Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections 2021: Dravidian Politics at Crossroads

The elections to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly provide an opportunity to reassess the fault lines in the caste, religious and ethno-geographical identities in the state and their significance in electoral politics.

Elections to the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu were held in a single phase on 6 April 2021 with a voter turnout of 72.78%. With the counting of votes scheduled to take place on 2 May 2021, the electoral prospects of various parties and alliances are in the fray. 

Some of the key pre-poll formations for the 2021 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu include:

i. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and including S Ramadoss’s Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and others;

ii. The Secular Progressive Alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and including the Indian National Congress (INC), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi (KMDK), and others;

iii. The alliance between T T V Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and others.

iv. The Makkalin Mudhal Kootani led by Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) and including Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK), All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi (AISMK), and others;

v. Unallied parties such as S Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Without attempting to make predictions regarding the outcome of the recently held elections, we look through articles published in EPW to examine the interplay of some of the conflicting identities in the state and their political implications. 

Anti-caste Movement and Dravidian Politics

The political space in Tamil Nadu has been dominated by the two Dravidian parties—DMK and AIADMK, which have alternated in holding power in the state since 1967. P Ramajayam (2019) explained:

Tamil Nadu is the only state in India which has been ruled by state-level parties either single-handedly or in alliance with the national parties since 1967. The DMK has been a strong regional political force in the state since the 1960s. Its breakaway party, the AIADMK headed by M G Ramachandran came to dominate state politics. From 1971 onwards national parties have been depending heavily upon the Dravidian parties. 

Alliances with other parties—including the national parties—have been forged on the terms of the DMK and AIADMK. An EPW editorial (2018) noted

In the past, political contestation in Tamil Nadu has been largely limited to the two Dravidian parties with other forces, including national parties and long-established parties with specific social bases hitching themselves to either of these parties’ bandwagons during elections. The Dravidian parties also perfected a system of patronage to go along with welfare-oriented governance, that included entrenched corruption, to consolidate themselves and remain dominant. They managed to effectively subordinate parties such as the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state despite supporting them at the centre in the past. But their system of patronage—consistent even as the Dravidian parties alternated in power—has always had its discontents. 

The political successes of the Dravidian parties are marked by the anti-caste impetus provided by the Dravidian movements. Rajan Kurai Krishnan (2018) wrote:

The Dravidian movement is constituted by its engagement with caste inequality, for which it held scripturally sanctioned Brahmin supremacy as providing the model and the impetus. Over the last 50 years, this has led to the near removal of Brahmins and other upper castes from political power in the state, with the singular exception of Jalayalalithaa, a Brahmin woman.

… No matter how the success of Dravidian parties and their rule in eradicating caste inequality and discrimination is measured, there can be no denial that they brought caste into public reckoning as assemblages of power. This galvanised democratic aspirations in the state, which appears to have had an impact on developments in various social sectors, particularly health and education, in comparison with North Indian states. The state has held on to 69% reservations.

Similarly, M Vijayabaskar and Vignesh Karthik K R (2021) also observed:

Both the DMK and the AIADMK owe their electoral success to their ability to suture together a bloc of subaltern communities on the plank of dignity and social justice. Affirmative action policies, broad-basing access to healthcare and education, and a mix of both universal and targeted welfare interventions have ensured relatively inclusive developmental outcomes compared to most states in the country. Importantly, the two parties have thus far managed to hold the subaltern communities across castes and religions as a bloc despite emergence of frictions bet­ween specific communities.

While commentators have questioned whether the Dravidian parties continue to remain relevant, especially after the deaths of AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, and DMK president and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, others have cited the voting patterns in recent years to contend for the continued political dominance of the parties. For instance, citing the DMK’s success in all 23 seats it contested in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state (the DMK-led alliance swept the polls by winning all but one seat), Ramajayam made the case:

The election results in some ways indicate the reassertion of Dravidian identities and the key role for the Dravidian parties in the politics of the state.

Shifting Dravidian Politics—Geographical and Ethnic Identity

But do the continued electoral successes of the Dravidian parties indicate a continued political relevance of the Dravidian ideology, in an equal sense?

