What Influences Electoral Politics in Southern India?

New entrants to South India's political sphere threaten to break the decades–old hegemonies of regional parties.

The deaths of M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and J Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIAMDK) have left a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu. Both parties are currently in flux—there are multiple claimants to the parties’ top spot, leaving room for other political players to make gains in the state. Further, in Tamil politics, image is often essential: Chief Ministers Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, and M  G Ramachandran (MGR), all had a background in cinema. Since 1967, only two of the state’s chief ministers have not had film experience. This factor could benefit the likes of film actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, film personalities who have both set up parties with the view of creating a different brand of politics in Tamil Nadu. 

In Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), once a part of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is now part of the “Mahagathbandhan” to counter the NDA alliance in 2019. Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad also highlights a strain in alliances in Kerala—Gandhi’s main contender is likely to be a candidate from the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a political rival in the state but an ally at the Centre. 

This reading list takes stock of the political conditions in the southern states of India in the context of the Lok Sabha elections. 

1) What Is behind the TDP’s Success?

N T Rama Rao (NTR), the Telugu actor-turned-politician who formed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), famously said that  “TDP came with me and will go away with me.” K C Suri writes that contrary to NTR’s comments, the TDP succeeded in heralding a new era in Andhra politics by changing the political imagination of the people as well as reimagining political competition in the state. 

AP ceased to be merely an arena for the warring factions of the Congress Party. Congress leaders could no more take the people of the state for granted. People’s interest in politics saw a revival, as the mood of political indifference, if not cynicism, had greatly diminished due to fierce party competition. A bipolar electoral contest and a veritable two-party system had come to stay within few years of the emergence of the TDP.

Suri argues that Chandrababu Naidu—as chief minister and party president—succeeded in outwitting his rivals in inner-party rifts, managing party affairs and also for establishing the TDP as a viable alternative to the Congress in the state.

Chandrababu always maintained that vigorous pursuit of market reforms would not mean abandonment of welfare programmes … If he appeared pragmatic in his advocacy of fiscal prudence and downsizing the government earlier, he appeared equally pragmatic in his fiscal profligacy on the eve of elections. The Congress and the Left parties, which had hitherto attacked the TDP for giving up or diluting welfarism, found themselves at their wit’s end. 

2) Can the AIAMDK’s Hegemony Be Broken?
Commenting upon the 2014 general elections, V Krishna Ananth contends that while Congress candidates stood for election to the Lok Sabha in Tamil Nadu, their insignificance in state politics could result in some of them losing their electoral deposits. Ananth writes that the fight for political power remains between the AIAMDK and the DMK, but even then, going by prior election trends, the AIAMDK is likely to steamroll over the competition. Sociopolitical fragmentation means that the DMK is no longer able to consolidate the Other Backward Classes (OBC) vote, which hurts their electoral prospects. Other regional players too are infighting and unlikely to mount a credible challenge.

This leaves us with the front consisting of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Indiya Jananayaka Katchi (IJK) and the BJP to be talked about. None of them, indeed, are even as significant as, for comparison, the Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh with whom the BJP has tied up … Vaiko’s MDMK, for instance, exists in only his hometown and is not strong enough even there to win an assembly segment on its own. The IJK, meanwhile, has not even shown its clout in panchayats where it has put up candidates …  The DMK also needs to keep its relationship with the small outfits that have arrived as representatives of the Muslim community in the state and regain its support base that it lost to the PMK in the last few decades. As for now, it is the AIADMK all the way.   

3) Can the BJP Establish Itself in Kerala?

The BJP, by winning a single seat in Kerala’s 2016 assembly elections has shattered the myth of “bipolar coalition politics” in the state, writes K M Seethi. Rather than looking at the number of seats won, Seethi’s article compares the captured percentage of voter share, with the BJP capturing nearly 3 million votes. 

It was interesting that the BJP-led alliance offered a tough triangular fight in many constituencies, and unlike in previous elections, it came second in as many as seven constituencies, pushing both fronts to the third position. Even in Malampuzha, where the veteran CPI(M) leader V S Achuthanandan won the seat, his nearest rival was an NDA candidate.   

The BJP strategy of exploiting caste–communal equations was used in Kerala as well argues Seethi, and while this strategy worked, voters disenchanted with the incumbent also drifted towards the BJP.

 The NDA candidate in Manjeswaram (Kasaragod District) lost the election by just 89 votes. This indicated that the BJP has been gaining ground in the state through concerted strategies entailing caste–communal equations … the support base of the UDF eroded considerably, with a good number of votes moving to the NDA as well as to the LDF, underscoring the fact that the electorate in Kerala actually assessed the performance of the UDF government while voting, instead of sticking to particular caste/communal interests and equations.  

4) Can ‘Spiritual’ Politics Work in Tamil Nadu?

Rajinikanth, who made his political debut in 2017, promised “spiritual politics”—a brand of politics free of caste and religious differences. Karthikeyan Damodaran and Hugo Gorringe argue that while Rajnikanth has made his political debut at an apt time, as the actor may not have been able to contest against the personalities of stalwarts like MGR and Jayalalithaa. But, despite the seeming political vacuum in the state, the authors question if “spirituality” can function in a highly ethno-nationalist environment, where the state’s autonomy under India’s federalist structure is questioned. 

Both the DMK and AIADMK have a strong political infrastructure, a time-tested cadre base, the residual aura of bygone leaders, and a network of political patronage …  Rajini cannot bank on Indian nationalism or spiritualism as a political register. For long, fringe groups in the state, owing allegiance to crude forms of Tamil nationalism with son-of-the-soil idioms, have been portraying him as an outsider and criticising him. 

Further, Damodaran and Gorringe raise concern that Rajinikanth’s form of spiritual politics may pave the way for Hindu nationalism in the state.

Though Hindu nationalism may be the weakest in Tamil Nadu, there are conscious attempts to make it appear normal and natural …  Following the superstar’s entry, there are two major questions being raised by critics and intellectuals in the media: the first is that Rajini is abusing his popularity, has no ideological platform, and is paving the way for a messianic cult, and the second suggests he is going to be a mere tool in the hands of the Hindutva brigade.   

5) Is the Dravida Movement Waning?

Ambrose Pinto writes that the Dravida movement was centred on the Tamil language, Tamil culture, and the idea of a Tamil nation which opposed anything nationalistic and Indian. To temper the demand for a separate Dravida Nadu, business and industrial groups successfully lobbied the central government to set up new industries in the state. Pinto argues that this made the capitalist and business classes conscious that access to the Indian market was imperative if Tamil Nadu was to progress. 

By the time India opened up to world markets under globalisation Tamil Nadu business groups too saw a possibility of greater wealth by linking themselves to world markets through export-import business. Isolation was no longer attractive. Tamil cause had lost its relevance … The Dravida ideology has become obsolete. It has lost its revolutionary character. The rhetoric of a market-friendly dialectic of hi-tech production process whose ultimate purpose is to make people a commodity, increase unemployment, maximise profits and brainwash humanity into the service of the profit-hungry corporate empire provides room for fanatic and fascist ideologies.

Read More: 

1. Political Economy of Panchayats in South India | Rohini Pande, Timothy Besley, Vijayendra Rao, 2007
2. Are Linguistic Nationalisms Killing South Indian Federalism? | Pranav Kuttaiah, 2018
3. Democratic Process Not Yet Lost in Tamil Nadu | V Krishna Anant, 2016

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