Continuity of Dravidianist electoral dominance

Opportunities nevertheless exist for political forces seeking to redistribute power and resources more equitably

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:30 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2021 12:02 am IST

The Dravidian parties maintained their electoral dominance in the first Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections since the passing of their earlier dominant leaders, Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam gained 67.1% of the vote and, along with the smaller Dravidian parties, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazagam and the Marumalarchchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, polled 70.4%. This was the second highest vote share the Dravidian parties have ever drawn, only 3.5 percentage points lower than their highest share of 73.9% in 2016. The maintenance of Dravidianist electoral dominance is more striking than the DMK’s anticipated return to power.

Expectations, outcomes

The AIADMK’s support seemed likelier to erode than the DMK’s because it depended far more on the charisma of its two successive leaders (MGR and Jayalalithaa), Jayalalithaa had not developed a successor unlike Karunanidhi, and its party institutions were weaker. Moreover, since Jayalalithaa’s passing, its leaders were inadequately independent of the central government, insufficiently defended the State’s moderately welfarist orientations, and supported or barely resisted the Centre’s authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian, and wholeheartedly neoliberal policies. These policies included the adoption of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the demotion of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territories, the adoption of centralised examinations at different stages of school education, the reduction of agrarian subsidies, and the accelerated corporatisation of agriculture.


The DMK outperformed the AIADMK but not overwhelmingly . It did so by only 3.1 percentage points, polling 35.1% to the latter’s 32.0%, gaining 3.2 percentage points since the 2016 elections while the AIADMK lost 9.1 percentage points. The 12.3% vote shift between the major parties was nevertheless significant. The two major alliances’ vote shares differed by 5.7 percentage points — the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance gained 45.4% to the AIADMK-led National Democratic Alliance’s 39.7%. Their high combined vote share of 85.1% underlined the continuity of Dravidianist electoral dominance. The DMK’s performance remained strongest in the northern plains and Cauvery delta, while the AIADMK remained stronger in the western plains though no longer in the south.

Conversely, the political forces that had hoped to benefit from the uncertain leadership transition did not grow much. The older national parties stagnated. The Congress Party’s vote share declined from 6.5% to 4.3%, partly due to contesting fewer seats (25 rather than 41), continuing an unsteady downward trend since 1989 when it got 20.2%. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s diminished from 2.9% to 2.6% perhaps because it contested only 20 seats while it had vied for all the seats in 2016, compared to a high of 3.2% in 2001. Of the parties formed since party competition changed in 1989, catchall parties that address all major demographics polled 13.0% compared to just 4.4% in 2016 and a high of 14.4% in 2006, and niche parties that primarily engage specific castes, religious groups or regions polled 6.7% compared to a high of 8.1% in 2011.

The largest new catchall party is the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) which polled 6.6%, followed by the AMMK and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam that got 2.3% each. These parties overtook the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam that polled merely 0.4%, in contrast with having drawn 2.4% (to the NTK’s 1.1%) in 2016 and 8.4% in 2006. The Vanniyar-based Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) remained the largest niche party and the largest of the caste parties that together drew 6.0% compared to 7.7% in 2016 and a high of 8.1% in 2011. But it only gained 3.8% compared to its best performance of 5.9% in 1991. The BJP with 2.6% remained the largest of the religious parties which together gained 3.6%. The Dravidian parties thus remain electorally dominant although their social presence has gradually declined since the 1990s.

Tamil Nadu Assembly elections | The impact of social factors

What shaped these electoral trends? What do they portend? How do they compare with experiences elsewhere in India? What might these patterns suggest about the scope to change the Indian polity?

Bases of sustained success

The Dravidian parties grew from the 1950s to the 1970s by mobilising the middling and lower castes and classes that other parties and governments had only marginally engaged, using populist discourses distinguishing the popular community from elites based on caste, language, dialect, and occupation. They remained dominant subsequently because they formed strong party institutions and cohesive subcultures sustained through moderately egalitarian development policies, which they retained even while adopting much of the Centre’s neoliberal orientation from the 1990s. Most notable among such policies were the high educational and job reservations (69%), the midday meal scheme that especially improved nutrition, health, and education among the poorest, high investments in education and primary health, and a rural employment programme that was among the best implemented until 2016.

