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Dravidian Cosmopol­itanism and the Making of a Global Tamil Nadu

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The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Dravidian Cosmopol­itanism and the Making of a Global Tamil Nadu

There is no doubt that the state is becoming increasingly serious about how it looks at the world and how the world looks at it.

Dravidian Cosmopol­itanism and the Making of a Global Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin speaks at an investment conclave in Singapore, May 24, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ M. K. Stalin

The footprint of Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state, in foreign policy corridors dates back to the Sri Lankan Civil War, during which the state’s chief ministers (CMs) almost became de facto negotiators for the “Tamil cause” in the island country. Beyond that, occasional legislative resolutions over the question of Katchatheevu, and the recurring arrests of fishers by the Sri Lankan Navy across the Palk Strait for violating the International Maritime Border Line (IMBL), have been contributing to the state’s largely ethnicity-based overseas portfolio.

The government of India’s institutional encouragement for what John Kincaid refers to as “paradiplomacy” – the role of federal units in foreign policy – through bodies like the States Division (established in 2014) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), has been a game changer. Since then, Tamil Nadu’s subnational diplomacy has embraced an inclination toward trade, investment, science, medicine, and even climate.

Tamil Nadu’s tryst with economic paradiplomacy is gaining momentum in parallel with the vision of M. K. Stalin, the current chief minister of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led government, to make the state a $1 trillion economy by 2030, and the most favourable investment destination in South Asia, by evolving a Dravidian model. A joint report by CREDAI and Knight Frank titled “Tamil Nadu: Unveiling Economic Dynamism and Future Potential” found that the state’s nominal Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) is expected to reach $2.6 trillion by 2047-48. The report also acknowledged the state’s paradiplomatic potential, as Tamil Nadu received $9.85 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows from October 2019 to September 2023. 

The third edition of Tamil Nadu’s Global Investors Meet (GIM) was held in Chennai from January 7-8, 2024. The business summit succeeded in bringing investments to the tune of 6.64 trillion Indian rupees (approximately $81 billion) and is expected to create 2.69 million jobs in the state. 

The GIM was followed by a state delegation visit to the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, led by T. R. B. Rajaa, Tamil Nadu’s minister of industry. The same month, Stalin traveled to Spain to be part of the Invest Spain conclave. The chief minister inked agreements worth 34 billion rupees at the conclave, and highlighted companies such as Roca, Hapag-Llyod, Edibon, Gestamp, and Mabtree for their investment plans in Tamil Nadu. 

Stalin’s previous overseas visit to Singapore in May 2023 was also investment-centric. So was his trip to Tokyo the same month, where he wooed 8.19 billion rupees’ worth of investment. Stalin’s 2022 visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had also brought investments to the mark of 61 billion rupees

Unsurprisingly, the foreign visits undertaken by Indian CMs are often met with criticism by the opposition parties back in the state. Tamil Nadu is no exception. Stalin’s two-nation trip to Singapore and Japan was labelled a “pleasure trip” by Edappadi K. Palaniswami, the current leader of the opposition. 

That said, these developments represent the changing economic trajectories of post-COVID-19 Tamil Nadu. This is also clear from the fact that the investments earned at the 2024 edition of the GIM doubled from the previous GIM in 2019.

With that in mind, a status audit of the agreements signed at the past GIMs is worthwhile. In 2023, it was reported by The Hindu that out of the 304 deals reached at the 2019 GIM, worth a total of 2.68 trillion rupees, only 1 trillion rupees in investment ever materialized. The Hindu found that 20 deals were reportedly dropped, and 18 were put on hold. Yet another report by The Hindu in the same year revealed that in the case of the first edition of the GIM, which took place in 2015 under Chief Minister  J. Jayalalithaa, out of the 98 pacts sealed amounting to 2.42 billion rupees, 27 deals were dropped. Only 755.58 billion rupees’ worth of investments were on track. 

The COVID-19 pandemic topped the cited reasons for project delays and termination of deals. Many other agreements are navigating the various stages, including land identification, construction, and pending clearances. Specifics on the casualties that have a foreign origin are unclear; the statistics include deals involving both Indian and foreign companies.

Tamil Nadu’s paradiplomacy extends beyond the economic sphere. Back home, this year’s World Tamil Diaspora Day, with the theme “Enathu Gramam” (My Village), was celebrated from January 11-12. It had unprecedented elements such as “Reaching Your Roots,” a two-week cultural tour program for second-generation Tamil diaspora youth. This corroborates the state’s reimagination of the “diaspora factor” in its external cooperation. 

Contemporary Tamil Nadu’s paradiplomatic journey has an ideological backing too. The current trajectory of the state’s foreign profile aligns with the transformation of its homegrown civilization-based Dravidian ideology. Both the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have evidently accommodated foreign endeavors as part of their policy practices over time. 

