This is a rare comparative study of politics and political economy in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The focus is on what the author describes as “regime types”, used to indicate the balance of caste and class power in a state as it has historically evolved with special reference to its impact on the lower sections in the social order, particularly the rural poor.
The thesis (or hypothesis) put forward is that, in Tamil Nadu, the two Dravidian parties — the DMK and the AIADMK — that have been in power since the ouster of the Congress in 1967 represent the “common man” and the “downtrodden” respectively, which led to populist political mobilisation of the masses. On the other hand, in Karnataka, the Congress — for long in the early stages — as also the Janata Dal that succeeded it, while claiming to be national parties, have relied on two intermediate castes. As a result, while pro-poor programmes are being taken up in Tamil Nadu, the emphasis in Karnataka has been on irrigation programmes, whose direct beneficiaries have been the landed castes, with the poor deriving only indirect benefits.
Two aspects of the treatment deserve to be noted. The first is the social and political history of the development of “regime types” in the two States. In the old Madras Presidency, and later Tamil Nadu, Brahmins and the landed elite formed the social base of the Congress. When Periyar came out of the Congress in 1926, he portrayed the Brahmins as descendants of the Aryans and thus alien to Dravidian culture. His attempt, therefore, was to mobilise the ‘native' elements on the basis of shared Tamil identity.
This effort climaxed in the anti-Hindi movement of 1965 and the elections of 1967, which saw the rout of the Congress and the coming to power of the (united) DMK. But, as the party in power, the DMK became less radical, consolidating its power with the support of the intermediate groups and small propertied interests while not totally giving up its mass appeal. Brazenly thrown out of the DMK in 1972, M.G. Ramachandran formed the ADMK (later AIADMK) and led the party to power in the 1977 elections. Shrewd that he was, MGR realised that his political future lay, on the one hand, in having an electoral alliance with the Congress against his rivals in the DMK, and, on the other, in seeking the support of the downtrodden by creating the “image trap” that, in real life too, he was a dauntless champion of the oppressed. After coming to power, he gave the highest priority to reaching out to the poorer sections of the people through the Noon Meal Scheme (NMS) for school children. The scheme gained support in the rural areas, particularly among women.
The DMK could not ignore the popularity of the NMS and hence made direct beneficiary-oriented schemes part of its political agenda. Thus from the late 1970s, politics in Tamil Nadu became populist, argues Lakshman, with the DMK pursuing what he calls “assertive populism” and the AIADMK “paternalistic populism”.
The author draws a contrast between this pattern and what he designates “clientilist politics” of Karnataka. Tracing the history of the old Mysore state and Karnataka since 1956, he points out that underlying the many political changes in the State has been an element of continuity, with no sharp break as the one that happened in Tamil Nadu in 1967. This he attributes to the dominance of the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats, who together constitute some 40 per cent of the population. Even the regimes of Devraj Urs and Ramakrishna Hegde (who did not belong to these castes) had to depend heavily on their support. Consequently, all governments, irrespective of their ‘ideological' differences, gave priority to irrigation programmes that benefited the landed castes directly.
Another aspect Lakshman discusses at some length is the manner in which budgetary allocations are made in the two States. The analysis goes far beyond the budget figures and traces the processes by which the economic priorities of the leaders get formulated as public policies of the ruling parties and the technicalities are completed by the bureaucracy. The exercise is meant to establish that budgetary allocations in Tamil Nadu have always tended to tilt in favour of the poor-centric programmes, while, in Karnataka, irrigation got a big share.
One obvious way to validate the hypothesis about the differential consequences of the two distinct “regime types” would be to examine their impact on poverty reduction. Actually the author begins with the statistics on poverty. Between 1973 and 1999, (the headcount ratio of) rural poverty declined from 57.43 to 20.55 in Tamil Nadu and from 55.14 to 17.38 in Karnataka. Not much of support for the hypothesis, but Lakshman claims that his focus is on “political bargaining, public policy, and poverty outcome over time.”