The results to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections held in May, 2016, have proved, once again, that political choice remains bipolar in the land dominated by Dravidian politics. In a space of two years, it has prevailed against a national wave, the ‘Modi phenomenon in the 2014 Parliamentary election; and a multi-party coalition of Left and smaller parties in the form of the Peoples Welfare Alliance in the 2016 Assembly election. There are two messages that the electorate seems to have conveyed to such ‘alternate forces’. One, an alternative should not be merely a slogan or a rhetoric, but needs clarity, credibility and operationalising possibilities. Two, the strong criticism thrown at Dravidian parties for the sake of politics both in the form of over-generalisations and ridicule for social change or transformation have left the electorate, by and large, dismayed.
The alternative political discourse mooted by the Left parties, in particular, the serious efforts by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), (CPI [M]), and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), were mismanaged and deeply personalised by general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and coordinator of the, PWA, Vaiko, and hence, bore no fruits.
Barring the CPI (M) and the VCK, none of the other alliance partners such as the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), the MDMK, or the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) came across as being committed to the basic objectives which the PWA exhibited in its nascent stage. The entire election campaign revolved around who will benefit from the formation of ‘People Welfare Front’. A cluster of mixed voices, including the Left, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and self-proclaimed Tamil nationalists, rose to check the half-a-century Dravidian duopoly in the State. This ought to be read with the reality that the third front experiments have been devalidated in the all-India level.
Facing hardships on charges of disproportionate wealth case and to overcome the constructed corruption image, the AIADMK general secretary, Jayalalithaa, in 2024, broke convention of aligning with national parties, and portrayed herself as a leader of a regional party who aspired for Prime Ministership against the Modi wave – a debatable political manoeuvre, which Indian politics had not seen in the past. This time, the AIADMK was determined to carry forward the same image, and continuing with its massive victory of 2014 parliamentary election, the party decided to go it alone in 2016 Assembly election.
Three different contexts formed the framework for the 2016 Assembly election. Firstly, both the Dravidian parties were framed as decaying political forces in Tamil Nadu. The impact of national politics influenced the educated middle class to shift their loyalty to BJP, which is now fading away. Secondly, due to long-term alliance in electoral politics, the role played by Tamil Nadu’s minor political parties had increased. This led to a big burden for Dravidian parties in choosing the right electoral ally. Third, the DMK and AIADMK did not want to share power in the State with alliance partners under any circumstances. Moreover, over the past decades, almost all Backward and Dalit caste groups have floated parties with their bases in various parts of the State, depending on their numerical dominance. This has pushed the two main Dravidian parties to a situation in which they would have either to seek their alliance, or to force themselves to contest alone.
This refusal by the State’s two major parties – the AIADMK and the DMK – to adopt an inclusive approach, which, in turn, led to the creation of caste-based parties, was not adequately highlighted by the parties proposing to be an alternative. Though the PWF claimed to be the force for the underrepresented, unrepresented and oppressed section of the castes in Tamil society, this was not practiced in spirit as they replicated the pattern of mainstream parties – fielding the same old dominant caste groups, even in Dalit communities.
For example, there was no Arunthathiyar candidate [a category of Dalits, who have a sub-quota in reservation under the Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu because of their social, economic and educational backwardness compared other Dalit castes] in the field, and two Devendrakula Vellalars – [a Dalit caste, which is numerically dominant in the southern districts] were given tickets by the VCK in the 25 seats it contested, which included two Muslims. The VCK’s eagerness to shed its image as a Dalit party which faces political untouchability frequently, made its leader Thol. Thirumavalavan to reach out to other castes in order to expand its vote base and territory.
A note-worthy indication in this election was the representation of Muslims and the space provided by the DMK-led front: five seats to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and four seats to the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), taking the total number of seats allotted to parties representing Muslim interests to nine. The same was reflected in AIADMK by giving two seats to the Jananaayaga Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (JMMK) - a recently break away party from the MMK and headed by Thameem Ansari, who lost in 2011 in Chepauk-Triplicane in alliance with AIADMK by a thin margin.
