The State has blazed the trail for progressive, inclusive politics in India. As both ‘Dravidian’ and national parties seek fresh relevance here, they need to be true to this ethos
Chennai, 9 December 2016. Even as Jayalalithaa lay in state at Rajaji Hall, media discussions and the public discourse were full of speculation about her successor, the fate of the AIADMK, and generally the future of so-called Dravidian parties and politics.
The very public references to the age and health of DMK patriarch Karunanidhi, although insensitive and premature, were perhaps inevitable.
The stark reality is that today politics in Tamil Nadu is suddenly in a state of flux, and it is impossible to accurately predict the future political configuration of the State, and the consequent effect upon national politics.
A long history
The Tamil Nadu political scene has always been dynamic, and ideas and leaders from the State have been pioneers in social inclusion, gender equality and inclusive democracy, in a manner unmatched in India’s political history.
Rajaji was our first Indian Governor General, and several stalwarts from Tamil Nadu contributed to the drafting of the Constitution. K Kamaraj became president of the Indian National Congress, and the maker of Prime Ministers.
As Chief Minister, he introduced the midday meal scheme to keep children in school, which was later expanded by M G Ramachandran, and is now implemented all over the country, and is the reason why eight out of 10 Tamilians are literate.
Without doubt therefore, Tamil Nadu, both during the Congress years and subsequently under the two “Dravidian” parties, has grown and flourished, and is certainly not some aberration from the national mainstream, because of its distinctive brand of passionate identity politics.
Whatever initial separatist ideas may have been articulated by some, decades ago, were quickly set aside by all parties to pursue a distinctive type of issue and identity politics, that yielded the “Dravidian” parties rich dividends.
My grandfather Bhakthavatsalam, as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, stood firm on the Congress policy of a three-language formula, namely Tamil, Hindi and English, for the State. The DMK fiercely fought the anti-Hindi agitation, and swept him and the Congress out of power in 1967 on the issue of linguistic pride.
Today, although there is considerable pride in the glory of the Tamil language, the people of the State have quietly moved on to education in whatever language has the best prospects for jobs and growth.
There is still pride, and identification with and love for the language, but there is also a quiet merging with the practical need of the hour. This, then, is the quintessential Tamil spirit.
The fact of a fluid political situation in Tamil Nadu, consequent on the demise of Jayalalithaa, is indubitable. It is an important State, very integral to the national mainstream, with its 39 MPs often deciding which party will rule Delhi.
The two main regional parties, DMK and AIADMK, have alternately ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967, with no national party having been able to gain the traction to form a government in the State.
Against this background, it would be simplistic in the extreme to argue that cult-driven (with Jayalalithaa or Karunanidhi) or identity politics alone allowed these two parties to hold Tamil Nadu in their thrall for nearly 50 years.
The reasons are far more complex, not the least being impressive growth of the State under the Congress and successive DMK, AIADMK governments, and more particularly the successful appeal of the regional parties to linguistic pride, vital issues such as Cauvery waters, Sri Lankan Tamils, etc.
Pan-Indian parties are bound by obvious constraints. Having been an active member of the Congress for over 35 years, until my resignation in 2014, I have experienced these constraints with acute discomfort.
There are all too often situations where the national leadership of the party has to take a neutral stand on critical issues, which resonates negatively with the people of the State, for example, on the Cauvery water dispute with Karnataka.
Tamil Nadu MPs were often at their wit’s end to explain the stand of the Karnataka Congress or the national leadership to the suffering farmers of Tamil Nadu. The anti-Hindi, linguistic pride issue is another example.
Regional parties, on the other hand, are much closer to the people of the State on these issues. They are able to connect with them aggressively and raise these issues at the national level, and take extreme stands, all of which makes for compelling political gain.
No Congress Chief Minister could have possibly fasted on the sands of Marina Beach, as Jayalalithaa once did, to demand setting up of a Cauvery tribunal.
Around the world, the powerful political trend of electorates looking inwards, and closing ranks, is best exemplified by the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. The appeal to close ranks, and exclude, is very potent, and needs to be seriously addressed.
As a nation, it is vital for us to integrate, particularly at a time when the economy is set to be united by a common tax system.
It is equally important for all States to continue to be part of national integration, while contemporaneously articulating their legitimate rights in a spirit of cooperative federalism.
Opportunity for national parties
National parties will now see huge possibilities to expand their presence in Tamil Nadu. But the appeal of the regional parties, with their strong organisational and cadre base, is still enormous.
Both the two leaves and the rising sun symbols (of the AIADMK and DMK, respectively) are very potent, synonymous with emotion as well as development.
The challenge for the regional parties is to bring order out of seeming confusion. For the AIADMK, it is to stay united and give good governance for the balance of its term, to either establish a credible collective leadership or find a leader who can begin to fill the void left by Jayalalithaa.
The DMK, while being a strong opposition and a cadre-driven party, has its own challenges to overcome.
National parties need to first project their commitment and interest in the welfare of the State by clearly articulating their vision for Tamil Nadu, and while doing so manage the contradictions of pan-Indian policy-making with local imperatives.
They next have to involve their State units in decision-making and project loyal and committed local leaders of promise who would be acceptable to their cadres and the people.
Till now, the democratic and egalitarian achievements of Tamil Nadu’s polity have been impressive. For the future, its electorate will expect transformational growth improving upon the past, with benefits of this growth extending to every community, particularly Dalits who are 21 per cent of the population.
In order to find greater space in Tamil Nadu, national parties will have to work carefully upon their social engineering strategy, while regional parties will have to reconsider and tweak their own. Caste and social engineering play a seminal role in Tamil Nadu politics.
It is also a State where intense religiosity has coexisted with atheism for decades. Religious places are filled with worshippers, and whether religion will now impact politics remains to be seen.
Ultimately, along with these considerations, political parties which hope to remain relevant will have to work on an inclusive development vision to carry forward Tamil Nadu’s impressive track record. The field is wide open.
Jayanthi Natarajan is a former Union Minister, and a political activist