Competing for a common legacy, Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu are also contestants for high stakes on the national electoral scene

In the realm of both culture and politics, icons and values are often reinvented by invoking the ‘back-to-the-roots mantra’.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s just-in-time manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, bringing back contentious issues like building the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and having a uniform civil code, however couched in cautious language, have instantly provided a springboard for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu to revisit its ‘Dravidian roots’.

“By brazenly declaring ‘we will build a Ram temple in Ayodhya’ in its election manifesto, the BJP is only reinforcing its brand of Hindu nationalism that will polarise society on communal lines,” countered the DMK’s treasurer and leader-in-waiting, M.K. Stalin, campaigning for its central Chennai candidate, Dayanidhi Maran, where Christians and Muslims form a good chunk of the voters.

At one go, the BJP’s manifesto partly de-emphasised the obsession with Narendra Modi, its prime ministerial candidate. This is ‘manna from heaven’ for the DMK to revisit its core ideology that has defined the ‘Dravidian Movement’, whose roots go back to the ‘Non-Brahmin Movement’ of the Justice Party in the erstwhile Madras Presidency since the second decade of 1900s’. Vadakku Valargirathu, Therukku Theygirathu (North India prospers, the South languishes) has been a slogan much popularised by the DMK and its immediate historical predecessor, the ‘Dravida Kazhagam (DK)’, which explained the rationale of DMK’s vociferous opposition to Hindi imposition and the ‘North Indian Braminical hegemony’ both economically and culturally.

The DMK’s founder-leader C.N. Annadurai’s famous maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha in the early 1960s that he took “pride” in belonging to the “Dravidian stock” which had something unique to contribute to India’s history, culture and diversity, only underscored the ethnic tinge to the shorthand word, ‘Tamil pride’.

That speech is still like the Bible for DMK leaders. The party patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, in his campaign rallies , echoed that , “neither let Hindi nor Narendra Modi into Tamil Nadu.” But, obviously, its rhetorical force is considerably less now. No wonder, actor Kushboo, campaigning for the DMK, was in full flow in Hindi on a whistle-stop tour of Coimbatore that has a considerable Hindi-speaking electorate, more Gujaratis at that!

And this brings us to the central question of the contradictions emerging over the decades in the ‘Dravidian Movement’, whose main political face has been the DMK in post-Independent India. Notable offshoots of the DMK, namely, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founded by the charismatic actor-turned-leader M.G. Ramachandran and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by Vaiko, lay equal claim to this movement’s legacy. It still keeps the fierce ‘intra-Dravidian Movement competition’ alive.

While the mainstreaming of these regional parties over time has been a feature of the coalition era, it is the Congress that has substantially lost ground, more so after it lost power here in 1967. In more recent years, the BJP as a ‘nationalist alternative’ has tried plugging this gap, but in vain.

The Dravidian parties believe both in the politics of assertion on core issues like upholding caste reservation levels and in co-option and accommodation on larger national issues. The DMK gave up its separate ‘Dravida Naadu’ demand even in the early 1960s. “Despite defeating the Congress in the State in 1967, the DMK supported Indira Gandhi’s progressive measures like bank nationalisation and privy purses abolition in Parliament,” said Mr. Karunanidhi once, to drive home this give-and-take policy. But there have been confrontationist phases too, as seen in the Cauvery and Sri Lankan Tamils issues.

The dominant regional parties, DMK and AIADMK, continue to call the shots, even though the logic of ‘alliance politics’ has made them ally with both Congress and the BJP. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls marks a watershed in the sense as both DMK and AIADMK are going it alone, sans any alliance with any national party this time, including the Left parties, CPI and CPI(M).

BJP alliance

After very hard bargaining, the BJP on the other hand, in a bid to maximise the encashment value of the ‘Modi factor’ ,has managed to cobble up a ‘grand alliance’ with a slew of parties like the OBC Vanniyar-based Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and slightly broad-based outfits like actor Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and the MDMK.

Though the BJP will now be contesting only seven seats with the DMDK, taking the lion’s share of 14 seats in the alliance, in some pockets the saffron party might well eat into the AIADMK’s vote-share, which is seen more as a ‘natural ally’ of the BJP than the DMK. But both the Dravidian majors hope to build on their respective solid bases. “You still can’t rule out a post-poll support for the BJP by the DMK,” warns senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram.

While both the DMK and AIADMK have upped their stake in national politics, more so in the economic liberalisation era since the early 1990s, their priorities differ. Sensing that the BJP will not cross the ‘272 plus’ mark on its own, the AIADMK supremo, Jayalalithaa, has pitched for winning all the 40 seats at stake in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, to help lead a coalition of regional parties at the Centre with outside support of others.

As a serious player in Delhi, Ms. Jayalalithaa may have to recast her domineering functioning style. But the imperturbable Mr. Stalin’s priority is to protect his regional turf from any erosion by DMK’s enfant terrible and his elder brother M K Alagiri. Mr. Stalin looks to the wider canvas of the 2016 Assembly elections in the State, as much as Vijayakant does. .

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, noted historian and Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies says the leadership transition in the DMK will be smooth. But one substantial difference will be that the party when Mr. Stalin takes over “will be ideologically vacuous”. And that difference will be felt. He does not see any difference in the AIADMK leader's style of functioning in the last ten years. “Ms. Jayalalithaa has always played for high stakes; as always she feels besieged and persecuted.”

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