An added issue was the effect of liquor on society. Excluding the AIADMK, all parties promised total prohibition in the State, where there are increasing number of liquor-related accident and health deaths and Gandhian Sasiperumal’s agitations against liquor shops that were located near schools and temples is evidence that state monopoly over the liquor trade has damaged the social standing of general public to large extent. The principal electoral opposition, DMK, declared that it would enact a law to implement prohibition. The debate has partially succeeded to come to a consensus that total or partial prohibition is need of the hour. This is evident from the change in position by the AIADMK, which was initially steadfast that prohibition would not be rolled back, to subsequently announce in its manifesto promise that it would be implemented “in stages”.
Another context for the battle for power in Tamil Nadu was on who will do better in providing pro-poor welfare policies, programmes by letting off freebies. There has been criticism and concern from various social and economic platforms that freebies were ‘a curse for poor’ as it has been affecting the dignity of the public. For example, stampede had taken place in 2006 flood relief distribution where people rushed to the local office early in the morning and other incidents have been reported regularly from across the State whenever there is free gifts are distributed.
The question to be addressed was how would the government reach out the poor constituting two third population of the State without such free goods. As the DMK had made a rigorous attempt to provide a holistic manifesto, which would encompass the entire class and caste, giving much importance to rural economy and agriculture, the PMK retorted by saying that the former’s manifesto was a mere copy of theirs, as they have been demanding prohibition and calling for a separate budget for agriculture. The Tamil nationalist group headed by cinema director and actor, Seeman, went beyond its own imagination by promising unpopular announcements. After long thought, AIADMK came up with less attractive manifesto promising 50 per cent waive for two wheelers for women.
This election saw a fine combination of arithmetic and chemistry of caste, class, rural, urban and gender. At the same time, it has reminded the Dravidian parties that they should now introspect on their politics from different dimensions. These include restructuring the social composition of the cabinet of Ministers, in which a few dominant castes have been found in prominent positions, and the cabinet status reflecting their caste dominance. This runs counter to the principle of social justice and the dominance of few dominant castes have shredded the ideals of the Dravidian parties. Many of the nominated statutory positions also reflect the dominance by a few backward castes in public institutions.
So far, the electoral outcome been discussed and analysed in the public space on the basis of voting pattern but the shifts that has taken place in certain regions also need attention. The strategic failure of small parties and sub-regional parties like Thevar caste-backed Forward Bloc (FB) in Madurai region, Gounder caste-based Kongu Nadu Makkal Katchi (KNMK) in the western region, Udayar caste-based Indhiya Janayaka Katchi (IJK) in the central region, which had a stronghold in their respective regions have been washed away by the Dravidian parties and it, has eased them to stand alone in a big way.
Revival and resistance against dominance
Tamil Nadu can be divided geographically into seven parts for purpose of analysing regional- dominant caste factor to have a diversified understanding apart from caste and to explore the role of other factors like economic development, unemployment, social (caste) awareness against backwardness of certain communities which are not found in the previous analysis, which determines the outcome of representation in India’s parliamentary democracy. The dominant backward caste groups are widely spread upon regional wise, Mudaliar, Vanniar in upper north and North,
The Upper North region comprises four districts: Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Vellore and Tiruvannamalai. Of the 49 Assembly constituencies in this region, which includes Chennai city, the DMK won in 27 and AIADMK won in 22. The Mudaliar caste was a dominant group in this, which was a stronghold of the DMK. This region has now turned into a Vanniyar hold and the PMK has been an influential alliance partner since the 1998 Lok Sabha election.
1. In the Northern Tamil Nadu region, comprising four more districts - Salem, Dharmapuri, Villupuram and Cuddalore – the PMK has individually made its presence felt, securing more than 50,000 votes in 5 constituencies, 40,000 votes in 3 constituencies, 30,000 in 8 constituencies, 20,000 votes in 21 constituencies and 10,000 and above in 25 constituencies. Though it has secured 5.6 per cent vote share, it could not cross the winning margin in any of the – number of seats in this region, and its long time leaders have all lost.
