The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 23, 2001

The roots of Jayalalithaa’s politics
Review by Ashutosh Kumar

Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India
by Narendra Subramanian. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Rs 250.

AMONG the post-colonial countries India was until recently widely regarded a unique success case in the management of ethnic conflict. This was understandable given the considerable ethnic — cultural diversities and lack of literacy, industrial growth and democratic history — the ingredients of democracy at the time of de-colonisation. This success was attributed to the implementation of the idea of Indian democracy drawing on the values like pluralism, tolerance and accommodation. Thus a secular, federal, socialist and welfarist India — re-organised on linguistic basis and led by the pan — Indian parties succeeded to a large extent in giving the diverse ethnic political communities a feeling of having equal role in the task of nation — building in the first years of Indian independence.

However, in the past three decades "pluralism and democracy have been abridged and accommodative institutions weakened", especially in the post-Mandal mandir market India. The decline of the Congress as providing the "dominant centre" also contributed to the breakdown of a consensual mode of politics. consequently, the regional political forces gained in terms of mass support, in many cases by promoting ethnic alternatives to pan-Indian nationalism. In such cases it has led to secessionist violence and state coercion. Democracy has suffered in these states both in the procedural and substantive sense — Punjab, Kashmir and the north-eastern states.


It is in the above context that Tamil Nadu receives our attention, as despite advocating "the politics of blood" all these years, the Dravidian party politics in the state has never led to "rivers of blood, contrary to the predominant trend. The book under review comes around as the most comprehensive, theoretically coherent and systemic study of the Dravidian movement in South India in recent decades. While analysing what is among Asia’s oldest and most durable ethno-national movement, the author presents significant arguments about the mass politics of mobilisation practised by the Dravidian parties since their inception, tracing the major shifts in all their complexities in a comparative manner. This theory-driven doctoral research draws empirically from the varied sources such as the electoral statistics, media reports, interviews with some of the principal actors and the people, reviews of films, theatre, fiction and short stories.

The Dravidian movement, the author argues, with its emphasis on the "distinctive language, caste structure and religious practices of Tamil Nadu" not only "best exemplifies the distinctive features of south Indian society" but is also "notable in the Indian context". Many of its features that found expression early in the movement later appeared in other parts of India. First, the demands for secession in states like Nagaland and Kashmir found its earliest expression (though without much mass support) in 1938 with the demand for independence by the Justice Party, a proponent of Dravidian politics. Even now "a sense of cultural distinctness remains politically relevant".

Second, the regionalisation federalisation of party politics evident in post-Congress India today can be traced to Tamil Nadu as the Dravidian "ethnic" parties became the first to marginalise Congress as the natural party of governance in the 60s itself, when the DMK, an offshoot of DK, won power in 1967 and was succeeded by its offshoot AIADMK thus setting an uninterrupted trend.

Third, the upsurge of the backward castes and Dalit-based parties on the common plank of social justice in post-Mandal India can be traced to the usage of "non-Brahminism" as an ideology by the Dravidian parties.

Fourth, the recent attempt to effect a social coalition of the intermediate peasant castes and the Dalits in the Hindi heartland was evident as early as in the Dravidian politics in the 1880s.

Fifth, while caste-based preferential policies, especially for the OBCs came into prominence only after the reservations announced by Prime Minister V.P. Singh, such policies were advocated by the Dravidian parties, first by pressurising the post-independence Congress regime to introduce intermediate caste quotas and then by increasing them after assuming power (69 per cent since 1980s).

Sixth, the features of "third electoral system" like emergence of two-party, two-front dominant party coalition, widened the level of electoral politics, a durable voter alignment evident in most of the states since the early 1990s has been an intrinsic part of the electoral politics of Tamil Nadu since 1960s itself.

Dravidian parties with their success seem to have shaped the ongoing trend in Indian politics, especially in north India in a significant manner. This is interesting because the language and caste structure of Tamil Nadu has been very different from that of the Hindi heartland. Of course, there has been a major difference in the context of the politics of Hindutva. "Not only did Dravidianism develop in a direction contrary to that of Hindu revivalism; it also inhibited Hindu revivalist growth in Tamil Nadu, for which there was considerable potential as the vast majorities of the state’s inhabitants are Hindu".

The above brings us to the central questions taken up in the study, which seem to be most pertinent for an India reeling under an upsurge of politics based on divisive obscurantist populism in the past decade. There are: "How can pluralist democracy be preserved under conditions of high ethnic mobilisation when accommodative compacts between states and ethnic elites prove inadequate to the task? Under what conditions does populism temper the potential of ethnicity to provoke disintegrative social conflict, and instead promote pluralist democracy? When is populism likely to attain sustained success in semi-industrialised societies and aid the representation of emergent social groups?"