Drawing from The Strangeness of Tamil Nadu: Contemporary History and Political Culture in South India by M S S Pandian, V Geetha (2021) in her review of the book wrote

The party (DMK) … has strategically recast the values and principles of the Dravidian movement, particularly Periyar’s ideas, to both legitimise as well as serve its will to power. Its leadership had become captive to dominant caste interests and its understanding of identity, whether of caste, religion, gender or ethnicity, has been substantially different from Periyar’s own complex understanding of these matters.

According to Pandian, Periyar conceived of oppression as unfolding along several axes of caste, gender, class and so on and posited multiple approaches to combat inequality and injustice. The DMK, on the other hand, had adopted an “atomistic approach” and lost sight of Periyar’s “integrative” approach. It could easily adopt one or two strands of Periyar’s legacy and not consider these in tandem with others in the cluster of inequalities.

Geetha analysed the shift in the Dravidian debate differently from Pandian and took it back to Periyar himself. 

While Periyar recognised multiple oppressions, he did mark the condition of the so-called untouchables and of women as constituting the essential inhumanity of the caste order. This is evident in almost all his writings from the 1920s and into the 1940s. There is a shift in the terms of his debate thereafter, as he assimilates several levels of injustice and oppression to an overarching oppression of the “Dravidian” south by the “Aryan” north. The constituent features of this latter were of course the multiple oppressions that he had addressed all his life—caste, untouchability, the Hindu religion, the women’s question—but the multiplicity of approaches that he had adopted were often folded into a consistent opposition to Hindu-Hindi-India. To be sure, this opposition was contingent on specific events or developments that elicited dissent but the logic of resistance remained in place: a refusal to accept the validity of the Indian nation state.

Krishnan characterised the heart of the debate regarding the Dravidian identity: 

The key issue is the meaning of the word “Dravidian.” It refers to the ethnic or racial identity of the non-Aryan inhabitants of South India as well as to its geographical spread. Historically, the non-Brahmin movement used the term to mark their counter-hegemonic politics against the Brahminical elite, who accepted the orientalist labelling of their identity as Aryan. 

In the aftermath of the deaths of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, emerging political leaders, such as film stars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, have claimed that the rule of Dravidian parties should end in the state primarily because of rampant corruption promoted by their populist measures. Yet, Haasan has also invoked an insular definition of the Dravidian identity solely based on geography. Krishnan explained:

[A]fter the initial speech delivered by Haasan, it appears that there is a subtext to this cleaning operation. The Dravidian movement is blamed for divisive politics based on caste differences. Since caste identity has always been seen as a corruption of the ideal of deracinated citizenship as well as the historically-ordained class struggle, the cleaning up of corruption is subtly underlined by an argument about cleaning politics of caste identities.

… Haasan (another Brahmin), by explaining the six hands that hold each other in the party flag as the six states of South India, has defined Dravidian identity as based entirely on geography.

Vijayabaskar and Kartik elaborated upon the emergence of Haasan’s MNM and Seeman’s NTK in the context of their rejection of the politics of the Dravidian parties. 

Haasan’s MNM seeks to bring about two changes in the politics of TN. First, the party is foregrounding corruption as the cardinal problem of TN, which finds appeal among a section of urban voters much like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in New Delhi. Second, despite assuming a political stance against the BJP, the MNM also seeks to reduce the Dravidian identity to an ethnic one as against a sociopolitical construct that stands for social justice and against caste inequities.

… Seeman’s NTK, on the other hand, seeks to isolate the “Tamil” from the “Dravidian” and construct an ethnicised identity rooted in Tamil exceptionalism and a politics of purity that marginalises other linguistic groups. Accusing the Dravidian parties, the DMK in particular, of abandoning the Tamil cause during the 2009 genocide in Sri Lanka and all things wrong with the state, NTK has managed to gain support among sections of youth. Given their opposition to the politics of the BJP, the NTK along with the MNM may seem to serve as a bulwark for the Dravidian parties against the BJP by attracting lower caste-class youth disgruntled with the Dravidian parties.

Caste Identities

Considering the anti-caste ideological foundations of the Dravidian parties, why are Dalits understood to be dissatisfied with them? 

