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Not by Patronage Alone: Understanding Tamil Nadu's Vote for Change

A combination of solid alliance building and deep resentment with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led government and the party itself helped the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition come to power in Tamil Nadu. The institution of a bevy of welfarist measures and promises of many more were not enough to assuage a discontented electorate upset with corruption and nepotism in the ruling party, blatant rent-seeking by DMK legislators, and so on.


Not by Patronage Alone: Understanding Tamil Nadu’s Vote for Change

J Jeyaranjan, M Vijayabaskar

to include other essential commodities like cooking oil, spices and lentils. This was in addition to supply of free gas stoves and subsidised cylinders, free television sets and distribution of land to landless households (which however fell short of the extent promised). Since then, it has also implemented a health insurance scheme for the poor and introduced the Tamil Nadu

A combination of solid alliance building and deep resentment with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led government and the party itself helped the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition come to power in Tamil Nadu. The institution of a bevy of welfarist measures and promises of many more were not enough to assuage a discontented electorate upset with corruption and nepotism in the ruling party, blatant rent-seeking by DMK legislators, and so on.

We are thankful to S V Rajadurai for extremely useful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

J Jeyaranjan is director, Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai and M Vijayabaskar ( is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

he people of Tamil Nadu have clearly asserted their political agency in the assembly elections in 2011. By handing out a decisive mandate against the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), they can no more be portrayed as depoliticised recipients of state benevolence. Such overwhelming mandates have happened many a time in the recent history of Tamil Nadu. In the 1991 assembly elections held in the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the DMK was hounded out of the assembly with M Karunanidhi being only one of the two DMK winners, that too by a wafer-thin margin along with another DMK contestant. It was the turn of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1996 when it won only four seats with its leader J Jayalalithaa losing her seat to a political novice in the hinterland of Tamil Nadu. Despite the absence of an anti-incumbency wave in 2001, a strong electoral alliance forged by the AIADMK saw it through.

Jayalalithaa’s defeat in the subsequent elections was attributed to her undemocratic and anti-people policies that included arbitrary arrests (including the now infamous midnight arrest of M Karunanidhi for alleged corruption charges and of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko for his pro-Eelam speeches), dismissal of striking government employees backed by threats to their families, hounding the media, repressing Tamil nationalists and rolling back some welfare measures due to fiscal compulsions.

The hero of the 2006 election was however seen in many quarters as the DMK’s election manifesto that promised several welfare schemes for the poor. It included provisioning of at least 20 kilograms of rice at Rs 2 a kilo (reduced to Re 1 later) through the public distribution system for all ration cardholders which was not only implemented but subsequently expanded Agricultural Labourers-Farmers (Social Security and Welfare) Scheme in 2006 that targeted agricultural workers and marginal farmers. Just a year before the recent elections, the government launched a housing scheme that sought to convert thatched hutments into concrete houses, a substantial part of the cost being borne by the government.

Though the state has been long known for its ability to devise and effectively implement a number of welfare measures, the promise of welfare was particularly interesting coming as it did during a period of reforms that emphasised cuts in public expenditure. The campaign around welfarism is held to have been largely responsible for the party’s victory in 2006. The DMK-Congress combine’s significant gains in the parliamentary elections in 2009 (despite strong sentiments against the alliance for betraying the Eelam Tamils) were seen as further vindication of these measures. More proof for the role of welfare measures came when both the DMK and the AIADMK came up with competing manifestos in the recent elections that promised a further expansion of services and goods to the poor. The question that therefore needs to be answered is: If it worked for the DMK in 2006 and 2009, what happened in 2011? As recently as a year ago, the AIADMK was seen as a spent force, with the DMK consolidating its power by delivering on all its poll promises. Widespread defections by the AIADMK cadres to the DMK too were reported.

Inadequacy of Welfarism

The first signs came when the DMK yielded to arm-twisting by the Congress which evidently used the 2G telecommunications scam issue to concede 63 seats to the Congress. It was 15 seats more than what was allotted to them in 2006 and many felt that it was way beyond their strength in the state. This concession dampened

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the enthusiasm of those amongst the DMK who still had some ideological moorings. Having already entered into seat-sharing with other parties, the DMK fielded its candidates in only 119 seats and it was very clear that it had to have a partner in government formation even if it won all its seats. The Tamil Nadu electorate has generally voted against the idea of coalition governments in the state. During the 1980 assembly elections, when DMK and Congress contested 117 seats each, they were rejected by the electorate which handed out a resounding victory for the AIADMK. The Congress Party’s attempt to gain a foothold in the state through backdoor manoeuvres has boomeranged once more.

