vijayakant have helped them rise above sectional interests and form new parties.

What Wyatt has to say on the record of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a State with a past of anti-North and anti-Hindi politics, however, is open to question. He says: “The BJP can take some credit (?) for giving religious issues higher salience in the party system of Tamil Nadu”. But he believes the BJP lacked the political leadership to “persuade voters that their main policy area was sufficiently important.”

For the lay reader, all these go to show how democracy divides and then unites. A couple of questions, however, remain. Will the social conflicts and political cleavages lead eventually to an overall socio-political transformation? Will the investments by political entrepreneurs yield returns for the people as a whole?

PARTY SYSTEM CHANGE IN SOUTH INDIA-Political entrepreneurs, patterns and processes: Andrew Wyatt; Published by Routledge, 2, Park Square, Milton Park, Abringdon.

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