There is an interesting social dynamic emerging in the region is that there is an anti-Vanniyar vote-bank being consolidated in favour of Dravidian parties. The Mudaliar community, which was ruling the region right from the Justice Party era had felt let down by the Dravidian parties, because of its declining representation and emergence of Vanniar dominance in the region and shifted its loyalty to BJP in the last Lok Sabha election. The New Justice Party leader, A.C. Shanmugam, secured second place in the BJP alliance. It is important that this region is equally dominated by Muslims who have been supporters of DMK was an added advantage to maintain the secular credentials taking Dalit Christian population in to account. The PMK had a reason to dare the Dravidian parties to prove its strength, but falling into its own deep pit due to exclusive focus on issues pertained only to Vanniars, without securing a single member in the Assembly.
The defeat of Anbumani Ramadass to the DMK by a huge margin in Pennagaram in Dharmapuri district – the ‘cradle of PMK’ has shocked the PMK’s top leadership. The issue of ‘son of the soil’ is been raised within the party against the domination of leaders from other regions who contested in the Dharmapuri district like P.T. Elangovan from Bhuvanagiri, Cuddalore District, Pari Mohan from Salem in the past and now, Anbumani himself, have fallen prey reveals that Vanniyar have started rethinking representative politics within their caste identity, locality, nativity and accessibility voting for a Vannar candidate outside the PMK.
2. Western Tamil Nadu, also known as the Kongu belt has undergone a serious change in the current election. In the 38 constituencies in this region where the Gounder caste is numerically dominant, the DMK managed to salvage itself from its past poor performance. In 30 constituencies it narrowed, the difference in votes secured compared with previous elections from 50 percent of votes secured to 90 percent. It won seven assembly constituencies. In 2011, DMK won three seats only including Ottanchathiram in Dindigul district. The organisational collapse in the Kongu region and cross voting in favour of caste and candidate has given AIADMK a lease of life. According to the vote share, there is an invisible, latent and strong anti-incumbency felt in the region. The other reason was said that many of the DMK District Secretaries were denied tickets have challenged the high command’s decision for fielding candidates without their consent also a reason for DMK lost in the region.
It is important to note that the Kongu region, which is always, draws the attention as a laggard in development, had more than a half a dozen ministers with powerful portfolios in the outgoing AIADMK Council of Ministers. Important portfolios including Industries, Public Works, Highways, Higher Education, Local Body and Municipal Administration, Transport were given to Ministers from the Gounder caste group, which proved its loyalty during the 2016 Assembly election. However, the shrinking margin shows that there was a tide against the AIADMK from the non-Gounder caste groups.
3. Similarly, in the Southern region, the Thevar caste group also had many powerful portfolios in the outgoing Council of Ministers, such as Finance, Revenue, Health, Food, Cooperation, Law and other equivalent positions. However, in contrast to the Western region, the Thevars dominated constituencies have maintained margins very few constituencies fell short in the margin.
Therefore, it was the two dominant caste groups, which had immense influence in the cabinet by occupying more than half of the portfolios in the outgoing Council of Ministers played a strong role in consolidating their respective castes towards AIADMK to overshadow the anti-incumbency. Since AIADMK has become a party of dominant caste groups, the strategy of DMK has also worked out clearly by securing more seats in the upper north, north and down south regions where caste, religion mattered to maintain credentials of its secular and social justice.
On the one hand the criticism drawn from some quarters that the Congress was a liability to DMK in the election, recalling serious setback after 2011 assembly and 2014 parliamentary election. This had been a constant criticism on DMK for having alliance in 1980, which resulted in dissolution of AIADMK government in 1979 for rout out in the parliamentary election and whenever it is defeated with Congress alliance. However, AIADMK too had suffered defeat in Congress alliance in 1996. In the present context, the long-term identity politics has given a scope for DMK and AIADMK to enjoy privilege to larger extent but compromising on principle ideology still plays a role in reshaping Dravidian politics in its third generation also. The analysis reveals that addressing equality in caste representation among Dalits and religious minorities have not been dealt with due concern. However, Dalits have always voted to Dravidian parties largely, the cabinet berths and politically important positions still given to the backward castes have consolidated in favour of both Dravidian parties.