Indeed, in 2019 under the previous AIADMK government, the state witnessed a peak of international engagements in terms of signing multibillion-dollar memoranda of understanding (MoUs), particularly with the United States, U.K., and UAE. Then-Chief Minister Palaniswami’s tour of these countries was so critical that his “London lap” scripted new innings. 

The AIADMK government signed an MoU with the King’s College Hospital of London, seeking its branch in Tamil Nadu, and a Statement of Intent (SoI) with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for containment strategies against communicable diseases such as dengue and malaria. Thanks to the informal summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held from October 11-13, 2019, at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu found an enhanced space in the global diplomatic map under what came to be called the “Chennai Connect” as a follow-up to the “Wuhan Spirit.”

More recently, Chennai was also home to many of the Working Group Meetings in 2023 held under India’s G-20 Presidency, including the G-20 Ministerial Meeting on Environment and Climate Sustainability and the Second G-20 Framework Working Group (FWG) Meeting. The state has also entered into strategic climate partnerships with the United Kingdom, filling the climate paradiplomacy void, to achieve India’s goal of net zero by 2070. 

The 44th Chess Olympiad held at Chennai in 2022 brought further international attention to Tamil Nadu. The rationale for choosing the name “Thambi” (meaning little brother in Tamil) for the Olympiad’s mascot is not merely a linguistic choice; it also bears an ideological tone. Stalin had underlined that C. N. Annadurai, the former chief minister and founder of DMK, used to affectionately call everyone “thambi.” He added that “the name is a symbol of brotherhood, and it indicates that we all belong to one fraternity.” 

Similarly, the use of the Tamil letter “tha” in the GIM 2024 logo speaks of the state’s pursuit of “subnation branding.” On the soft power front, Tamil Nadu’s options have consistently ranged from its movie industry, music, and classical dance forms, such as Bharatanatyam, to tourism. 

The First World Classical Tamil Conference conducted by the government of Tamil Nadu at Coimbatore in 2010 sought to apply the “classical” tag of the state’s vernacular in maximizing its image. The second edition is expected to be held in June 2025. The state government has also supported the various editions of the World Tamil Research Conference conducted by the International Association of Tamil Research from 1966 to 2023 across India, Malaysia, France, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and the United States.

The state’s status as a Bay of Bengal subnational actor makes it a critical lever in India’s national and maritime security calculus. The recent decision to establish the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (which spans 5,600 nautical miles) by the governments of India and Russia potentially will help Tamil Nadu gain more traction in the Indo-Pacific context. With Tamil Nadu being the only Indian state after Uttar Pradesh to host a Defense Industrial Corridor (DIC), Chennai’s global outreach is expected to increase. In this post-pandemic era, the state is also focusing on other frontiers, such as reviving its status as an international higher education hub. 

As the first GIM since the pandemic, the 2024 edition brings more hope to Tamil Nadu’s economic muscles. To overcome the challenges, it is imperative for the state to treat its foreign portfolio through administrative specialization. Tamil Nadu has precedents to follow, including the two-year tenure of former diplomat Venu Rajamony as the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) for External Cooperation, with the rank of a chief secretary, in the government of Kerala (a neighboring state of Tamil Nadu), and the Foreign Cooperation Department established in 2020 by the government of Haryana (a north Indian state).

Tamil Nadu’s foreign engagements are also changing the optics vis-à-vis the conventional populist tag associated with the state’s domestic politics. As per reports, Stalin is expected to visit Europe, the United States, and Australia in 2024. 

The Tamil culture’s cosmopolitan sentiments date back to a 3,000-year-old poetic verse: “Yaadhum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir” (To us all towns are one, all men our kin), written by Kaniyan Pungundranar, a Sangam age poet. This verse was depicted at the United Nations Headquarters as well. It is clear that the modern-day Tamil Nadu is claiming its status as a “civilizational substate actor” through subnational diplomacy. There is no doubt that the state is becoming increasingly serious about how it looks at the world and how the world looks at it.

Guest Author

R. Vidya

Dr. R. Vidya is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Madras Christian College, Chennai. She completed her graduation and post-graduation in Political Science from the Presidency College, Chennai, and Madras Christian College, respectively.  

Guest Author

Adarsh Vijay

Adarsh Vijay is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Madras Christian College, Chennai. He completed his graduation, post-graduation and M.Phil. in Political Science at the Madras Christian College. 

Guest Author

S. Kiran Raghul Raj

S. Kiran Raghul Raj is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the Madras Christian College, Chennai. He completed his graduation, post-graduation and M.Phil. in Political Science at the Madras Christian College.