The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party strategist had none of the Dravidian hubris with which many dismiss the idea of the BJP as a force in Tamil Nadu.
He said he respected the BJP as a party with formidable resources, background, ideology and thinking. They had the dough, for sure, he said. The problem was that the mould in Tamil Nadu was for making idly whereas the BJP wanted to make dosa, he said, reacting to the DMK front’s convincing win in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections 2021. Though counting is still on at the time of writing, the DMK front is set to win more than 140 seats while the AIADMK front will have around 90.
The DMK’s win is better than the victory the AIADMK under the late J. Jayalalithaa registered in 2016, with 136 seats. Clearly, M.K. Stalin’s time has come to be chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK-BJP front has been rejected by the state’s voters.
The BJP’s approach to the Tamil Nadu elections was premised on the assumption that Dravidian politics had have run its course and that Tamils were ready to listen to alternative voices, even ‘Hindutva’ ones. They were not the only ones banking on the idea that the mould of Tamil politics could be broken. Kamal Haasan’s foray at the hustings revolved around this desire.
While the BJP introduced the idea of a technocrat, Metro Sreedharan in Kerala, as an attempt to upend the state’s Left versus Congress stranglehold, its campaign in Tamil Nadu came with no fresh ideas or proposals. It had no leader who could command any respect among the electorate. Instead, the party chose to largely stay in the background and pull strings from behind the AIADMK. It desperately tried to goad a reluctant Rajinikanth, into entering politics and being its face. When that strategy failed, it gave him the Phalke award to mobilise his fans. Even that tactic failed.
The BJP also tried to give a boost to caste-based, non-Dravidian politics by trying to bring the PMK, representing the Vanniars, and Dalit leader K. Krishnaswamy into its front. In a poll-eve sop, the AIADMK government passed a bill giving exclusive reservation to Vanniars within the Most Backward Classes quota of 20%. While a declining PMK seems to have benefited from this move by bagging half a dozen seats, it may have led to heartburn among other numerous MBC caste groups, such as the Thevars and the Nadars. Dravidian politics, though seeking broad non-brahmin empowerment, has delicately balanced competing caste interests and appeared to be evenhanded.
Until the death of Jayalalithaa, most chief ministers of Tamil Nadu did not come from any of the numerous OBC caste groups.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah failed to understand that the ‘idly’ is the linguistic, ethnic identity the Dravidian movement has nurtured among Tamils. That is why the BJP’s dosa, or roti, did not find many takers in 2021. But its alliance partner, the AIADMK, has not been decimated either. Typically ahead of the DMK in the size of its voter base, the party’s loyalists continue to support it in large measure. The campaign themes of the DMK did not quite convert their voting preferences. The ‘EPS’ regime had carefully continued the governance strategy of the AIADMK by trying to intervene for the poor and won credit for Tamil Nadu’s handling of COVID-19. The party manifesto promised giveaways such as washing machines and six gas cylinders per year.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while the electorate overwhelmingly voted against the BJP and Narendra Modi, many who voted for the DMK front for Lok Sabha switched their votes to the AIADMK front in Assembly by-polls that were held simultaneously. While the DMK can be said to have won the local body polls that followed, the AIADMK was not too far behind either. The AIADMK, despite not having a charismatic leader at its helm, is not a spent force.
The major takeaway from the Tamil Nadu election results is that the state continues to pose an insurmountable ideological challenge to the BJP. In Kerala, the BJP tried to leverage the Sabarimala issue and gain political mileage as the only political force speaking for Hindus there. Yet, its vote share there fell from 14.96% in 2016 to 11.5%. In Tamil Nadu, too, the BJP has been locked out of religion, unable to create a substantial Hindu vote.
Tamils are as religious as, if not more religious than, others. RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy has often derisively dismissed Dravidian rationalism as a failure by pointing out that the temples of Tamil Nadu continue to be among the most visited temples in all of India. The Dravidian movement has, however, fashioned a nativist ideology that encompasses not just caste, ethnicity, language, welfarism, and empowerment politics but also religion, to some extent at least.
In this election, the DMK took pains to stay away from rhetoric that could be perceived as anti-Hindu. Dravidian politics had originally sought a return to what seemed to be a non-religious life that ancient Tamils lived – as portrayed in early Sangam literature. It had sought to portray all religion as an Aryan import. But over time, the Dravidian parties have made peace with Hinduism as practised in Tamil Nadu. Local DMK leaders, for instance, take an active part in village and town temple festivals.
The BJP keeps insisting that the Hinduism of Tamils is only a variant. Lately, the party including the prime minister, has sought to appropriate the historicity of the Tamil language and its distinctness. But these were more in the form of sops rather than coming from any rethink on how the BJP looks at Sanskrit and its relationship with Tamil, or even a Hinduism that would sync with Tamil Nadu.
Hinduism in Tamil Nadu is a synthesis of many different ideas including Vedic. And Tamils see their religious lives as uniquely Tamil – one that the BJP does not represent. Once the key issue of Hindu religion and whether the BJP can leverage it got settled, the BJP had no segue into Tamil Nadu politics and could not shake off its outsider tag. And the DMK went to town with its pet campaign themes – of how the north Indian BJP does not care for Tamils, Hindi imposition – and the AIADMK as the BJP’s B-team that was powerless to challenge the BJP’s anti-Tamil policies.
A major campaign theme for the DMK was, for instance, NEET that has probably had no political relevance anywhere else in India. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK has made NEET the symbol of everything that is wrong with the BJP and the AIADMK’s readiness to toe the BJP line. Across India, NEET was seen as a key reform that allows more play for ‘merit’ in medical admissions in private universities and potentially tamps down capitation fees.
In Tamil Nadu, however, it is seen as imposing unfairly high standards on rural, OBC students. The argument is that the state has done well with its exam system that may be based only on rote learning but has supported a healthcare system that is among the best in India. While COVID has exposed the poor state of healthcare infrastructure in much of India, Tamil Nadu seems to have done relatively better. An “easy” exam system facilitates the medical education of Tamils who in turn serve the state and strengthen the government’s healthcare system. Suicides by medical aspirants citing their difficulties in taking NEET were highlighted by the DMK.
The AIADMK sought to draw from the copybook of Jayalalithaa, trying to portray the DMK as a party of lawless cadres and land grabbers. In Jayalalithaa’s hands, these were potent sticks to beat the DMK with. Without a leader of Jayalalithaa’s stature delivering them, however, the criticisms were not persuasive enough.
During the time of M. Karunanidhi, the DMK was indeed a raucous outfit in which local and sub-regional satraps were often laws unto themselves. His son MK Stalin has sought to tame the party and reign in local leaders.
An understudy of his father for decades, Stalin has fought many battles and lost many of them. He beat down a challenge from his brother. He allowed a third front to eat into the DMK front votes and had lost an election that was for the DMK to win in 2016. But he engineered a massive triumph for the DMK in 2019 when Tamils refused to be part of the Modi wave.
Stalin is now the unquestioned leader of Tamil Nadu. It’s a position not very different from where his father was in 1971. Karunanidhi had beaten down challenges from practically every DMK stalwart and followed it up with a massive victory in the Assembly election. There seemed to be none to challenge him. But an MGR soon emerged to upend Karunanidhi. As he assumes the mantle of chief minister, he would do well to remember that those who did not vote for the DMK in 2021 constitute a substantial section of the Tamil Nadu electorate.
M. Kalyanaraman is a print and broadcast journalist based in Chennai.