ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Revolution Achieved?

The Latest Study of the Dravidian Movement Follows Its Leaders

Rule of the Commoner: DMK and the Formations of the Political in Tamil Nadu, 1949–1967 co-authored by Rajan Kurai Krishnan, Ravindran Sriramachandran, V M S Subagunarajan, New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 2022, pp xviii+299, $99

Rule of the Commoner: DMK and the Formations of the Political in Tamil Nadu, 1949–1967 attempts to demonstrate that the Dravidian movement, and specifically the first political party to emerge from it in independent India, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was a progressive force that decisively repudiated older forms of caste hegemony not only in theory but in practice. The DMK propagated a thoroughly democratic culture in postcolonial Tamil Nadu (TN), it is argued, successfully instituting the “rule of the commoner” through careful mobilisation of the populace between 1949 and 1967: the routing of Congress by a coalition, including the DMK, in the election of 1967 is adduced as proof. The authors rely primarily on a theoretical apparatus provided by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in writings over the last two decades. Their central argument is that the left populism promoted recently by Mouffe, as a strategy to be used against the right in the face of the failures of older left parties in Europe and Latin America, was in fact already to be found in 1960’s TN.1 An extraordinary political acumen is thus ascribed to the Dravidian movement’s leaders, particularly C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, and E V R Periyar, whose personalities and writings are repeatedly characterised in the book as “bold,” “ingenious,” “stunning,” “remar­kable,” “evergreen,” etc.2

While I find much of interest in the book, its main empirical claims are alre­ady well known and attested in the work of Marguerite Ross Barnett, V Geetha and S V Rajadurai, Arun Swamy and Narendra Subramaniam—namely that new sections of Tamil society were ­politically mobilised, that the DMK promoted democratic decision-making stru­ctures within its organisations (though, importantly, not when the party faced fissiparous threats), that older poli­tical elites were displaced by new less elite entrants, and specifically that overwhel­ming Brahmin preponderance in the new urban professions of law and government, and in the new institutions of higher education, was effectively criti­qued and undercut.3 A more novel contention of Rule of the Commoner is that the Dravidianist challenge to caste domination did not merely displace the Brahmin, but that the movement has given rise to a more thoroughgoing humanism and egalitarianism that successfully pene­trated society through a grassroots move­ment and created a new commonsense. The authors thus seek to counter assessments like that made by David Washbrook and Barnett, who reco­gnised Dravidianism as a vehicle for power brokers of an emergent petit bour­geoisie against an established urban professional class.4 In these acco­unts, Dravidianist politics mobilised popu­lous dominant Backward Castes at the expense of Dalits, by supporting landholders and small-town businessmen. It is important for the reader unfamiliar with Tamil public sphere to know that criticisms similar to those of Washbrook and Barnett have been made by Dalit activists and intellectuals since the founding days of Dravidianism in the late colonial period up to the present.5 It is a pity that ­neither the specifics of these arguments nor the identities of their many significant purveyors find any place in Rule of the Commoner.

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Updated On : 5th Apr, 2023
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