There is almost universal consensus that Tamil Nadu is undergoing a phase of great political change and upheaval. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) have taken turns governing the state for the last 50 years. However, developments in the last two years have demonstrated that these Dravidian parties are now in decline, with several analysts pointing to what they feel is the imminent death of Dravidian politics.
There have also been suggestions that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic leader Narendra Modi are poised to prey on the current political chaos and fill the vacuum with its brand of Hindu nationalistic ideology (Hindutva) and developmental politics that has swept much of India.
This line of argument, however, makes the simplistic mistake of viewing the Dravidian movement, the Dravidian parties, and Tamil nationalism as mutually exclusive social phenomena. In truth, these parties moved away from the principles of the Dravidian movement decades ago. Today, the strength of both DMK and AIADMK is dependent on the lingering populist sentiments toward past leaders, as well as the use of patronage politics and caste as an effective means of political mobilization.
Furthermore, Tamil nationalism predates the Dravidian movement and possesses a resonance in the state that will hamper any attempt by a national party to dominate the sociopolitical scene. The future of the Dravidian parties may lie in their ability to retain the mantle of “custodians of Tamil identity.”
The Loss of Iconic Leaders
Jayalalithaa controlled the AIADMK with an iron fist from 1987 till her untimely demise on December 5, 2016. Her death has thrown the party into absolute disarray; the ruling party is fragmented by factions contending and jostling for power. The mysterious circumstances behind her death and the conspiracy theories surrounding it, the deep fractures within the party, and the squabbling over the two-leaf election symbol that had come to define the party have greatly weakened the AIADMK. Most critically perhaps, the party lacks a strong leader that has even a vestige of the influence and political legitimacy that Jayalalithaa and her predecessor M.G. Ramachandran commanded.
The DMK too, has undeniably been weakened by the recent demise of M. Karunanidhi, who had helmed the party since 1969. It’s already apparent that his son and successor M.K. Stalin is unable to replicate his father’s indomitable spirit and political cunning. The party, despite the chaos in AIADMK, has been unable to mount a serious offensive and function thus far as a truly credible opposition. However, Karunanidhi’s shrewd decision to name a clear successor while he remained at the helm of the party offered Stalin a long runway to consolidate power in his father’s shadow. The DMK thus remains a tightly organized party that is (so far, at least) united under the leadership of Stalin. The DMK also has a better organized cadre and grassroots structure that will keep the party afloat in times of political turbulence.
A Legacy of Corruption
Beyond these issues, there are also indications that both the parties have been slowly losing popularity due to incessant allegations of corruption and vote-for-cash tactics. The 2G scam tainted the DMK while the conviction of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala in a disproportionate-assets case has greatly affected AIADMK.
This is a crucial issue that will affect both parties, particularly with regards to new players entering the fray at this time of political instability. The desire to turn to fresh, untainted political parties, particularly those led by well-regarded public figures like Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan, may be enticing in the absence of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. Indeed, both actor-turned-politicians have begun their political journeys by targeting the corrupt political culture in Tamil Nadu.
The Enduring Allure of Tamil Nationalism
There have been many assertions that the Dravidian movement is long dead, with its legacy merely being puppeteered by the Dravidian parties for rhetorical purposes. There is considerable truth in this. The Dravidian movement was forged with the ideologies of Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement that he pioneered in 1925. At its crux, it was an atheist and anti-caste (distinctly anti-Brahmin) movement that believed strongly in opposing the tyranny of a hegemonic Sanskrit north India.
The break away from Periyar by C.N. Annadurai in 1949 to form the DMK in itself represented a distinct watering down of Dravidian ideology with its atheist outlook, giving way to a more secular principle. The realities of electoral politics over the decades have dictated that both the DMK and AIADMK shift further away from atheism, embrace grassroots caste organizations and political parties, and hold alliances with both the Congress and the BJP. This would have been anathema to Periyar, who shied away from active participation in electoral politics, believing that the cost of courting popularity in politics would require ideological sacrifice.
The final vestige of the Dravidian movement, Tamil nationalism, is also historically its most potent. Anti-Hindi agitations gave the movement its first truly populist expression in the 1930s and was at the heart of the DMK’s electoral success in 1967. Periyar, Annadurai, and Karunanidhi all shrewdly realized that Tamil linguistic nationalism was a notion that all Tamils, regardless of caste subdivisions and religious affiliations, could subscribe to. The linguistic agitations adroitly altered the politics of the Dravidian movement from an intramural rivalry over caste hierarchies and the role of religion to a broader struggle over the politics of language and identity between a Dravidian Tamil state and the perceived enemy, an Aryan north central government.
This still has priceless political value in Tamil Nadu. The state remains imbued with a strong sense of Tamil nationalism and retains a distinct suspicion of national parties, which it considers to be representative of the Aryan north. Both the Jallikattu protests last year as well as the agitations over the NEET examinations have exemplified this best. What was defining in both cases, however, was the absence of the Dravidian parties at the forefront of the protest. Further, allegations of BJP influence over the political leaders of the AIADMK have greatly tainted its legitimacy as a leader of Tamil nationalism.
The great struggle for supremacy in Tamil Nadu politics will be fought over the mantle of protector and custodians of Tamil identity. The Dravidian parties will have to renew their allegiance and convince the electorate all over again of their dedication to the Tamil people and language. This will not be an easy task as relative newcomers like Seeman of the Naam Tamilar Katchi offer Tamil nationalist alternatives that effectively depict the Dravidian movement as a betrayal of Tamil identity.
Rajinikanth’s populist and charismatic appeal could potentially be both strengthened and weakened by this renegotiation of identity. The legacy of Dravidian politics and the electoral success of MG Ramachandran suggests that Rajinikanth, a non-ethnic Tamil, can seize the moment to become the manifestation of Tamil nationalistic pride. However, if Tamil nationalism grows more exclusivist and narrow, Rajinikanth, despite his immense popularity, may increasingly be seen as an outsider.
The BJP, as they attempt to make inroads into Tamil Nadu, will continue to struggle to make a direct impact on Tamil politics. In the short-term, BJP’s political strategy will most likely continue as before — trying to exert influence over the AIADMK. There have also been suggestions that they tacitly support Rajinikanth, who is seen as a potential ideological ally. In the long run, however, the BJP will have to imbue Hindutva with a distinctly Tamil flavor to find electoral success in the state.
This struggle to claim Tamil identity will redefine both Tamil nationalism and Tamil Nadu in years to come.
Pravin Prakash is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore