The outcome of the recent Assembly election in Tamil Nadu has reaffirmed the record of the state in resisting Hindu majoritarianism. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led Secular Progressive Alliance won a comfortable majority of 159 out of 234 seats, and the DMK chief M.K. Stalin took oath as Chief Minister on 7 May. The DMK’s campaign revolved around socio-economic mobility and self-respect, social justice, and the shrinking of constitutionally mandated state autonomy.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK) defeat, however, was not disgraceful. Winning 66 seats, the party demonstrated that it still commands considerable influence. Despite speculations rife that the DMK would not perform well under Stalin’s leadership and that the AIADMK might disintegrate under E. Palanisamy, the Dravidian parties have demonstrated their resilience.
The 2021 results emphatically show that the DMK and AIADMK continue to be the power centers in the state and other smaller parties have to negotiate with them to convert their votes into seats.
While the DMK was expected to return to power in the 2016 Assembly election, the AIADMK under J. Jayalalithaa staged a surprise victory. After her demise in 2016 and M. Karunanidhi’s death in 2018, the contest was between Palanisamy and Stalin. Palanisamy did not have the charisma of his leader, but he is a good manager and handled the crisis within the AIADMK after he took over. Stalin, though not a great orator like his father, has been an activist and organiser in his own right with over 50 years of political participation. He was arrested during the Emergency for his activism. His tenure as the mayor of Chennai from 1996-2002 was when schemes that greatly improved the urban infrastructure were introduced.
The 2021 election was crucial for Stalin, the DMK—and Tamil Nadu. After the imposition of NEET, the state’s high-handed response to protesters in the Jallikattu and Sterlite issues, and the growing overtures of the AIADMK to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the general feeling in the public was that hard-won state autonomy was being compromised by those in power. The manifesto and vision document of the DMK emphasised constitutional federalism, inclusive public education, a focus on learning outcomes, ecologically sensitive growth, and a universal social safety net. Its catchy campaign slogan centered around vidiyal, which means dawn.
After coming to power, Stalin’s first moves were to provide free bus transport for women and transpersons, reduction of milk prices, a COVID-19 cash relief of Rs. 4,000 to all ration cardholders, and free Covid treatment at private hospitals for all with state government insurance cards. To his party cadres, he promised “all things for all”, in keeping with the spirit of the universal social welfare policies that are part and parcel of the Dravidian Model.
The DMK alliance had twelve parties including progressive Tamil nationalist, communist, Dalit and Muslim parties, and aimed at political and social pluralism. The DMK was also fair to its allies. The Congress got 25 seats, while parties like the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), Communist Party of India (CPI), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) got six seats each. The CPM, CPI, VCK and MDMK were part of the ill-fated “Third Front” alliance in the 2016 election, where they stood against both the DMK and the AIADMK and failed to win a single seat. This time, the Congress won 18 seats, the communist parties won two seats each, while the VCK and MDMK won four each.
The success of such progressive alliances at the local levels is a lesson to be replicated at a pan-Indian level.
Issues of Communalism and Caste
The BJP’s performance tells us that the party has made some inroads, thanks to the AIADMK’s support. The BJP has won four out of the 20 seats it contested, but its overall vote-share is insignificant. To make itself relevant in Tamil Nadu, the BJP has attempted to hide its Hindi identity and tried to promote itself as a defender of Tamil cultural interests. Despite attempts to recruit supporters from subaltern castes, the party’s political programme remains exclusionary and against the ideals of social justice. Owing to this, it remains a marginal player in Tamil Nadu where the Dravidian pluralist ethos is prevalent.
The case of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Vanniyar population exposes the misconceptions about caste voting. In an attempt to secure the votes of Vanniyars, a most backward caste (MBC) group who constitute around 12% of the Tamil population, the AIADMK passed a bill that had provided the Vanniyars with a 10.5% internal reservation within the 20% MBC quota. Its alliance partner, the PMK, dubiously claims to be the sole representative of the Vanniyars and has also been implicated in caste violence.
The PMK has not crossed the 5-6% mark in the last three electoral outings. In the 2016 elections, it failed to win a single seat. Despite its attempts at polarisation and being part of the AIADMK-BJP alliance, the PMK was unable to cross the 4% vote share. It has managed to secure just five of the 23 seats it contested in 2021. This underscores the limits of mobilisation rooted in caste pride and antagonism in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK alliance had made considerable inroads in South Tamil Nadu, and to a lesser extent, in West Tamil Nadu in terms of seats. Both regions are considered AIADMK strongholds. Historically, the Congress has also held considerable influence in these regions. The party won 18 seats, significantly increasing its tally (eight) from 2016. Nine of these are in the southern region and the others scattered across the state. This outcome highlights the concerted efforts of coalition partners on the field and people’s support for broad-based secular alliances.
A Future Challenger
Stalin’s responses to wishes from India’s political leaders foregrounded ideas such as secularism, federalism and social justice. Likewise, in a throwback to DMK founder C.N. Annadurai, he identified himself as from a “Dravidian stock”. The Dravidian imagination is not racialist, but a composite socio-political construct that champions the abovementioned ideas. Stalin was, however, trolled by those who question the Dravidian narrative and advocating a revanchist Tamil politics.
A serious political and ideological challenge for Dravidian politics in the future comes from a reductive and extreme variant of Tamil nationalism, proffered, for example, by Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK). The NTK is the insurgent force in the state.
The NTK campaigned aggressively in the 2021 election, against Dravidian politics in general and the DMK in particular. While it did not win any seats, its vote-share increased from 1.1% in 2016 to 6.5%, getting an average of 13,000 votes per constituency. The average voter of the NTK is the dissatisfied youth segment who feel alienated with the politics of modernity and seek succour in an imagined Tamil militancy.
Seeman, arguably one of the most powerful orators in Tamil Nadu, has openly conveyed his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. While the DMK imagines the “Dravidian-Tamil” as an inclusive identity, Seeman’s idea of “Tamilness” is racialist in nature. The NTK is also trying to woo sections of Tamil OBCs and SCs with promises of an atavistic pride. Cadres of smaller parties that have been at odds with the Dravidian-Tamil narrative also find the NTK as an attractive option. Likewise, if the AIADMK fragments, the NTK’s politics are likely to gain.
With fiery rhetoric, the NTK seeks to build a new consensus among what it identifies as “pure Tamil castes”, pitching them against Dravidianism which is portrayed as an alien and corrupting ideology. While Seeman has lost quite a few influential second-rung leaders since the inception of the NTK, he has managed to cultivate a cult-like attraction for himself, with flamboyant tales of bravado. The increased attraction of sections of youth to this trend is worrying.
On the contrary, from its inception, the Dravidian mobilisation has tried to rein in any form of linguistic or caste chauvinism and hatred in the state, with mixed outcomes. NTK’s advances may not win them immediate victories, but its long-term plan as such is to change the existing political narratives in the state. In other words, the base of the DMK is largely intact, yet it cannot be complacent in victory and will need to devise strategies to enlarge and expand its constituency.
More proactive dissemination of the Dravidian ethos among the youth, and critical discussions on the achievements, shortcomings and possibilities of Dravidian politics, will benefit pluralist political praxis in Tamil Nadu. The government should also consider greater investment in quality social science research in public institutes and universities in Tamil Nadu.
Karthick Ram Manoharan is a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow working on the political thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy at the University of Wolverhampton. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.