One answer lies in the Left-Dalit critique of Dravidian politics. In his book review of Mythily Sivaraman’s Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation, D Karthikeyan (2014) wrote

These essays on dalit struggles provide us a sociological understanding of the everyday impact of caste and rural land relations. They inform us about the subservient position of dalits in villages and how even in a situation where they are numerically strong, their lower accessibility to economic resources indicates their vulnerability and also points to the failure of any redistributive measures undertaken by the government. What is significant here is the fact that even after three decades the situation has hardly changed; despite the wider reach of governmental welfare schemes and populist forms of governance undertaken by the Dravidian parties, instances of untouchability and patron-client type relationships determine village life in much of rural Tamil Nadu.

Sivaraman’s essays traced the problem to the Periyar’s lack of engagement with the economic elements of Dalit marginalisation, noted Karthikeyan.

Her critique of Periyar’s works highlights the fact that he was largely anti-brahmin rather than anti-caste.
She also highlights Periyar’s ignorant attitude towards dalits and his use of the vernacular of Adi Dravidars, not as a Tamil per se. This analysis has contemporary relevance as Tamil Nadu’s dalit intellectuals have started to critically analyse Periyar’s political discourse questioning the marginalisation of dalits and the paternalistic tone in his engagement with the dalit question. The paternalism practised by Periyar saw the natural ascendancy of non-brahmin elites first and then intermediate castes exerting their dominance and control over socio-economic resources and preventing the assertion of dalits. Though she acknowledges Periyar’s role in creating a consciousness among the subaltern against their oppressors, she states that he undermined the importance of economic aspects based on scientific class-based analysis, again an argument that needs a much more careful analysis.

She went on to examine the continuity of this economic marginalisation during the DMK’s regime.

The cultural nationalism propounded by the party had an overarching effect as it helped the DMK to successfully undermine its already vacillating efforts on the economic front. The author’s observation that the DMK rhetoric failed to address local forms of capitalism and produced locally powerful landed elites and what she refers to as “Dravidian capitalists” is important.

The economic sphere is not the only arena wherein the failure of the Dravidian anti-caste programme is visible. According to D Karthikeyan, Hugo Gorringe and Stalin Rajangam (2012),

Tamil politics is dominated by the Dravidian parties and it is an indictment of their rule that untouchability and caste discrimination continue unabated in the state.

Like Sivaraman, Karthikeyan et al too attributed the marginalisation of the Dalits to Dravidian politics:

We need, at the outset, to appreciate that caste continues to be central to politics in the state not despite but because of the Dravidian parties. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the non-brahmin movement in south India was precisely that: non-brahmin rather than anti-brahmin. Having wrested political power from the stranglehold of the brahmin minority, the backward and intermediate castes monopolised power in their turn. They used their dominance to stall ambitious land reform programmes and adi-dravidar welfare schemes, whilst retaining a veneer of social radicalism thanks to schemes such as the nutritious mid-day meal programme for school- going children.
The fractured nature of caste dominance in the state, where no one caste cluster is socially, numerically or politically pre-eminent, has veiled the extent to which social and political power are intertwined (Lakshman 2011). Thevars, Gounders, Naickers, Nadars and Vanniyars all have pockets of dominance across the state and have been assiduously wooed by the Dravidian parties.

Dravidian politics has masked the caste basis of social structures and appealed to dalit voters using populist imagery, symbolism and rhetoric. With the DMK split and formation of the AIADMk, the contest in Tamil Nadu elections has reduced to a bipolar one—smaller parties have not been able to challenge the hegemony of the Dravidian parties. Lacking resources and access to state benefits, such parties have been forced back onto their identity to mobilise support. 

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (Toiling People’s Party), thus, emerged from the mobilisation of Vanniyars and demanded most backward caste status for the group as well as benefits in proportion to their numerical strength. The Puthiya Tamilagam (PT – New Tamil Society) followed with calls for Pallars (a scheduled caste) to be re­cognised as Devendra Kula Vellalars and provided with various benefits. Shortly thereafter the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK – Liberation Panthers’ Party) mobilised mainly Paraiyars as first dalits, then the cheri-people and now the downtrodden Tamils.

