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Dravidian Politics, Regional Autonomy and the Idea of India

The lines Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi omitted from his speech reflect the tug-of-war between the Centre and States. It is no less than a battle for the soul of India.
M.K. Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan at the CPI(M)'s congress. Photo: Twitter/@mkstalin

M.K. Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan at the 23rd CPI(M) party congress. Image Courtesy: Twitter/@pinarayivijayan

The current Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government has been systematically undermining the rights and autonomy of State governments by appropriating their policy space. Its objective—assimilating differences—is perfectly consistent with the Hindu nationalist world-view, which asserts that “Bharat” is one family where there is no place for differences. One only has to look at the rapidly proliferating homogenous designs the central government has been seeking to impose on a deeply heterogeneous nation. ‘One nation, one market’, ‘one nation, one language’, ‘one nation, one election’, ‘one nation, one ration card’, ‘one nation, one exam’, ‘one nation, one fertiliser’ (not to mention one nation, one leader) reflect its relentlessly centralising instinct.

However, discontent simmering due to the imposition of monolithic, uniform designs has not gone unexpressed. The nationwide farmer protests against the three farm laws Parliament passed in 2020-21, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increasing frequency of political representatives from States governed by regional parties registering their discord on public fora are powerful expressions of the dynamism of Indian federalism.

In July 2022, in an attempt to discredit the dissenting voices from these States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi labelled their welfare programmes as ‘revadi’ or freebies that could lead the country down a dangerous path. A few days later, Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar advised State governments about the purported virtues of ‘fiscal prudence’ in light of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Tamil Nadu Governor RN Ravi’s recent act of omission during the customary inaugural address by the governor in the State Assembly is best understood as a natural progression of the concerted curtailment of regional autonomy. The government of Tamil Nadu prepared the text of his address, which his office approved. However, while reading it in the Assembly on 9 January, he skipped over certain portions, transgressing convention. Strikingly, he wholly omitted point number sixty-five, which listed the ideals—social justice, self-respect, inclusive growth, equality, women’s empowerment, secularism and compassion towards all citizens—that guide the ‘Dravidian model’ of governance in Tamil Nadu. It meant that the names of radical thinkers and prominent leaders such as Periyar, BR Ambedkar, K Kamaraj, Annadurai and M Karunanidhi went unread, justifiably causing disquiet within and outside the Assembly. The Governor also staged a walkout after Chief Minister MK Stalin moved a resolution for the prepared written text, as opposed to the Governor’s actual address, to be recorded in the Assembly proceedings.

Viewed with some of Ravi’s recent statements that extolled Sanatan Dharma and insinuated that Dravidian politics is “regressive”, his strategic omissions are indicative of an attempt to delegitimise a politics that has delivered creditable development outcomes for over half a century. The implications of his actions, which also convey a perceptible ideological slant, need to be analysed by situating them within the framework of Indian federalism. As the constitutional head of a State, governors are supposed to act impartially, but there have been instances where they have functioned as agents of the Union government in New Delhi, irrespective of the party in government. And, not just members of the incumbent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government, the allegation that the present Governor belongs to the latter category has emerged from the Tamil public sphere as well. Spot public surveys by TV and digital media outlets and the #GoBackRavi hashtag that trended on social media platforms provide evidence of this sentiment.

Scholars who have carefully studied India’s polity share an understanding that India’s federal structure with an empowered Centre was designed to accommodate the demands likely to emerge in a multi-ethnic society. Throughout the 1950s, the postcolonial state at the Centre fashioned itself as chief manager of India’s subnational diversity with the objective of fostering and maintaining national unity. In fact, it attempted to make this diversity look natural and seamless by consciously adopting national symbols that served this purpose and by reconciling to the idea of linguistic regional States. However, the demand for and assertion of autonomy in matters of governance coming from the States has unfailingly caused considerable consternation for the Union government.

The tendency to view the States as deviants undermining the sovereignty of the nation-state manifested in many ways in the seventy-three years since India became a constitutional republic. Let us consider an example involving the DMK itself. In January 1961, the incumbent Congress party constituted a National Integration Committee in its Bhavnagar session. In his book, Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the Constitution of India, advocate Abhinav Chandrachud writes that the committee made only one recommendation, that “Article 19 be amended to prevent Indian citizens from demanding secession. The DMK was kept out of these proceedings, and was not consulted by the committee”.

Arguably, this recommendation stemmed from the fear that political parties such as the DMK in the Madras State (now Tamil Nadu) might set a trend by contesting elections on a secessionist platform. It must be clarified that even though the DMK’s articulation of the right to self-determination of the Dravidian peoples contained secessionist overtones, at its core, it was about greater regional autonomy.