The Dravidian parties drew closer to upwardly mobile and privileged groups from the 1970s. Their reservation policies benefited the middle castes much more than Dalits and Adivasis. They doubled the Other Backward Classes quota to 50% but also entitled a further 27% of the population to it, including many prosperous castes such as the Kongu Vellala Gounder that became the preponderant beneficiaries. By contrast, they increased the Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe quota by under a fifth, from 16% to 19%, below these groups’ undercounted population share of 21%. This was partly balanced by introducing a 1% ST tier and a 20% tier for the Most Backward Classes and denotified communities in 1989, and a 3% Arunthathiyar tier in 2009 — Vanniyars were granted a 10.5% tier within the MBC quota last February to placate the PMK and boost the AIADMK’s electoral prospects, with uncertain distributive effect for this reduced the DNC quota to 7% and that of all other MBCs to 2.5%.

Also read | Tamil Nadu’s development model has few parallels, says expert

Other Dravidianist policies provided assets mainly to the upwardly mobile. Land ownership and tenurial reforms primarily helped middling tenant farmers, largely from the middle castes, but only a small section of Dalits. These groups bought land that landlords sold due to declining irrigation and soil fertility, and benefited from generously subsidised agrarian inputs and credit, and loan waivers. Such policies helped lower-middle and intermediate strata move up, maintained Dravidianist electoral prominence, and contained challenges to caste and class inequality.

Alternatives, their prospects

These experiences enabled Dravidian party dominance thus far; but are unlikely to indefinitely sustain it as these parties withdrew from mobilisation from the 1990s. Other outlooks thereafter inspired civil society, especially caste associations, opponents of corporatisation, and religious nationalists. Their effects on the party system have so far been minor — enabling the limited growth of the PMK and other middle caste parties from 1989, that of the BJP, the DMDK, and the Dalit parties in the 2000s, and the NTK’s since 2016. These forces either demanded greater resources and rights for specific caste clusters as the PMK and Dalit parties did or sought like the DMDK and the NTK to revitalise plebeian ethno-linguistic politics, thus building on aspects of Dravidianist ethno-populism.


Widely popular public figures not closely associated with popular sectors or with language- and caste-focused outlooks such as Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have impacted party competition less. This suggests that the prospects are brightest for political forces that seek to redistribute power and resources more equitably than the Dravidian parties did if they build on some aspects of Tamil Nadu’s existing political culture.

Portents for democracy

Some who seek to limit the erosion of democracy and the rights of religious minorities and disadvantaged groups around India under BJP rule draw hope from the Assembly election results. The All-India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, and the DMK in Tamil Nadu have in different ways resisted the Centre’s Hindu majoritarianism, centralisation of power, and violations of democratic norms. Their victories show that prior political alignments limit Hindutva growth in some regions, though less in West Bengal where the BJP’s vote share increased by 28 percentage points since 2016, and it overtook the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress to become the primary Opposition party. The victories of the incumbents in Kerala and West Bengal, unlike in Tamil Nadu, and the increase in their victory margins by 1.4 and 4.1 percentage points, respectively, were also minor positive verdicts on their governance.

Two considerations should temper inferences about constraints to BJP growth and the Centre’s authoritarian tendencies. First, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are exceptions to the nearly national pattern of rising BJP fortunes. Second, the design of India’s asymmetric federalism grants the Centre considerable leeway to determine resource distribution and authority over concurrent subjects, which it has used crucially according to whether a single party predominates parliamentary representation. The centralisation of authority by BJP governments with Lok Sabha majorities since 2014 followed devolution by coalition governments from 1989 to 2014 and earlier centralisation by Congress-led governments. It will limit the ability of the recently elected Opposition State governments to resist the Centre’s promotion of authoritarianism, Hindu hegemony, and corporate-led growth. to offer more democratic and equitable governance, and to significantly constrain further BJP growth.

Narendra Subramanian is Professor of Political Science, McGill University, Canada, and the author of Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens, and Democracy in South India

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