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Embattled path to stability

The AIADMK strategy of clinging on to power at any cost is fraught with danger

Nine months and more have passed since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu, headed by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, survived a vote of confidence on the floor of the State Assembly, yet there appears to be no indication that a powerful leader will take charge of party affairs.

Contrarily, interminable factional squabbling seems to have engulfed the party, and with each passing month the balance of power within the AIADMK seems to be in even more flux. This hints at a breakdown in mechanisms that made the relatively leader-centric governance style of Jayalalithaa possible. There are growing fears that the political vacuum at the very core of the party will push it toward implosion. How did matters come to such a pass?

Historical balance of power

In the broad, historical context of India’s politics, it is typically States governed by national parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Congress, that tend to see a greater magnitude of factional conflict within the party system; this is reflected in their policy agendas too. Research at the London School of Economics by John Harriss sheds light on what could reasonably be considered the stylised facts in this regard.

Along with several other studies, this research suggests that States witnessing higher levels of factional conflict within the party system also tend to be socially and politically dominated by relatively powerful caste groupings.

A good example of such a State is Karnataka, where Vokkaligas and Lingayats, and to a slightly lesser extent Brahmins, have dominated the party system, whether it is through the BJP, the Congress, or the Janata Dal (S).

This stands in contrast to States such as Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, where strong regional parties, often helmed by charismatic leaders associated with popular culture, have relatively tighter party organisational structures and processes.

For the latter type of State, intra-party power is relatively centralised in the hands of these leaders, giving them a freer hand to fashion political agendas that cater to the interests of their most significant social bases.

Typically, such States are situated in the context of fragmented social power between caste groupings, easily observed in Tamil Nadu, where caste prevalence and dominance vary enormously from one part of the State to another, and political parties must necessarily look to broad-based welfare schemes that meet the welfare needs of this diverse population.

Dark side of welfare politics

In this light, the turn of events in Tamil Nadu over the past year and more raises troubling questions about the forces that are reshaping the political landscape of the State.

On the one hand, successive leaders of Tamil Nadu have adhered strictly to a welfare-minded approach in policymaking. Note how the State was a national pioneer for the noon meal scheme for children, or for activity-based learning in primary education, or in the grant of a variety of free welfare goods to the masses.

However, the dark side of this “benevolent autocratic” style of governance is the tendency to relentlessly pursue rent-seeking opportunities. This has led to a systemic institutional rot that has sparked deep concern over governance failures. Further, it has contributed to a deterioration of the policy environment to the point where numerous industries have fled to other Indian States rather than get locked into a system of institutionalised extortion.

Passage of a movement

Looking back to the shape of Dravidian politics toward the turn of the century and beyond, both the AIADMK and its arch-rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), were built on a much sharper focus on the welfare of the ethnic Tamil man and woman.

In the DMK, former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi rose to the top in his party through his involvement in the Dravidian movement as a screenwriter, poet, and literary genius. Like C.N. Annadurai before him, Mr. Karunanidhi focussed on promoting social reforms that underpinned the Dravidianist philosophy, such as self-respect marriages to undercut the role of the priestly caste, and policies to promote Tamil and diminish the official use of Hindi.

Yet, over his five stints as Chief Minister, a gradual change spread across his party cadres. What was once a radical social reform movement for the lower castes based on anti-Hindi and anti-North agitations — a phenomenon that scholars such as Narendra Subramanian describe as “assertive populism” — gave way to a more inclusive accommodationism of all castes, and economic opportunities became the prime vector of governance.

Under former Chief Ministers who were in the AIADMK, M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, a slightly varied form of “paternalist populism” took root, built less on radical Dravidianism’s ethnic demands and more on providing mass welfare to a broad swathe of society, including the lowest levels of the class pyramid but also some elites.

In both parties, resource allocation came to depend increasingly on charismatic leaders who had relied on the power of the silver screen to build up their political personas as champions of a social cause. In doing so they also fuelled deeply ingrained personality cults around themselves and their coteries, leading to the obliteration of second-, third- and fourth rung leadership capability within their parties.

Perhaps it was the inevitable consequence of this lopsided balance of power within the two major Dravidian parties of the State that a culture of unhinged rent-seeking took hold and got institutionalised. Soon, ministerial berths became gateways to untold private wealth extorted from a system of pliant bribe-givers, big and small.

Control of a vast span of industries rested in the hands of individuals closely associated with both parties. For example, the V.K. Sasikala clan came to acquire and hold interests in every sector, from distilleries and cinema to finance, steel and exports. For another, based on ownership of the Sun Group by the Maran clan, the family scion, Kalanithi Maran, raised his net worth to something in the range of $4.7 billion.

Reaching an inflection point?

Tamil Nadu’s current turmoil has to be situated in this context of rapacious rent-seeking by its political class. Even if the oxygen has been sucked out of the heart of the AIADMK machine, the stakes are too high to walk away from Jayalalithaa’s parting gift to her party — four and a half more years in power.

At the same time, the machinations of the BJP are hard to ignore, particularly given its strong position nationally, and its apparent keenness to gain entry to the rambunctious if forbidding politics of India’s southernmost State.

The implied political strategy of clinging on to power at any cost, which is what the Palaniswami-Panneerselvam combine seems to have adopted, is fraught with danger. It implies a careful balancing act between facing the challenges posed by sidelined AIADMK leader and Sasikala’s nephew, T.T.V. Dhinakaran, to the unity of the party, keeping the vested interests in New Delhi happy, and putting up at least a façade of good governance.

Failure on any of these fronts could quickly topple this government. While it may produce even more chaos in the immediate future, it may not necessarily be a bad long-run outcome, especially if it paves the way for elections to throw up a new political leadership that eschews the insidious habit of institutionalised plunder.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:20:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/embattled-path-to-stability/article20665650.ece

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