Past Continuous: BJP’s Failure in Tamil Nadu Can Be Traced Back to Congress’s 1967 Defeat There

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.


Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa paying tributes to MGR’s statue in Chennai. Credit: PTI

The fourth general elections in India 50 years ago in 1967 changed the course of national politics in many ways and was a precursor to coalition politics. Not only was the dominance of the Congress party challenged for the first time – it clung on to power at the Centre with a wafer thin majority – but the party also lost its majority in ten states. These were Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Punjab, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress eventually staged a comeback in all but Tamil Nadu.

While politics in the state is yet to put the post-Jayalalithaa power struggle behind it, it is also now half a century since a national party played a decisive role in Tamil politics on its own. Voted out in 1967, the Congress has never again seen the doors of government and remains dependent on one regional party or the other. This atypical landmark – of no national party forming the government in the state – coincides with the so far clumsy attempt by the BJP to emerge as a significant force in state politics. Its efforts so far, either in partnership with one of the two factions of the AIADMK or with the still-to-decide Rajnikanth, are yet to bear fruit.

The reasons behind the BJP’s failure to play a decisive role on its own in Tamil politics so far and its unlikeness in the future, is rooted in events that led to the humiliating defeat of the Congress in the 1967 assembly elections. At that time, the party won only 51 seats out of the 234 at stake. In comparison, the DMK won 137 seats out of the 174 it contested and bagged a phenomenal 54.3% vote share in seats contested.

In eleven subsequent assembly elections and twelve rounds of parliamentary polls, the Congress contested as a junior ally of one of the two main Dravidian parties, the DMK or the AIADMK. The secondary role that the Congress chose for itself in the 1971 elections became the template for future polls, for it and other national parties. The BJP too grapples with this predicament being unable to envisage a leading role in any partnership. In the elections in March 1971, despite riding a popular wave nationally, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress faction entered into a pact with the DMK in which it contested just nine parliamentary seats but no assembly seat.

Also read: Past Continuous: Two Judgements That Held the Constitution Above Parliament

The secondary presence of national parties in Tamil Nadu stems from two dominant features of state politics: the Dravidian movement and its ideology of Draviadianism that dominated political culture and social discourse. The second feature that had a pioneering effect on other states and parties was the distinctive use of populism as electoral craft by the two Dravidian parties.

Though referred to as the Dravidian movement, the complex weave of caste, religious and linguistic concerns that articulated itself as a collective response from the early decades of the 20th century, remained confined to Tamil Nadu. This has been the principal reason behind the continued significance of national parties in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. The idea and ideology of the Dravidian movement has not spread beyond Tamil Nadu because of its rootedness in Tamil nationalism which in turn had more than just traces of non-Brahminism.

The absence of non-Brahmin upper castes in significant numbers in Tamil Nadu enabled class and social polarisation between Tamilian Brahmins and others and they were depicted as outsiders who brought Brahminical – and discriminatory – Hinduism to Tamil Nadu. Consequently, when Dravidianism as an ideology developed, atheism and linguistic nationalism became its cornerstones. No such unifying cultural identity emerged in other southern states and this is the reason why Telangana was eventually hived off and the demand for Coorg or Kodagu, though muted currently, keeps rearing its head ever so often.

The 1967 rout of the Congress – significantly this was not in terms of vote share – was preceded by a several decades old emotional agitation against the Centre’s attempt to declare Hindi as the official language. With its origins in the Congress government’s 1937 decision to introduce Hindi in secondary schools, the agitation gathered momentum as the January 1965 deadline neared for Hindi to become the sole official language of India.

Yet, the defeat of the Congress was principally due to DMK striking strategic alliances with, among other parties, the Swatantra Party on the one hand and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on the other. The Congress party, with a vote share of 41%, was bested due to a swing of just 5% away from it compared to 1962.

This indicates that till 1967, when DMK’s vote share was a just 0.3 percentage points lower than the Congress’s, Tamil nationalism was not the dominant idea in the state. It is only later, due to political strategies adopted by the Congress – and by other national parties like Janata Party in 1977 and the BJP in recent years – that Tamil nationalism propelled the two regional parties. There is little doubt that in the five decades since 1967, the language of the Dravidian movement has become hegemonic. However, its outcome in terms of realpolitik and state policy is not conclusive but only ponderable.

Existing political parties, and new players like Rajnikanth and even the BJP, will have to navigate through the contradiction of a more than half a century idea that remains dominant but essentially in form of lip-service, that despite Dravidianism and promissory populism being the fundamentals of electoral gambit for 50 years, neither DMK nor AIADMK tried to push for greater regional autonomy. Instead, Tamil nationalism has become synonymous with just ensuring a lion’s share in alliances with national parties. Many will also contend that the frequency of corruption charges in Tamil Nadu is indicative of public sentiment being harnessed by parties and leaders solely to acquire personal riches.

Because two-thirds to three-fourth of popular vote is garnered in almost every elections from the 1980s by Dravidian parties, every aspirant to power has to position itself as a protector of Tamil culture. Not just DMK and AIADMK, but several of smaller caste-based parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, ceased limiting themselves to caste-based appeals and began addressing issues that appealed to Tamil nationalist sentiments – whether over matters relating to Tamils in Sri Lanka, for the classification of Tamil language or against the Centre’s language policy to promote Hindi.

Besides centrism of regional identity, elections in the state have also been dominated by rival narratives of populism. While DMK made promises on the basis of entitlements of different sections of society, the AIADMK responded by a more patronising form a populism where the focus was more on a benevolent leader than the idea of Dravidaniasm. This explains Jayalalithaa’s acceptance by people despite her Kannadiga origins because she positioned herself as the inheritor of M.G.R.’s mantle.

Between them, the two main Dravidian parties pioneered the idea of the welfare state and various copycat versions of mid-day meals, Amma canteens and so on, have been implemented by different parties. The Congress earlier and now the BJP too have found such entrenched populism difficult to cope with because the local parties have not looked beyond the state. Unlike other regional parties, the DMK and AIADMK have also never exhibited any intention of spreading their wings beyond the state. Matching populism and echoing Tamil nationalistic sentiments can become part of the agenda of national parties only by risking political support in other states and becoming a policy burden.

Also read: Past Continuous: Those Who Think Nehru Was Power Hungry Should Review Events Leading to Independence

After Jayalalithaa’s death, the BJP has been on the horns of a dilemma and remains unsure of the partner that would be best suited for it to secure a position in the state’s mainstream politics. The perception of the party being a representative of north Indian Brahminism will not be negated in any way with its recent utterances over Hindi. For all his cinematic following, Rajnikanth is obviously unsure  if current public euphoria will translate and sustain as political support.

The DMK too is in a state of transition where the organisational change of guard is yet to become operational electorally. A question mark hangs over whether the AIADMK factions will remain bitter siblings of if the hatchet will be buried after jettisoning Sasikala. For the moment, the Congress has opted to stay outside the ring but the BJP is eyeing a significant role.

But the party is yet to exhibit foresight to reverse or even marginally roll back a fifty year old tradition. It is all the more troublesome as Draviadinism has become an idea that is deified more than practised. In fifty years, the idea has cemented its position as a Holy Cow and the BJP, more than anyone else, knows about its powers better than anyone else.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.

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