“In particular, I have come here as the representative of the weaker sections of our society, the toiling masses, farmers, poor agricultural labourers and women, to give oral manifestation to their feelings, aspirations and legitimate desires and make them known to the rest of the country.”
This was a line from the maiden speech of Ms. J. Jayalalithaa at the Rajya Sabha in 1984. The history of politics in Tamil Nadu is interesting. Populism forms the premise of both the major parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Since the 70s, amongst several regional and national parties, only these two parties have been in dominance as the ruling power, and so TN politics can simply be labelled as ‘competitive populism’. The elements of the state’s populist politics have been associated with the ideology of the ‘Dravidian’ and the ‘common man’. This article briefly brushes the idea behind the ‘Common man’ and ‘Dravidian’ ideologies in Tamil Nadu Politics then and now.
The Dravidian concept works at the national level. The Dravidian parties have mammoth support from TN people for almost five decades now. Dravidianism was the concept of an ‘inclusive Tamil nationalism’, which first emerged in the 1930s. It surfaced from anti-brahmanism dominance, which was against the dominance of only Brahmins, who were considered Aryans, in white collar jobs. It was Periyar (E.V.Ramasamy) who led this movement and connected the Dravidian community with non-Sanskritic Tamil language because Sanskrit was linked with Aryans. The interesting thing about the movement was that Dravidianism was linked to Tamil culture and territory instead of non-Brahmin categories such as Shudras uniting against Brahmins. Whenever certain elements of Tamil extremism came into play, the inclusive Tamil nationalism acted as the guard to the huge population of Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Sourashtra speaking population living in the state. Later, the populist elements of this Dravidian movement were projected into politics by C.N.Annadurai (‘Arignar Anna’), who founded DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). This ideology strongly resonated with the people of TN which gave DMK the momentum to throw over the Congress party and take a firm hold from 1960s. Since the populist politics did not take up the form of ethnical identity, it regulated ethnic conflicts which arose due to language pressures. The founder of AIADMK, Dr. MGR was a non-native Tamil speaker.
And this Dravidianism ideology holds true even now. The 2014 general elections saw the ‘Modi wave’. But in TN, it was AIADMK that won a thundering majority of 37 seats out of 39 seats, without an alliance with any national party. When it comes to general elections, it is always the Dravidian ideology that plays strong which is the perception that “any issue that concerns TN, will only be championed by ‘our’ Dravidian parties in the Lok Sabha”.
The ideology of the ‘common man’ has been playing strong at the state level. Here, leaders from various spheres are highly revered but leaders in politics and the Tamil movie industry are plainly worshipped by a huge number of people. It is not surprising that many leaders in TN politics were and are from the Tamil movie industry. Notably, former CM, Mr. M. Karunanidhi (DMK) was a movie scriptwriter who has held office five times. The former Chief Minister Ms. J.Jayalalithaa who held office for the fifth time was an actor who has done over 140 movies in four languages.
The professional marriage of cinema and politics in TN started in late 70s with Dr. M.G.Ramachandran (aka Dr. MGR) who was a famous actor who has done more than 130 films. During his early acting tenure (in 1950s), he had gained a huge fan following which achieved a cult status which exists even today. His fans address him as ‘Vaathiyaar’ (teacher) since almost all of his movies consisted of speeches, dialogues and songs that schooled people in ethics, moral values and duty as a good citizen. The populist element that made him a successful politician was his representation of the ‘common man’.
Most of his movies were swashbuckler movies in which he plays the brave hero who works and fights for rights and welfare of the common people, questions injustice, rescues damsels in distress, battles evil and saves the day. Majorly, this ideal superhero’s on-screen socio-economic status was that of a low-income individual and/or one who belonged to the blue-collar workers class. He has played the roles of a building contractor (Koduthu Vaithaval), farmer (Periya Idathu Penn, Vivasaayee, Oru Thaai Makkal), hunter (Vettaikaaran), labourer (Thozhizhaali), reporter (Chandhrodhayam), blacksmith (Thanipiravi), circus artist (Parakkum Paavai), garage owner (Thaaikku Thalaimagan), driver (Kaavalkaaran), cowherd (Maatukaara Velan) and many more. His most famous role for which he won the national award was that of a rickshaw driver (Rickshawkaaran), which immensely attracted the masses and elevated him to a God-like status. All these roles appealed to the emotions of the common man. The lower-middle, lower class, the blue-collar workers class in Tamil Nadu had immeasurable respect towards him and worshipped him.
When MGR decided to jump on the politics wagon full-time (he founded AIADMK), he leveraged the sentiment of the role dearest to him, ‘the common man’, and won the state elections. During his stint as the CM he introduced many welfare schemes such as free-electricity to farmers and popularised the nutrition-meal scheme. He swayed TN’s public policy and directed resources towards the needs and aspirations of weaker sections of society. Since he created a movement which was close to a workers’ revolution, he was fondly called Puratchi Thalaivar (revolutionary leader) (Yes, most top political leaders in TN have a title, some which people fondly honoured them with, some which they kept themselves).
But with MGR, one could say that he believed in this cause. Seeing this, the opposition DMK also followed the same trajectory. For the past 30 years, after MGR’s death, this has resulted in competitive populism and we now know dozens of new ‘populist welfare schemes’ being announced even today such as distribution of free TVs and ‘thaalikku thangam’ (gold for women getting married). The days of MGR and Aringnar Anna had a true sense of Dravidianism and common man ideologies but the state politics post their era has seen many schemes targeted at caste-banks and Dalits only to garner votes but had poor implementation and effect on real development and upliftment of communities.
As we now see the rise of populism in western world politics, this article titled ‘It’s still the economy stupid’, mentions how populism forms the crux of ‘illiberal democracy’. This aligns with what is happening today in Tamil Nadu. Competitive populism has reduced the elections as a platform for accepting social bribes! Although many welfare schemes have increased the state’s debt woes, the majority of voters in TN still choose to vote based on freebies that each party has to offer. This makes them dormant recipients of freebies and not active citizens, which becomes convenient enough for the ruling power to have their way. Certain authoritarian leaders and their personality-driven politics, and parties with immediate and extended families in positions and portfolios have removed the essence of a liberal democracy in the state.
And there is one major disadvantage of personality driven populist politics: The crisis that occurs when the leader is no more or not active. Currently the situation of both the major parties is a state of uncertainty and debate concerning ‘Who holds the reigns Vs Who is actually eligible’ while the issues concerning Tamil Nadu becomes a second (or further down) priority sadly. And this is what is happening right now, since Sasikala Natarajan is now widely perceived as the ‘modern day usurper of the throne’.
Tamil Nadu now needs a new, honest swashbuckler to save the day! Or actually, it needs a bunch of them with intelligence, work ethics, genuine public interest without self-interest, education and internet.
Image source: Internet search – SivaDigitalArt