Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Prospects for Dravidian renewal – The Hindu

‘The old world of Dravidian politics going toe-to-toe in an escalating competition to provide the State with welfare goods has faded into the haze of the new India and its altered ground realities’

‘The old world of Dravidian politics going toe-to-toe in an escalating competition to provide the State with welfare goods has faded into the haze of the new India and its altered ground realities’
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Madras High Court effectively gave former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Edappadi K. Palaniswami a shot in the arm when it saw off, this week, an interim challenge to his control of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) issued by former Deputy Chief Minister and party coordinator O. Panneerselvam. In February, the Supreme Court of India ruled that Mr. Palaniswami would continue as the head of the AIADMK and that Mr. Panneerselvam would have to abide by the decisions made during the party’s General Council meeting on July 11, 2022. It is quite likely that these rulings might turn out to be far-reaching decisions impacting the long arc of State politics.

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The reason is obvious: ever since the death of former AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa, in December 2016, the party has been riven by factional infighting, the surest indicator that her autocratic style of governance failed to nurture green shoots of leadership to take over the mantle after her time. The impact of the Court’s decision will be considerable because after more than six years of squabbling to capture power from the social base of the AIADMK — which also included V.K. Sasikala and her nephew T.T.V. Dhinakaran — the victor, Mr. Palaniswami, now has a clear mandate to take the party forward into the next election with a firm grip on its ‘two leaves’ election symbol, the support of an overwhelming majority of General Council members, and the end of Mr. Panneerselvam’s challenge for control of the party following his ejection from the AIADMK.

Back to the future

Given the recent rulings, is Tamil Nadu set to return to its old model of two-party competition between the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)? The fact is that that old world of nearly half a century of Jayalalithaa and former DMK chief, the late M. Karunanidhi, going toe-to-toe in an escalating competition to provide the population of the State with welfare goods has faded into the haze of the new India and its altered ground realities.

Several such realities are significant in this context. First, neither polarity of the Dravidian movement has a leader that is beyond political challenge. Consider the ruling DMK, headed by M.K. Stalin, son of Karunanidhi. While it is true that he was elected President of his party unopposed, and any potential challenge from his brother M.K. Alagiri was swiftly seen off by the party cadres who coalesced behind their leader, the difference in context between Mr. Stalin and Karunanidhi matters considerably. As a five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi is a legendary figure within the pantheon of the Dravidian movement, scripting not only the many movie screenplays and poems that he was famous for but also the political pathways chosen by the DMK, whether it was to make fierce opposition to Hindi imposition in Tamil Nadu a vector of mass mobilisation, or to act upon the imperative of expediency and align with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre during 1999-2004.

For Mr. Stalin, there is an unspoken pressure that rests upon his shoulders, and it stems from the fact that performance in office and the delivery of good governance through policies impacting the citizenry’s daily lives, matter more than ever before. This could explain why his government, on the balance of policy priorities, has kept economic growth, investor confidence, urban infrastructure, climate change, and other such areas of day-to-day interest to the common Tamil man and woman in the foreground, while periodically reminding voters that on State autonomy concerns, including the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and Hindi imposition, the DMK would hold firm to the values enunciated by its forebears during the heyday of the Dravidian movement.

Regarding the AIADMK, there is no less pressure upon Mr. Palaniswami to redefine himself as an able administrator of his party in the aftermath of several years of internecine squabbling within the party. He certainly delivered upon the mandate to perform superlatively for the people of Tamil Nadu in the realm of public policy when he held the Chief Ministerial throne for more than four years — and that he could do so while awaiting the resolution of deleterious intra-party wrangling speaks to the clarity of his purpose and political vision, and perhaps also to the negotiation skills that he would surely have needed to forge compromises between AIADMK bosses from different regions and representing variegated social groups. Yet, for Mr. Palaniswami too, the same paradigm shift in voter demands and public discourse, which has led to expectations that the Stalin government will deliver economic prosperity and social justice, will shape what he can and must do as leader of the Opposition in the State, and then as a campaigner in the 2024 Lok Sabha election and the 2026 State Assembly elections.

Saffron’s southern spread

Nevertheless, the greatest challenge to both major parties has come from beyond the safe shores of the Dravidian movement, in the form of the steady but rapid rise of Hindutva politics across the country. In this context it is important to not overstate the impact that the BJP has had in Tamil Nadu. Yes, having four seats in the State Assembly is better than having no seats at all, as was the case for the BJP until the 2021 elections, but more important than the number of seats are voter attitudes towards the core values enshrined in the Hindutva ethos, and the history of their clash with the Dravidianist worldview.

On the essential question of religion in politics or religiosity as a way of life, few would deny the great distance between the BJP and the DMK. The same is true of caste composition in a historical context — the BJP’s control of government in the Centre and the States is quintessentially the perpetuation of upper caste power in many cases.

Culturally, the BJP’s policies point towards an aggressive, pan-India, homogenising intent based on specific Hindutva idioms, and these include the domination of Hindi over regional languages and English, the subordinate social position of women and some minorities, and jingoistic nationalism that is, in its idealised format, hostile towards other cultures.

Yet, the DMK and the AIADMK were built on the notion of social justice from the earliest days of the Dravidian movement under Periyar E. V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai, a concept that to a great extent focused on improving the social status and rights of women. Dravidianist political mobilisation by its very definition sought to forge a social rainbow coalition of a breathtakingly broad range of middle and lower castes, a strategy that has kept either the DMK or AIADMK in power for the past 56 years.

Similarly, both Dravidian parties have historically excelled at using the power of the Tamil language to mobilise voters and bring them into the fold – including not only the language campaigns during the DMK’s radical phases of anti-Brahminism in the 1960s but also former AIADMK head M.G. Ramachandran’s ingenious use of Tamil cinema to foster an image of himself as a paternalistic hero-saviour of the ordinary Tamilian.

In a sense, the lines between the Dravidian parties and the BJP have been drawn ever more clearly now than they were during the preceding five years, especially with what appears to be frictions between the unified AIADMK and the BJP. Which way the politics of the State swings in the coming decades has never depended more on the core beliefs of its electorate.

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#Prospects #Dravidian #renewal #Hindu

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