While trying to answer these questions Subramanian having the privilege of being linked to society studied, his parents’ caste origins, defied the implacable antagonism underlining the Dravidian politics with father being a Brahmin and mother a descendent of two intermediate mercantile-artisan castes, sets out to articulate theoretical formulations of peoples politics by placing the detailed analysis in a comparative perspective.

A quick word on the methodology adopted by the author — presented as "a diasporic Indian (but culturally rooted Tamil) and declassed intellectual of colour" — before we go on to the formulations. Based on archival and original ethnographic material, the study in the form of a narrative considers "individuals embedded in particular social contexts" as units of analysis. Drawing from different theoretical traditions and disciplines the author prefers to "march without a flag" and firmly believes that his type of "close studies of particular contexts" has for long "helped generate theories when their findings were placed in a comparative context".

Based on his study of the Dravidian movement, the author formulates that "organisational pluralism can channel ethnic and populist forces towards promoting stability, social pluralism and the increased representation of emergent groups within a democratic system". Significantly the early mass Dravidian organisations like self respect association and the DK did follow the politics of hearsay by undertaking the demonstrative acts of idol breaking and burning copies of the Part III of the Indian Constitution concerning religious freedoms besides privileging only the intermediate Tamil castes — all having the possibility of threatening social stability and harmony.

However, the DK’s attempt to make ethnic appeals reduced it to "a vehicle of protest, rather than change". It was the DMK, an offshoot of the DK that incorporated the "early Dravidianism’s essentialised ethnic categories within a populist discourse, which inspired the mobilisation of a broad coalition spanning the intermediate and lower strata". The author explains the shift from "a politics of hearsay to a politics of community" to the emergence of "a paternalist strand to Dravidian populism". Annadurai was the first DMK leader to evoke paternalist appeals. However, it was MGR who was primarily associated with the paternalist facet of the Dravidian politics. As the "political sentiments of MGR’s fans were shaped by MGR’s films, in which ethnic appeals played a limited role" most of these fans (and also the cadres drawn by paternalist populism of the DMK) were reluctant to support the continuation of violence or agitation-based politics veering around ethnic demands bordering on secessionism and autonomy. The fan club loyalties were primarily to MGR and only by association to the party. This formation and growth of the autonomy of the paternalist populist subculture forced the DMK leadership to respond to the feelings of the paternalist clientele. That explains the restraint shown by the party leadership in the language agitation in the 1960s.

Subsequently, the formation of the AIADMK in 1973 further "diminished ethnic stridency" as the new party was "shaped in a paternalist mould, and used ethnic appeals to augment its prestige and that of its leader rather than to mobilise protest".

The "strident autonomist postures" of the DMK over the years got further diluted with the AIADMK electoral successes over the next decades even in the face of the secessionist movement in Sri Lanka. The assertive and paternalist strands of Dravidian populism in these decades represented by the DMK and AIADMK respectively mobilised somewhat distinct social coalitions. "As neither coalition was sufficiently large to ensure the party a electoral victory, the regimes had to address some of the demands of both to retain power". In the process, social policies were set for the betterment of a whole range of the intermediate and lower strata.

The above explains as to why the forces of Hindutva which swept the Hindi heartland in the 1990s failed to grow in Tamil Nadu, particularly in areas where the Dravidian parties dominated, more so the DMK, as "due to their organisational pluralism, the Dravidian parties embraced populism in ways that not only contained the intolerant potential of ethnicity, but also promoted social pluralism, the increased representation of emergent groups and the stabilisation of democracy amidst growing mass mobilisation".

There is a lesson from the Dravidian "politics of community" for the pluralist Indian democracy reeling under a communal onslaught. As the organisations perpetrating it "are hierarchical in structure, with leaders nominating lower level office holders and complete activists loyalty", the way to curb the strident religious revivalism lies in the mobilisation of informed citizens committed to pluralism and tolerance and autonomy of states and ethnic parties and their engagement with both the state and ethnic forces which can be directed towards pluralism. It would effectively ensure that "states and other forces are constrained from repressing initiatives to reinforce pluralist democracy, and the emergence of states and more parties inclined to foster such initiatives is facilitated".

The book comes across as a remarkable study of the politics and society of Tamil Nadu from the vantage point of the Dravidian politics that can be used as a standard reference work. A must for those interested in the politics of South India.