Tamil Nadu’s politics of Dravidianist mobilisation is at a historical crossroads, which is ironic given that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the social movement’s emergence as a supreme political force in the State. For the first time since 1967 there are questions about whether either of the leading parties of this movement, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), will continue into the 21st century in the role of a pre-eminent force dominating State politics.
The question of paramount importance now facing Tamil Nadu politics is this: will a charismatic leader emerge, of the calibre of former Chief Ministers Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK or M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, to restore governance centred on welfare schemes, or will national parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finally succeed in breaching the impregnable politics of this State?
Powerful leaders have always mattered in the firmament of Dravidian politics since the early phases of the movement that unseated the Congress party. At that time, resurgent Dravidianism envisioned by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai was purposefully fashioned as a policy of “assertive populism” feeding the sentiments of small-propertied groups among the middle castes of Tamil Nadu.
The momentum of Dravidianist mobilisation during those years, which derived strength from the campaigns against Brahminism, Hindi and the diktats of north Indian politics, was driven primarily by the personas of these charismatic leaders.
To the extent that the centralisation of leadership runs contrary to the principles of organisational equity and delegated political authority, both highly relevant in the diverse, stratified social landscape of Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK developed institutional weakness in terms of over-reliance on these leaders.
Nevertheless, the fact that these two regional parties did not cede ground in State politics to national parties, such as the Congress and the BJP, over the past five decades, demonstrates the political acumen and flexible approach of their leaders.
Specifically, these dominant personalities must be credited for bending, in the twilight decades of the 20th century, the very definition of the Dravidian philosophy that they had built their parties and political careers on, making the State’s agenda more inclusive of groups in Tamil society that had been, until then, excluded from their ethnic-based appeals.
However, the task facing the two Dravidian parties today does not end with the mission to fill the extant leadership vacuum, which has emerged since the death of Jayalalithaa and the retreat of Mr. Karunanidhi. It must include radical organisational reforms if they are to deliver stable governance to the people.
In the AIADMK, Jayalalithaa deliberately degraded the primary through tertiary leadership structures over decades and genuflection became the sole means of political survival. The implosion of the party in a bitter conflict between Jayalalithaa acolyte O. Panneerselvam and the current Chief Minister, Edappadi K. Palaniswami, is symptomatic of the malaise in its ranks.
The situation facing the DMK is no less serious. The party’s working president, M.K. Stalin, despite being the planned successor to Mr. Karunanidhi, has hardly been tested politically as his father was over multiple decades. He must also contend with his brother M.K. Alagiri’s popularity among party cadres in the southern districts, especially Madurai. Further, the extended branches of the first family of the DMK, including the Maran clan, could throw up challenges to Mr. Stalin’s ambition of State-wide pre-eminence.
Sustainable policy agenda
In terms of policy focus, the blunting of the radical edge of Dravidian politics by social accommodation-ism meant that the only vestige of the prior era that remained in vogue was the sharp policy focus on mass welfare schemes and the social sector more broadly.
Could this reliance — some would call it over-reliance — on pro-poor welfarism enable the parties of the Dravidian era to overcome the climate of deep political uncertainty? Distribution of largesse can help garner political legitimacy in the eyes of the voting populace, yet in a highly aspirational State such as Tamil Nadu, it will probably take more than “freebies” to emerge as a top performer, not to mention the risk that runaway public expenditure can endanger fiscal stability.