Explaining the Defeat

Though the scale of DMK’s defeat can be attributed to alliance issues and the electoral alliance forged between the AIADMK and Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the defeat in itself needs explanation. There are several factors at work. To begin with, there are issues that are close to people’s livelihoods but did not quite get the attention by the government. Power shortage is probably the most important among them. Even in the 2009 parliamentary elections, though it was seen as a factor likely to ruin DMK’s chances, the implementation of welfare measures appears to have helped the party pull through. However, the newly formed Kong u Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam (KNMK), a party representing the numerically dominant Kongu Vellala caste in western Tamil Nadu took this up as one of its major campaign planks. This region is home to several micro, small and medium enterprises which suffered acutely and continue to suffer to this day from such power shortages. Though the KNMK did not win any seat, its ability to garner votes in the region forced the DMK to give it seven seats in the recent election. Given that the state stakes its claims to be home to the largest number of informal manufacturing enterprises, the impact of power shortages on the viability of these units and accompanying livelihoods is likely to have been widespread across the state.

Distribution of free television sets or the promise of mixies and grinders in the absence of access to electricity cannot be an attractive proposition for long. The price rise is definitely another important factor. Though subsidised rice and other food essen tials are distributed to all the eligible cardholders, food inflation, particularly for other essentials like vegetables and onions was clearly not welcome. Irrespective of whether the price rise was an outcome of national policy or an international phenomenon, the responsibility was evidently fixed on the state government. While the welfare schemes have definitely contributed to providing a safety net, erosion of their real incomes on account of these factors played a crucial role in conditioning voting patterns.

Welfare schemes, when implemented simultaneously and on such a scale are likely to provide a lever for the poor and the vulnerable to escape from the gross uncertainties of insecure livelihoods. Aid e d by the rapid spread of the visual media, this newfound freedom may spawn aspirations on various fronts. Subsidies thro ugh welfare schemes that were attractive in the initial years are now perceived as a pittance compared to the consumption possibilities open to the elite as revealed through the media. It is in this context the voters perceived the news about presumptive losses of Rs 1,76,000 crore in the 2G spectrum allocation. Until this election, it was widely believed that corruption cannot be an issue for the rural poor in their voting decisions especially when they are beneficiaries of a redistributive regime that addresses at least some of their aspirations. A direct correspondence between state welfare programmes and the electoral response of the people was therefore envisaged. The massive mandate for the AIADMK in 2011 clearly indi cates the impermanence of such a linkage. The traditionally imagined divides between the rural semi-literate poor voter concerned merely with welfare as opposed to the urban voter with larger ethical concerns of corruption appear to require a radical rethink. The burgeoning networks of transport and communication – print, visual and the mobile phone – have definitely undermined such divides even if they existed earlier. Broadbasing of education and higher literacy levels due to the social justice plank of the Dravidian movement, and probably even higher levels of media penetration have played an important role. It is pertinent to also note that there were also widespread reports in the media that money was distributed on a massive scale among the voting public to purchase votes despite the Election Commission’s strong measures. If the reports are true, then the results clearly show that votes cannot be purchased.

On another register, the rapidly growing middle classes, the middle peasantry and segments of the informal economy were plainly dissatisfied with the flow of “freebies” to the lower strata of the society. To them, the welfare schemes have incentivised withdrawal of the poorer households from participation in the labour market. Non-availability of labour for

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may 28, 2011 vol xlvi no 22

Economic Political Weekly


various activities, particularly for agriculture and informal non-agricultural work was directly linked to these programmes. Concerns were voiced about how the welfare schemes have rendered the traditionally hardworking Tamil labour unreliable and at worst unavailable for work. There were many letters in the dailies blaming the government for having reduced the poor to beggars and appealing to them to refuse the welfare programmes.