Yet, Dalit politics has combined identity-based demands with calls for a more equitable distribution of resources. Karthikeyan et al explained

Whilst the mainstream discourse casts the dalit parties merely as an extension of Dravidian politics, in actual fact they arose in opposition to the dilution of Periyarist ideals by the very parties that claim to carry forward his legacy. The key motto of the VCK, for instance, is the Ambedkarite assertion that: “caste annihilation is people’s liber­ation”. They emerged seeking an alter­native politics rather than a continuation of the status quo. 

But the political environment has continued to severely limit the options of Dalit parties such as the VCK and the PT—the Dravidian parties have continued to hold power in the state and enjoy the support of voters of various caste backgrounds. This picture is evident even in the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Ramajayam analysed:

This election saw the DMK-led alliance consolidate its presence among the upper castes, Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the minorities across the state. The AIADMK-led alliance seemed to have an advantage among the Thevars and Udayars. The Vanniyar vote was split between the alliances and the Nadar vote was split among the two factions of the AIADMK.

Meanwhile, the divergence between the Dravidian ideology and the implemented socio-economic programme of the parties in power has continued. Vijayabaskar and Karthik (2021) highlighted:

The asymmetry in socio-economic deve­lopment between and within lower castes is along the following lines. First, political mobilisation and policy orientation of the two parties ensured social mobility among lower castes, albeit differentially. Segments who gained from interventions like affirmative action no longer identify themselves with the ethos of the movement and tend to buy into a narrative of market-led developmentalism and hence are critical of welfarist politics that the state has come to be known for. Second, there are sections within the lower castes who feel that they have been left behind. 

They added

They therefore tend to identify themselves with new parties that articulate a politics outside the Dravidian fold or with parties that articulate specific caste interests (Rajahmani et al 2020: 21). For ­example, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) that draws support from Vanniyars, a lower-end subaltern caste group, has been calling for a shift away from Dravidian politics for some time now as they perceive that Vanniyars have failed to gain adequately from the state’s deve­lopment. On the other hand, a section of Devendra Kula Vellalars (DKV), a major Dalit community, is demanding to be exc­luded from the Scheduled Caste (SC) list and be recognised either as part of backward castes or as a separate category of native farmers.

The BJP has also sought to leve­rage the emergence of these intra- and inter-caste frictions. Vijayabaskar and Karthik wrote:

Apart from appealing to sections of upwardly mobile intermediate castes like Kongu Vellala Gounders and Hindu ­Nadars, the party has also responded fav­ourably to the demands of DKV to be removed from the list of SCs. The BJP has further appointed an Arunthathiyar as the president of the party’s state unit.

This strategy is in line with what the party has done in ­other states.

A close look at the multiple state elections held since 2014, and the 2019 general elections reveals a two-pronged strategy behind the BJP’s success. First, it managed to consolidate upper castes disgruntled by the political rise of subaltern castes since the 1990s, a process that Jean Dreze (2020) refers to as a revolt of the upper castes against the egalit­arian demands of democracy. Second, the BJP took advantage of, and acc­entuated the inter-caste and intra-caste class faultlines among the SCs and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) stemming from the relative over-rep­resentation of certain castes and uneven socio-economic mobility among them. It thus consolidated and co-opted lower castes that have been “left out,” albeit in an instrumental manner (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2019). Though such strategies were evident even in previous elections (2004–14), they have particularly become critical to the BJP’s electoral success since 2014, such as in the recently concluded elections in Bihar and Telangana.

