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Adrift on stormy seas

Dravidian politics must re-invent every aspect of itself: its modes of operation, its emotional motifs, and its leadership

Tamil Nadu at different points in history has been considered the bane of Indian politics as much as it has been the enlightened torch-bearer of progressive reform. Today, the foundation of its political superstructure is facing tectonic shifts and an entirely new paradigm may be on the horizon.

In the heyday of the Dravidian movement, Tamil Nadu was one of those rare States that issued the clarion call of secession and autonomy for the Tamil people, ethnic-based demands that would, in today’s India, be instantly branded “anti-national”. Toward the turn of the century, one of its leaders brought down a coalition government at the Centre by suddenly pulling the plug on an alliance agreement. It has always been a State that has shown resistance to certain diktats from New Delhi, from the micro concerns about Hindi imposition in the State to macro disputes over inter-State river-water sharing arrangements.

Notwithstanding the frictions generated by Tamil Nadu’s posturing on all these contentious issues, it has simultaneously been the vanguard among its peers in the provision of mass welfare goods and services.

Leader among States

It was an early pioneer of the Noon Meal Scheme that led to better nutritional, educational and inter-caste harmony outcomes across the State. Subsequently, seeing its dramatic impact on development goals, the Supreme Court made it a mandatory policy in other States, and the World Bank and others stepped in to extend its reach. It leads most other States in Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA rankings that measure pedagogical effectiveness in school education. Almost every government in the State supplied mass welfare goods at a subsidised or zero cost, including essential household items such as rice, water, cooked meals, cooking stoves, personal clothing, television sets, bicycles, and even mass-wedding services.

Fast-forward to 2018, and every aspect of that political edifice is under strain, especially after certain earth-shaking events left its democratic machinery facing an uncertain future. How best to understand what outcomes these changes could bring to the Tamil Nadu polity? Consider two analytical threads that explain the underlying processes: power vacuums and governance.

First, the passing of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo Jayalalithaa and Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi has created a black hole in the balance of power within and across the Dravidian parties. Both leaders single-handedly ran their party operations, including cadre organisation, networking, fund-raising, election planning and campaigning. Between them, Jayalalithaa concentrated power in her own hands to a much greater extent than Karunanidhi did. While his genius was in organisational planning, negotiations and bargain-making, Jayalalithaa, contrarily, degraded four rungs of leadership beneath her.

Consequently, in the aftermath of her death, the AIADMK’s relatively weak leadership has allowed the party to slip into a semi-comatose, slow-implosion mode. The informal power of the V.K. Sasikala clan, currently manifested in the troubles posed by her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s challenge to the ruling combine, threatens to rip the fabric of the party apart. In parallel there are unspoken insecurities about how long the uneasy truce between Chief Minister E. K. Palaniswami and Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam will hold, especially since the latter split from the main party faction last year. Other party heavyweights may flirt with the idea of migrating to Mr. Dhinakaran’s party, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam. New entrants like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan may steal away slivers of the AIADMK’s vote share.

Simultaneously, M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and inheritor of the DMK leadership mantle, remains an untested political quantity at a State-wide level, notwithstanding his experience as Chennai Mayor and posts in his father’s cabinet. His older brother M.K. Alagiri, a strongman from the southern districts, was ejected from the party by Karunanidhi in 2014 for “anti-party activities”, but has challenged Mr. Stalin’s otherwise unquestioned mandate within the party. Will Mr. Stalin hold his own in the upcoming Assembly by-elections and Lok Sabha elections? Will the man who appears far less comfortable before the public spotlight rally the troops and deliver an impressive victory like his father did so often?

Governance concerns

Regardless of how this flux in the balance of power within both parties plays out, there is an unanswered but vital question about whether the Dravidian “movement” as such is coming, or has come, to an end or is metamorphosing into an entirely new paradigm in response to the power vacuum. This brings us to the second issue, governance.

In fostering and becoming dependent upon a culture of what neoclassical economics would derisively label “freebies”, Tamils appeared to have entered a Faustian bargain with those they empower to lead them. The high values and political dexterity of the early leaders of the Dravidian movement in the 1950s and ’60s — including Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai — metastasised into something quite ugly by the turn of the century: leaders who ruled their parties with an iron fist and built up personality cults around themselves and their closest circles, but who also inflicted an enormous cost on the State by engaging in grand larceny, an unhinged loot on the resources of Tamil Nadu through extortion, bribe-taking, thuggery and corporate malfeasance.

Opportunity for the BJP?

There are some who argue that the antidote to this crisis of runaway corruption could be the kind of “good governance” reforms that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced at a national level, including a purported crackdown on bureaucratic inefficiency, the Goods and Services Tax, and macroeconomic shock-therapy policies such as demonetisation. Simultaneously, there has been speculation on whether, in its bid to saffronise the politics of every Indian State, the Bharatiya Janata Party is desperate to get a backdoor entry into Tamil Nadu through an informal partnership with the AIADMK.

 

Yet such expectations are built on heroic assumptions and reveal ignorance of Tamils’ historical voting preferences. It is true that Dravidianism no longer exists in its prior radical form, which implies that since the 1990s it has shed its anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindu, anti-Hindi, anti-Delhi rhetoric in favour of a broad, inclusive strand of political accommodationism for all Tamils.

Yet there is a residual feeling of Tamil exceptionalism among the voter demographic, which motivates their behaviour at the polls and continues to present an opportunity to politically mobilise.

Thus, notwithstanding the gradual creep of saffron politics in Tamil Nadu — notable here are rising incidents of communal clashes, generally a rarity in the State — the hegemonic influence of regional parties, which began in 1967, abides. The reasons for this are three-fold. First, half a century of mass welfare policies have left an indelible footprint on the electorate, which positions the Dravidian parties favourably as benevolent populists relative to a distant, alien, “north Indian” BJP or Congress.

Second, the genius of Annadurai, Karunanidhi, and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran was to supplant the elites-driven fund-raising and campaigning networks of the Congress with grassroots, cadre-based networks of their own, a model that has now acquired deep roots and cannot be easily out-manoeuvred.

Third, it may be difficult for the likes of the BJP to breach the ramparts of Tamil politics because the people do not fret as much about high-level macro corruption as they do about the transactions cost of individualised micro corruption, which impacts their day-to-day existence. Mr. Modi’s utopian promise of delivering a hyper-efficient, digital-savvy vision of Indian institutions implies a reform that ostensibly targets the first kind of corruption. Since Tamils are well accustomed to rule by elite robber-barons, Mr. Modi’s vision may be no more to them than an abstract construct.

Nevertheless, in the broadest arc of history, it would be hard to deny that Dravidian politics has reached a tipping point at the current juncture. It must re-invent every aspect of itself — its modes of operation, its emotional motifs, and its crop of leadership — if it is to survive as the champion of Tamils in the coming decades.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 7:40:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/adrift-on-stormy-seas/article25383439.ece

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