Also as several news reports show, the people at large, especially the first time electorate were concerned with corruption and more importantly the growing concentration of power and wealth within Karunanidhi’s larger family. Concerns about how the government moved primarily to protect or promote family interests and not with any broader concerns of the state seem to be paramount in their minds. This perception was particularly reinforced by the three cinema production houses owned by the grandsons of Karunanidhi. They virtually monopolised the purchasing and selling of films, and advertisements for their films were carried all through the day in the most watched Tamil television channels, owned by the family again. They were also widely reported to exert extra-economic coercion on actors and film theatres to act for the production houses or screen their films.1 The technically savvy among the dissatisfied also deployed modern communication networks to express their concerns over what they saw as unethical ways of accumulating wealth. Virtual networks were awash with half truths and unconfirmed news masquerading as information and knowledge. Rumours of purchase of huge tracts of land by members of Karunanidhi’s family circulated over many of these networks and widely spread across the state.

Such circulation of information gained credence, thanks to the heavy rent-seeking by local party functionaries. There is more than piecemeal evidence from Tamil press to show that they had amassed wealth on a massive scale. They are also alleged to have indulged in questionable land deals earning the displeasure of the local people. Such rent-seeking also antagonised several segments of the informal trading and business classes. This is especially true of the party structure in Chennai city. In what has been seen an impregnable fortress of the DMK even when M G Ramachandran ruled supreme in the rest of the state, the DMK’s influence has slowly eroded with the DMK managing to win just two seats (one of which was with a slender margin, won by Stalin).

As the election results were being discussed on 13 May, a commentator speaking in an English language television channel pointed out that the dictatorial streak in Jayalalithaa makes her an ideal candidate for providing good governance! With the growing belief among the middle classes of the virtues of an authoritarian leader in fast-tracking the economy, they were fed up with the faction feuds within the family and over Karunanidhi’s indecisiveness to mark out a successor; it may well be the case that they feel that Jayalalithaa will work better for them. For those willing to ignore Narendra Modi’s crimes against minorities and celebrate his rule in Gujarat, his presence in Jayalalithaa’s swearingin ceremony would have been a pleasing sight. The irony of the left leaders like A B Bardhan sharing space with Modi (promoted in Tamil Nadu as a model leader by ‘Cho’ Ramasamy, the informal political counsel to Jayalalithaa) was unfortunately lost on many.


The resentment among civil society organisations and sections of the middle classes that the offer of “freebies” was a mechanism to depoliticise the electorate is clearly misplaced. Even as welfare measures are important to electoral prospects, the recent election results clearly show that they are by no means sufficient. Perceptions of inequality and abuse of power would be a potent challenge to future governmental moves to appeal to the electorate. When the DMK lost the elections in 2001, M Karunanidhi said that he would take this as a prize that people have given him for five years of his rule! He was not hiding his disappointment with what he saw as a letdown by the voters. He believed that he would be able to overcome the anti-incumbency factor on the basis of what he perceived as good governance. The period 1996-2001 witnessed several initiatives that focused simultaneously on growth and welfare. There was hardly any accusation of corruption and he had tried to combine the imperative for economic reform with utilisation of funds for local government to provide roads and piped water supply to rural areas of the state.

Though the DMK did not have a single major electoral ally, the party managed to win more than 39% of the vote share in the seats it contested and lost narrowly in many constituencies. In a state, where alliances and anti-incumbent factors have had a major role to play, this was a creditable performance indeed. It would pay for both the parties to take this on board when they chart out future political and governance strategies. While the election results in the state have been favouring the two Dravidian parties alternately since 1977, the parties have managed to occupy the entire political spectrum hardly allowing national parties to gain a foothold. Going by the early moves of the current AIADMK government, there seem to be a seamless continuation of the welfarist policies pursued by the DMK. In fact the first orders signed by Jayalalithaa after taking over as chief minister are all related to various welfare schemes promised in her election manifesto. Whether she will persist with the same trend or revert to cut-backs in the name of fiscal prudence as she did during her previous regime is a moot question. It is not impertinent in this context to consider her speeches during electioneering pointing to the “mounting public debt” and the consequent “ruin” of the economy.

The year 2016 marks the centenary of the “Non-Brahmin Manifesto” that laid the basis for social justice and anti-caste radicalism in the Tamil country. Jayalalithaa has once again proved herself to be alien to this radical legacy by extending her invitation to Narendra Modi for the swearingin ceremony forcing legislator Jawahirulla from her alliance party, the Manitha Neya Makkal Katchi to boycott the ceremony. On the other hand, Karunanidhi, by placing family interests above the party’s, let alone those of the state, has seriously undermined this legacy.



Economic Political Weekly

may 28, 2011 vol xlvi no 22

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