New dawn in Dravidian politics

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has emerged victorious in the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, a win that falls short of earlier projections of a landslide but one that can be considered a resounding vindication of its high-voltage Dravidian-values campaign. What do the tumultuous events of the past few months, culminating in the election results, mean for the State and its politics?

There are two broad issues to consider: first, what the DMK’s victory at the hustings means for governance in Tamil Nadu, a State that has prided itself for delivering at a high level on human development and mass welfare policies; and second, what the change of leadership wrought by this election tells us about recent tectonic shifts in Dravidian politics and its prognosis.


Quality of leadership

In handing a clear mandate for governance to the DMK, led by its President M.K. Stalin, the Tamil Nadu electorate has expressed its well-known preference for strong leadership. Leadership in this context extends beyond a single person, and rather connotes a leadership system. A leadership system includes not only external-facing attributes of the leader in question, such as their personal charisma and broad popularity in the eyes of supporters, but also social networks and power relationships within the party that bind the leader to the cadre, help maintain discipline, negotiate agreements between party bosses, plan resource allocation for policies, and propagate the values of the party or movement.

In these attributes, Mr. Stalin comes out ahead of outgoing Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Joint Coordinator, Edappadi K. Palaniswami. Mr. Stalin’s late father, five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Dravidian movement stalwart M. Karunanidhi, ensured that the DMK had an orderly succession planning process leading to Mr. Stalin inheriting the mantle of the party leadership after Karunanidhi’s passing. Even more, Karunanidhi’s clarity of message ensured that the party heavyweights neatly aligned themselves behind the anointed successor, seeing off all challenges including from Mr. Stalin’s estranged older brother M.K. Alagiri. The coalescence of political power within the DMK around a central vector has important consequences for governance. First, the absence of intra-party conflict will lead to smoother agenda setting and resource allocation to meet policy needs. Second, it is likely to lend strength to the party’s ideological chassis.

The AIADMK contrarily suffered the consequences of Jayalalithaa degrading multiple rungs of leadership beneath her, likely a strategy to consolidate her position as the perpetual head of the party. Consequently, it was not surprising to witness the factional infighting that characterised the early years of the outgoing government. Indeed, it is likely that despite surmounting these internal wobbles and providing several years of stable governance, Mr. Palaniswami faced a setback in the election owing to a lack of confidence of the electorate in his ability to hold his flock together over the longer term and resist pressure to enter into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its brand of Hindutva.


Mass welfare or rent-seeking?

Looking beyond leadership to the broad question of agenda setting that it implies, there is a deeper imperative for effective policy implementation in this State — the invisible hand of competitive populism. Ever since the dawn of “benevolent populism” under former Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), an irresistible commitment to policy competition in the realm of mass welfare schemes has become deeply entrenched in the ethos of successive Tamil Nadu governments.

Yet, there is little doubt that in this regard, strong leadership cuts two ways, and the history of governance in Tamil Nadu supplies the starkest illustration of this. In parallel to the redistribution of resources to lower castes and classes for the best part of half a century, the highest rungs of leadership built up an unassailable machine for illicit resource extraction for private gain. This institutionalised system of extortion and loot obscenely enriched the leadership and provided a reliable bonanza to party loyalists and external contractors lining up for kickbacks. While supporters of the DMK may thus rejoice at having put into power a leader they believe will deliver on party manifesto promises, there may be many in Tamil Nadu who wonder whether Mr. Stalin and his colleagues will break with this ignoble past and forge a new path toward accountable and transparent governance.


Inflection point

This brings us to the second broad question that bears consideration in the aftermath of the 2021 State Assembly election — whether the rare window of opportunity for fundamental change that opened up after the passing of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, to reimagine the long-term vision for Tamil Nadu, can be capitalised upon. The absence from the landscape of these two politically centralising leaders offered two new possibilities: first, of party organisations based on more democratic decision-making processes and focused on delivering good governance; and second, of Dravidianism transmuting into a new ethos to answer the challenge of homogenising ideologies such as Hindutva.

In the case of the DMK, decisions on allocation of party posts, election tickets, alliance formulas and resource allocation have over the decades become narrowly focused on the family of Karunanidhi. While “Kalaignar” himself came from a more everyman ethos and was, as a major leader of his party, integrated deeply into the values of Dravidianist mobilisation, the rise to prominence of his progeny and broader family including the Maran clan, led to a centralisation of control of all party matters in the hands of a few individuals. Now that the party is back in power, will Mr. Stalin be able to restrain the “first family” of the DMK from self-defeating overreach?

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The AIADMK occupies the opposite end of the spectrum in this regard — it has historically been ruled by autocratic leaders such as MGR and Jayalalithaa, yet, under Mr. Palaniswami, it appeared to pivot to a relatively more diffused balance of power internally. Indeed, Mr. Palaniswami had no choice but to focus on delivering good governance as he lacked the political heft to hold on to the top job in the State by any other means. The vital question for Tamil Nadu now is whether his approach created sufficient competitive pressure to keep the DMK on the straight and narrow and not once again get enmeshed in allegations of land-grabbing or other actions associated with kleptocracy.


Reinventing an ideology

On the subject of political ideology, Dravidianism has already gone through a dramatic transformation over decades from the early days of “assertive populism” under Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, C.N. Annadurai and Karunanidhi — a phase during which anti-Brahminism, anti-Hindi and anti-North Indian politics were the locus of mass mobilisation. Today, it is far more accommodationist in its leaning and eschews caste antagonisms in favour of pressing claims of state autonomy toward realising the goal of Tamil exceptionalism within a variegated Indian cultural milieu.

Many assumed that the growing footprint of Hindutva politics across the nation would be the greatest challenge to the hegemonic influence of Dravidianism. Indeed, the BJP has re-entered the State Assembly this time after being absent there for 20 years. Yet, if there is one lesson from the 2021 State Assembly election, it is that the imperviousness of Tamil Nadu to Hindutva speaks less to the aversion of its people to religious politics than it does to the fact that, for a majority of them, the sheer adaptability of the Dravidian ethos makes it a more comfortable, less alien vehicle to transport them to a promising future.


In that sense, it would be reasonable to expect Dravidian ideology to continue its transformational journey over the coming five years under DMK rule to further shed whatever remains of its anti-religiosity edge and thereby win over even more caste Hindus to its fold.

Simultaneously, if Mr. Stalin is astute enough to recognise what his mandate to govern truly encompasses — the people’s hope that he will keep the State on the path of broad-based economic growth, sustained industrial development, and a continued commitment to pro-poor policies — he will expeditiously ring-fence the economy from predatory rent-seeking behaviour by political elites.


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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 4:49:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/new-dawn-in-dravidian-politics/article34492963.ece

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