Regional Divide: Reflection of Caste consolidation
It was an unusual scenario witnessed this time that the voters turnout percentage fell to an unexpected level, as violence prone States such as West Bengal, Assam and Kerala have shown much greater participation than Tamil Nadu. The much-expected young voters ‘Netizens’ have not made any great difference even after Election Commission instructed the Information Technology and related private companies to declare holiday for exercising their vote. The lowest turnout in Chennai city and suburban constituencies reflects the political neutrality of the youth and have abstained their position.
What forced the Dravidian parties and other alliance parties to contest alone?
There are two kinds of discourses that keep reinforcing the personality cult in Tami Nadu. One is that all the parties should contest alone in order to get a true measure of their respective vote bank balances at the grass-root level, and/or the popular endorsement of the party’s leader. Even in this context, the AIADMK’s founder and the three time late Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, succeeded thanks to a strong alliance with the Indian National Congress [INC, then the Congress (I)] which he had in the successive elections in 1980, 1984 as well.
This trend of allying with the INC found convenient one to achieve power for both DMK and AIADMK. However, the reverse turn took by Jayalalithaa in 2014 Lok Sabha Election to contest the election on its own. The Grand Alliance became misnomer and the way AIADMK leadership treated its alliance partners during the seat sharing. The same alliance parties bargained seats with DMK, citing their organisational and regional leadership divide in the party. As a part of building secular alliance and the corruption charges against DMK during 2011 Assembly election, it was the INC which bargained for, and got, more number of seats and forced DMK to minimize its constituencies to contest only in 124 seats, thereby downsizing the vote share of DMK. (Refer Table.2)
A- Refers to Assembly election P- refers to parliamentary election
First, it was the DMK, which felt the broadband alliance affected their vote share in the elections consecutively after 1996. Since then, the DMK had continued to build larger alliance against AIADMK in 2004 Parliamentary election distributed 50 per cent of the seats to the alliance partners. The same alliance continued in the 2006 Assembly election, but failed to win adequate seats for the DMK to gain a majority in the Assembly as it contested in 124 seats and won in 96. Though it formed the government on the merit of being the largest political group in the Assembly, supported by the INC, it faced constant criticism from Jayalalithaa, who termed it a “minority government”.
In 2011, due to exposure of 2G spectrum and various other internal reasons, the DMK was bound to allot 71 seats to the INC, which was an all-time high after 1980. After winning 1979 Lok Sabha election in a big way DMK-INC alliance continued in 1980 Assembly election, which shared 110 seats equally with DMK. Like 1980, both the parties suffered loss in 2011, with the DMK winning only in 23 seats and the INC in five seats. This defeat was widely attributed to perceptions about ‘family rule, a regional leader’s power politics, and charges of corruption, which resulted in the defeat of the DMK, rather than the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, despite the then DMK government performing meticulously on many social and economic fronts.
The DMK had earned for itself a position as an ‘accountable and reliable alliance partner’ from the BJP and the INC as it had extended continuous support to these two parties in the Union government between 1996 and 2013 [barring a short period in 1998-99]. As a consequence of this power sharing in the centre, it received many national projects for the overall development of Tamil Nadu and enjoyed many privileges. Since it contested the parliamentary election in the alliance with other smaller parties, these coalitions continued in the Assembly elections too. Over a period of time, the DMK became heavily dependent on alliances rather than raising its political issues to secure the social base for its regional identity politics.
Therefore, the alliance factor weakened the individual vote share of DMK continuously, which in turn, affected its widespread presence across the State. As it was in alliance with many parties, it was attributed that without any strong alliance DMK would not be able to come to power in the State. As a result, of this shrinkage in vote share, reducing it to status as an alliance partner, albeit a leading one, the DMK began to realise that it had to regain party’s individual vote share and recapture its shrinking political space. The alliance partners, who continuously got benefitted for the long time in the DMK combine; PMK, INC and left parties, considered it has no ‘strong vote bank like AIADMK’ due to its internal crisis DMK projected itself as weak force’ without alliance partners support hard to achieve power. As the DMK is in the process of leadership change in future and M. K. Stalin is seen as successor and the MDMK general secretary Vaiko who broke away from DMK against heir politics has been an arch rival for M. K. Stalin who planned for political exclusion of DMK followed by the DMDK, Left parties and VCK and vice versa. M. K. Stalin who led the campaign machinery in 2009 Lok Sabha elelction and 2011 Assembly election found to be the decision maker in the matters of alliance determined to contest alone to prove the DMK’s organizational strength. Moreover, to avoid criticism from the alliance partners, as five term ruled DMK has become increasingly dependent of alliance partners where its individual vote share got affected and that affects DMK during the seat sharing in election after election.
