The AIADMK and DMK are unlikely to crumble into disarray overnight, or over a few election cycles, as Tamil parties and the masses have a connection rooted in more than half a century of identity politics
It has been widely observed that the passing of Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, on December 5, has left a power vacuum in the State’s politics. M. Karunanidhi, 92, head of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), who was discharged from hospital a few days back, may not be as active in politics going forward as he has been in the decades past.
Thus there is a perception that this political low-pressure zone brings with it the concomitant risk of fractures emerging in the polity, which could either destabilise prospects for sustained economic progress, or emerge as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for national parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party or Congress to expediently reassert themselves as political forces to reckon with.
Both outcomes are unlikely, and history explains why this is so. Consider first the immediate challenges faced by the two main rivals in the State.
Path ahead for the rivals
For Jayalalithaa’s party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), it is critical to hammer out a consensus solution acceptable to the two major caste factions within it, the Thevars and the Gounders.
V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s friend and confidant of over three decades, commands a greater degree of acceptability among party cadres as the heir to the crown. In fact far more so than Jayalalithaa herself did when, in the immediate aftermath of the death of her mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, in 1987, she was subject to physical attacks and political brickbats from factions supporting Janaki, his wife.
So long as Ms. Sasikala, a leader from the dominant Thevar community, gets her maths right and is able to co-opt Gounder bosses of the AIADMK into a few plum Cabinet positions, she can prevent the occurrence that many fear – defections leading to a full-fledged break up of the party that would be a precursor to new political plays by the BJP seeking to enter the State in force.
If Ms. Sasikala manoeuvres deftly in this manner over the coming days and weeks, she may well be able to secure half a decade in power for herself, during which time, with O. Panneerselvam as the nominal head of the government, she would be able to rely on the well-worn channels of patronage distribution to consolidate State-wide control of political institutions.
Turning to the DMK, a succession plan is already in place in the shape of M.K. Stalin, though it remains to be seen whether he will prove to be as capable as his father was, at a State level, of meticulous organisational strategising and enforcing discipline amongst party cadres.
These immediate considerations for the two major parties of the State will determine the shape of the political machine governing Tamil Nadu in the years to come.
Surviving the flux
Yet there are reasons to believe that the distinct socio-political identification of Tamil society and the even more distinct pro-poor policy agenda of successive State regimes will ensure that established parties of Tamil Nadu today will survive the current state of flux and continue to play a dominant political role in the years ahead.
That Tamil Nadu was always a State with a mind of its own is well known, even since the 1930s when the Dravidian movement struck an early blow for greater socio-political autonomy for the Tamil people.
Notwithstanding the sheer might of constitutional federalism in independent India, Tamil leaders since the time of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai have brandished with great effectiveness the notion of an ethno-linguistic Tamil identity that was at odds with the broader Indian identity associated with Brahminism and Hindi.
Although the early calls for secession from the Union ultimately withered in the face of Delhi’s diplomacy blended with the threat potential of the Indian armed forces, the protests against the imposition of Hindi as an official language and as the language of school textbooks found echoes in every corner of the State.
As I argued in the book Patrons of the Poor: Caste Politics and Policymaking in India, this “partial revolution” in the State stemmed from a strong sense of Tamil identity held as a collective belief, which in turn was a historical peculiarity that was a function of Tamil society in some ways being homogenous and the fact that the main “oppressor” since pre-colonial times were Brahmins, a numerical minority in the State.
A few facts are important to note about the power of the Dravidian movement here, and the limitations of its transformational potential.
First, as Professors Narendra Subramanian and John Harriss have argued, it ultimately remained a partial revolution because radical anti-Brahminism gave way to more accommodating populist regimes that nevertheless retained strong incentives to redistribute resources toward poorer groups.
Second, the homogeneity in Tamil society went hand in hand with a fractured pattern of caste dominance, where the sheer number of castes and sub-castes did not lend itself easily to dominance by a few, say in the manner that the Vokkaligas and Lingayat castes dominated the State government in Karnataka for decades.
Third, fragmented caste dominance made it inevitable, in the 1967 election, that the DMK would rout the elites-driven political mechanisms of the Congress by using a strategy of populist mobilisation that also drew heavily upon emotive appeals relating to that sense of Tamil identity.
Finally, the very same resource redistribution patterns and populist mobilisation strategies that so many notable Dravidian movement leaders relied on ever since 1967 have come to be deeply embedded in mechanisms of state power in Tamil Nadu today.
It is in this context that we must view the State blazing a pioneering path on mass welfare policies such as the mid-day meal scheme, innovative pedagogies for primary education, and so many more.
Thus Tamil Nadu today presents a complex relationship, which intertwines a balance of power expressed through caste, populist mobilisation based on Tamil identity, and a penchant for welfarism in policymaking.
This makes it unlikely that the AIADMK and DMK will crumble into disarray overnight, or indeed over a few election cycles. Conversely those who predict that national parties such as the BJP or Congress will quickly gain an unassailable foothold in the State despite their contrasting identity as parties of the North, and parties that depend on elite castes for their power, may be disappointed.
Whatever the criticisms about their fiscal profligacy or their tendency to throw up leaders who govern based on centralised power of an opaque nature, Tamil parties and the Tamil masses have a connection rooted in more than half a century of identity politics that will endure the vicissitudes of leadership crises of the sort that we are witnessing presently.