Does this mean that the Dravidian parties are likely to lose the vote of certain caste groups in favour of the BJP? Vijayabaskar and Karthik explained why this political strategy of the BJP may not work the same way in Tamil Nadu politics:

TN is however different from Bihar and Telangana on at least four counts. One, the party is still in its fledgling phase in terms of organisational strength and depends on the AIADMK heavily for both footprint and success. Two, the Dravidian–Tamil political identity and basis of mobilisation is squarely in conflict with the BJP’s ideological moorings. Though the party has plebeianised itself since 2014 both at the leadership and cadre levels in its efforts to shed its upper caste-outsider image, its political positions on various issues continue to ­reveal its upper caste and anti-federal bias that are unpopular in the state. Three, over half a century of rule by the Dravidian parties has yielded a case of near proportional representation in legislature and party posts for all subaltern castes and caste groups in the state, inc­luding numerically non-dominant com­munities. This leaves little room for the BJP to micromanage electoral caste matrix at a subregional level as it has done elsewhere (Rajahmani and Wyatt 2020).
Finally, despite the frictions within and across the lower castes that we described earlier, the ideological basis of Dravidian commonsense continues to resonate with large sections of this bloc, and has in fact strengthened in recent years in response to what are seen as atte­mpts to undermine the state’s autonomy and ethos by the union government.

Hindutva Politics

While the BJP has attempted to appeal to the vote bank of various caste groups, it has also redoubled its efforts towards creating a base for its core Hindutva ideology. 

Vignesh Karthik K R, Vihang Jumle and Jeyannathann Karunanithi (2020) wrote:

The BJP seeks to unsettle the broad and accommodative Tamil identity that cuts across caste, religion, class, and even language to usher in a narrow, hyphenated Hindu–Tamil identity that strips the heterogeneity on the one hand and bring back caste hierarchy in its most blatant form. 

… While the BJP and its allied organisations have not been able to make sociocultural inroads in the last three decades, a rejuvenated effort has been undertaken since 2014, which was furthered in the wake of the death of J Jayalalithaa and the subsequent enfeebling of the ruling AIADMK government.

They further explained why the hyphenated Hindu–Tamil identity may be seemingly relatable to various caste groups.

One, a section of upwardly mobile castes who have benefited from the Dravidian movement are hoping to fulfil their pan-Indian aspirations, both culturally and politically. Two, a group of castes that have not sufficiently benefited from the politics of social justice are agitated. It, in turn, has been exacerbated by both reduction in government jobs and lesser number of jobs created in the private sector (industry and service sectors). 

… At this juncture, the BJP is perpetuating a cross-regional populist ideology that seeks to other the aspirational communities, that is, the Dravidian Tamils to help protect “pure” people of the land which the BJP terms, Hindu Tamils. Notably, the Hindu Tamils are not defined at all as they just mean anyone who supports the BJP or is against the Dravidian or left ideology (Ostiguy and Casullo 2017: 25–26). For the scheme to work, the AIADMK, which is the arch nemesis of the DMK, needs to be taken out as the alternative to the DMK. Squarely speaking, the BJP is trying to repeat its West Bengal strategy wherein the BJP occupied the place of primary contender against the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC).

Vijayabaskar and Karthik also reflected on this strategy of the BJP:

[T]he socio-demographic constituencies that the BJP is trying to woo str­ongly overlap with the support base of the AIADMK as well. So when the BJP seeks to appeal through forging an exc­lusionary Hindu–Tamil identity as a counter to a democratising Dravidian-Tamil identity, the changed narrative may help shift votes in its favour, and undermine AIADMK in the long run. While the process of enfeebling Dravidian common sense would require time and effort, the BJP sought to quicken the process through renowned film star Rajinikanth, an open supporter of the BJP and the Modi–Amit Shah duo. 

There have also been attempts by the BJP to app­ropriate M G Ramachandran’s legacy and situate him within a Hindu identity; for example, with their use of Ramachandran’s image in their statewide Vel Yatra procession that the party under­took in November–December 2020 “on the pretext of saving Hindu–Tamil culture.” 

Read More

Politics and Protest: Who Will Win in Tamil Nadu? | Rahul N (2019)

Tamil Nadu’s Summer of Discontent | G Babu Jayakumar (2018)

A Colossus of Tamil Politics: Jayalalithaa’s Journey | D Karthikeyan (2018)

The Missing Periyar and the Curious Tamil Nationalism of Kabali | Karthick Ram Manoharan (2016)

The Business of Politics: Sun TV and the Maran Brothers | Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (2015)

An Analysis of the Poll Scene in Tamil Nadu | V Krishna Ananth (2014)

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top