After 1996, the more focussed economic growth and investment based development altered and taken the relevance of Dravidian movement away from its regional ethnic Tamil identity politics. As the DMK and AIADMK became an integral part in the past two decades of coalition politics at the centre, DMK a party, which raised many issues with regard to Srilankan Tamils in 1980s. The way it was synthesized that the LTTE and Srilankan Tamils issue cannot be separated. Primarily, AIADMK founder the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. G. Ramachandran supported LTTE. DMK supported LTTE when it came to power in 1989 after 13 years of wilderness in electoral politics. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the anti- LTTE political mood in Tamil Nadu generated by the then AIADMK-Congress alliance in 1991, forced DMK to alter its policy towards LTTE. Finally, in 2009, the war between LTTE and Srilankan army Indian government’s intervention was sought to stop the war in which thousands of civilians were killed. Being an important alliance partner DMK, failed to influence the UPA government, but the popular expectation was that DMK would quit the government to stick with its long term ideological standing on Tamil Identity politics.
In Post 1996 politics, DMK emerged as party which can engage in dialogue with the national parties so as to claim its state autonomy and regional share of power at the central coalition governments. Though it’s inception in politics against INC was revived from time to time at some crucial situation after proclamation of emergency. DMK had a political uncertainty over the continuity of state power since DPA led by Janata Dal headed by Deve Gowda and I.K.Gujral, even after defeating Jayalalithaa in 1996 drastically. The 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections have reshaped the Dravidian politics and came to a conclusion to be an influential alliance partner to increase its bargaining power keeping its core ideology at the back seat. During 1998, when Jayalalithaa had alliance with BJP along with smaller state parties like MDMK, PMK, it could be interpreted as emergence of ‘multi-polar politics’ in Tamil Nadu as BJP is part of that to break the monopoly of Dravidian parties. In 1998, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK departed from BJP alliance, DMK replaced it in 1999 with same alliance partners MDMK, PMK and BJP. This ideological irony had greater electoral repercussions that in 2001 minorities’ votes in Tamil Nadu largely helped AIADMK come back to power even after facing so many corruption charges and DMK had performed its best after 1971-76. Minorities’ role in deciding Dravidian rule in Tamil Nadu became central to the ideological and electoral alliance and DMK lost its accountability with religious minorities that too from Muslims for whom they voted for long time.
Challenging the Educational policies of BJP at the centre and state policies like anti-conversion law bill, banning animal sacrifice at the place of worship and scraping the free electricity to the farmers, the minorities consolidation against BJP and AIADMK once again favoured DMK. This point of juncture in Tamil Nadu politics had high polarization of minorities, Dalits and other caste forces emerged as consistent players in the regional politics on par with DMK and AIADMK and left parties. The combination of left, MDMK, PMK, VCK and congress defeated AIADMK in 2004 parliamentary election. The Congress led UPA took a final shape in Tamil Nadu against BJP at the national level. DMK president M.Karunanidhi continued to play a key role in deciding central rule and policies. Though DMK could be in power from 2006-2001 but multi-polar politics consistently affected the vote share of DMK from 1996 onwards, and finally it thwarted the party in 2014 parliamentary election after the severe defeat in 2011 by the AIADMK-DMDK-Left parties alliance. DMK’s family politics was exposed being part of Congress at the central rule and getting many important portfolios ended up in many allegations like 2G spectrum, in which DMK became a target for all the national and regional parties. Srilankan war, 2G spectrum are the major factors fuelled for DMK’s recent set back. The more important thing that DMK could not change many of its policies within the party structure except few like appointing Dalits and women as second level positions when it was out of office. The new dimension that is to be worked out is to have ‘inclusive social coalition’ where there is a possibility for widening the social base taken away by DMDK, PMK, VCK and other smaller parties. Controlling the dominance of Backward castes influence in the party and redistributing the representation with share of power to the newly emerging social groups would really bring a new scope for Dravidian politics in future.