That said, the ability of regional States to exercise their autonomy has been circumscribed by the asymmetric nature of the shared sovereignty between the Union and State governments. It is reflected in the demarcation of the jurisdictions over which they can exercise their respective legislative authority and the resource-raising powers assigned to them outlined in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Even subjects that fall squarely within the purview of States can be controlled by the Union if Parliament considers them in the interest of the public. Moreover, while the Union has fewer responsibilities, it has disproportionately more powers and instruments to raise revenue. The democratically-elected State governments are in the unenviable position of having to perform a wide variety of functions as they are proximate to the people but with a relatively narrow revenue base for mobilising the required financial resources. India adopted such a centralised federal framework to achieve territorial integrity, inclusive growth and development, and socio-cultural unity through fostering welfare delivery and a common civic identity.

It is within such a constraining constitutional arrangement and realpolitik of federalism that successive governments in Tamil Nadu managed to bring about remarkable transformations in society and the economy. These achievements have been documented and critically evaluated by the development economists A Kalaiyarasan and M Vijayabaskar in The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu. Limitations and concomitant criticisms notwithstanding, they empirically establish that Tamil Nadu is “unique among the major states in India for its ability to combine processes of structural transformation with human development”. Structural transformation in the State happened along two axes—a faster urbanisation rate and diversification of income sources by farm households. The latter occurred to such an extent that NABARD has estimated the share of agricultural households in the State is 12.8%, the lowest among more industrialised States. Moreover, according to the NITI Aayog’s first National Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021, which considers multiple indicators of education, health and standard of living, the share of the population in Tamil Nadu that can be counted as poor is 5%, while the national average is 25%. Research has shown that a combination of bottom-up collective action by subaltern groups and affirmative top-down responses to popular demands produced these superior outcomes.

Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar firmly locate their analysis within the conceptual universe they call the ‘Dravidian common-sense’. It is a term that effectively captures the politics of social justice in a State that historically linked the ‘self-respect’ of the Dravidian-Tamil people to regional autonomy. On the contrary, the most influential 20th-century ideologues of the Sanatan Dharma, which the Tamil Nadu Governor believes is integral to ‘Bharat’, categorically rejected the very idea of federalism and advocated for the abolition of the category of States altogether.

Second RSS sarsanghchalak and foremost Hindu Rashtra proponent MS Golwalkar wrote in Bunch of Thoughts (1966) that the “most important and effective step will be to bury deep for good all talk of a federal structure of our country’s Constitution, to sweep away the existence of all autonomous or semi-autonomous ‘states’ within the one State, Bharat.” As economic historian Aditya Balasubramanian has shown, Deendayal Upadhyaya of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, while spelling out his proposals to ‘Indianise’ economic policy in the late 1950s, also “embraced the spatial categories of locality and nation but rejected the intermediary unit of governance, the state or region”. And Prof Christophe Jaffrelot and Utsav Shah have argued, Upadhyaya sought to counter the Nehruvian approach to state-building and the welfare state paradigm by positing charities as the alternative. He proffered that [caste] society would take care of the welfare of everyone. The BJP, which is in power at the Centre and in many States, openly reveres Golwalkar and Upadhyaya. In 2008, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, wrote a long essay explaining the influence of ‘guruji’ Golwalkar on his spiritual and political development. His government has named its flagship schemes for rural electrification and youth skill development after Upadhyaya—Deen Dayal Upadhayaya Gram Jyoti Yojana and Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana.

One of the earliest assessments of the performance of India’s planning process called federalism a “headache” to the economic planners in New Delhi. It took a dim view of the “self-assertion” of the States but conceded that their existence is the “most important fact of Indian political life”. Cliched it may sound, yet the ideological tug-of-war played out in the form of Centre-State relations is a battle for the soul of India. In the words of historian Ramachandra Guha, independent India is an “unnatural nation”, for “never before has a nation been composed of so many diversities”. This “unnaturalness” inches the Indian nation closer to a model of polity known as the ‘state-nation’, as against the dominant nation-state model. A defining distinction between the two is that the former refuses to subscribe to a single or core cultural identity that could be perfectly mapped onto the bounded territory called the nation. It also emphasises the possibility of multiple but complementary socio-cultural identities.

Respecting the diversity and complementarity of all these identities and allowing States to experiment with models of governance that emerge from their peoples’ collective socio-cultural consciousness will remain the key to sustaining and advancing Indian democracy.

Raghunath Nageswaran is a doctoral researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London.

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