After the storm, an eerie calm in Tamil politics

“The people of Tamil Nadu do not simply expect mass welfare goods; they also need industries, jobs and economic growth.” A house in Madurapakkam village in Vikravandi block, Villupuram district.>T. Singaravelo

“The people of Tamil Nadu do not simply expect mass welfare goods; they also need industries, jobs and economic growth.” A house in Madurapakkam village in Vikravandi block, Villupuram district.>T. Singaravelo  

The rambunctious rivalry between the DMK and the AIADMK is no longer visible

The choice of the scenic Mamallapuram Shore Temple as the backdrop for the summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping begs a related question: why, other than logistical reasons, did the mandarins in New Delhi pick this State for the meeting, one whose electorate is considered hostile to the BJP, as evinced by the 2019 general election results?

That decision might have come on the back of what is ostensibly an unusual development in Tamil Nadu politics since the election: the eerie calm that has enveloped the normally rambunctious rivalry between the DMK and the AIADMK. There are at least two reasons why the absence of political fireworks between the two major Dravidian parties is puzzling: first, in the general election, the DMK, a party that is not a member of the ruling NDA alliance at the Centre, won 24 out of the 38 parliamentary seats, while the AIADMK managed to garner only one seat. Second, both parties survived a period of unprecedented leadership churn between late 2016 and early 2019.

The unspoken question about this scenario is how long the lull will last before the fiercely competitive politics of Tamil Nadu once again asserts itself. Is the calmness simply because the DMK thinks that there would be an unpalatable backlash if it went on the offensive against the failings of the AIADMK government? Or is it because both parties are busy with matters of governance and administration? Either way, there is merit in looking into the underlying factors.

Prior turbulence

It is appropriate to begin by recounting the reasons for the prior episode of turbulence within the AIADMK and DMK — the demise of AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa in December 2016, and then the passing of the ailing DMK president, M. Karunanidhi, in August 2018, even as the 2019 election campaign was kicking off. During those two years, it was the AIADMK that underwent substantive transformation, a direct consequence of Jayalalithaa’s grip on the reins of the party, and her deliberate stunting of any prospective leadership candidates over decades. Unsurprisingly, her passing set off infighting between the new factions that stepped up to claim the seat she had vacated. First, former Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam rebelled against the core of the party which was initially controlled by the V.K. Sasikala clan, only to return to the fold alongside current Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami after Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s erstwhile confidant, was jailed in the disproportionate assets case. Next Sasikala’s nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran led a gang of rebel MLAs into a separate party, the AMMK.

On the other hand, the DMK faced only a few moments of uncertainty after Karunanidhi’s demise, because unlike the AIADMK, it had a definitive succession plan in place that saw M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son, inherit the party leadership mantle. His immediate challenge came from his older brother M.K. Alagiri, a strongman from the southern districts with a reputation for strongarm tactics, but that was seen off after the party faithful threw in their lot with the former Chennai Mayor. Now that Mr. Stalin has delivered a resounding pan-State election victory, he has cemented his leadership credentials and shaken off the charge of being an untested political entity. There will always be comparisons to his father’s remarkable five terms as Chief Minister and masterful oratory, but Mr. Stalin might yet step into those large shoes given the DMK’s impressive turn at the hustings this year.

That brings us to the critical question of mandate. While it is true that the DMK swept the Lok Sabha polls, the AIADMK defied expectations and held on to 9 out of 22 seats being contested in the 2019 Vidhan Sabha by-election, thus ensuring its survival in Chennai despite many MLA resignations favouring Mr. Dhinakaran’s AMMK. The optimistic view of this development is that despite the political challenges that Mr. Palaniswami faced in the prior year, he consolidated his grip on the party organisation and cadre to a degree that made a success out of campaign mobilisation. A cynical assessment would be that the AIADMK lost 12 Assembly seats to the DMK, and this might be a sign of things to come, unless there is a major push with good governance.

Scourge of corruption

If at all there was a silver lining of the leadership vacuum that emerged after the titans of Dravidian politics passed on, it was that this might have been an inflection point moving the political culture of Tamil Nadu away from its habitual tendency towards widespread corruption. Reeling under political extortion for decades, numerous industries have fled to the relatively more efficient regulatory climates of other States. Could Mr. Palaniswami dream up a political vision that is grand enough to overturn this dark scourge? Or will it be business as usual?

While the answer to these questions would determine the survivability of his government in terms of what his electorate might want, the AIADMK could carry on for some time in its present form if it continues to build bridges with the BJP, as it has done so effectively in recent times. Mr. Palaniswami might have calculated that even though his party might be short on organisational capability and popularity with voters, especially with the ‘Amma’ factor being absent, the sheer money and muscle that the deep-pocketed Hindutva party could bring to their partnership could make up for such lacunae.

Battle of ideas

The gain for the BJP is obvious: Tamil Nadu is a State where the saffron party lacks resonance with the broader populace and faces dim prospects for making inroads through its traditional campaign machinery. However, Mr. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah will have to ask themselves whether their strategy of riding on the AIADMK’s coattails will deliver success if Mr. Palaniswami cannot convince voters that he continues to stand for the Dravidianist ideals of Tamil exceptionalism. This might be challenging given that there remains an unsettling question about how a Dravidian philosophy-based party could align itself — as indeed Jayalalithaa did in 1998 and 2004, when political expediency trumped ideological coherence — with a Hindutva-rooted, north India-based, upper caste-favouring political entity.

At the end of the day, the people of Tamil Nadu do not simply expect, as they did in the past, the distribution of mass welfare goods to secure basic living standards of the poor. They also need industries, jobs and robust economic growth, which in turn depends on accountable, predictable regulation. Will either major party in Tamil Nadu’s polity return the State to the enlightened ideal of maximum economic opportunities and welfare for the poorer sections, which their party forebears so unstintingly fought for?

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 2:23:25 AM |

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