Checking the Dominance: Perception of small parties about DMK
A shift has been taken place in the debate from heir politics targeting Stalin to other family members also drawn into criticism and leaving Stalin out of the family frame. As Nirmala Subramaniam observed that:
It has to be Jayalalithaa’s good fortune that in the popular mind, the DMK remains a “2G-corruption” tainted party but corruption charges against her or the AIADMK don’t stick as much. In many places, reminders about the ongoing disproportionate assets case against her were met with a shrug and a counter question: And the DMK is clean? Jayalalithaa’s rumoured ill-health also did not matter. For one thing, the immediate comparison was with the wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi. Diehard AIADMK supporters don’t believe anything could be wrong with her health, just as many of them still continue to vote for the AIADMK in the belief that MGR never died.
The other side of the coin in analysing the defeat of DMK is, if it could have managed with less number of constituencies DMK would have been in a better position to topple AIADMK. The AIADMK has performed in the Congress contested constituencies raising the question of cooperation extended to Congress from DMK. Nevertheless, arguably that western part of Tamil Nadu (Kongu Region) even after having issues like sickening of Textile garment industries, migration, electricity shortage, frequent power cut could have gone against the AIADMK. Even DMK could not succeed in the constituencies where both had straight contest. The sharp decline of AIADMK votes in this region reveals a silent change is taking place against the industrial class and dominant peasant castes. However, Sam Soloman statistically substantites that:
In constituencies where the DMK contested, it won 41 per cent of the votes, more than the AIADMK’s average of 40.77 per cent. But the Congress won only 36.63 per cent of the votes in the constituencies it contested. Therefore, the DMK-led alliance would likely have won more seats overall had fewer seats been allotted to the Congress.
Continuing Political Exclusion of DMK, it was the Sri Lankan Tamils issue that demoralized and isolated the DMK. Vaiko’s role in PWF – played spoilsport to ‘alternative initiative’ which in turn affected the prospective Left, and VCK. The overwhelming importance given to DMDK was the core issue of the PWF which had a stream of leaders for articulating regional interests, social problems and political change. Over projection of DMDK and its inadequate potential and minimal role of MDMK which has already doomed out by the two big parties.
The MDMK was the party made ‘Mission Possible’, though it lost drastically but strategically gained by defeating DMK and putting blockade to M.K. Stalin, but huge loss in the political accountability for Vaiko. The severe criticism against Vaiko was that he could use the platform to defeat DMK and Stalin instead of sowing seed to the Non-DMK/AIADMK party rule seemed to be ideal, and was a mismatch for the political reality.
It is all said that women voters brought the AIADMK to power and being its supremo a woman. Then the next logic found here was the symbol ‘two leaves’. These two logics seems to be very carefully interpreted, analytically de-tracking because the same symbol and women has disapproved the same party in 1996, 2006 assembly elections and in 1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 parliamentary elections, even after the ‘carefully cultivated image of MGR’ is been used as emotional trap. The discrete relationship of the freebie has not made any great impact against other important issues like prohibition, electricity, agriculture and honour killings. The social/caste consolidation ruled out all the issues.
1. Subramanian, N. 2016. “Win it like Jayalalithaa”, The Indian Express , May 21.
See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/jayalalitha-congress-dmk-aiadmk campaign-2811344/#sthash.z3svsANu.dpuf
2. Soloman, S. 2016. “ Lokniti-CSDS Post-poll Survey: DMK needed broader alliance to consolidate anti-AIADMK vote “, The Indian Express , May 24.
3. Radhakrishnan R.K., 2016. “ Tamil Nadu’s Experiments with Electoral Alliance “, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy , April 18.