It’s safe to say that the party that comes to power in Tamil Nadu will have the letters D, M and K in its name. In the alphabet soup that characterises Tamil politics, K stands merely for kazhagam, the local word for party, while M could mean either of a couple of synonyms for progress, or renaissance, depending on the outfit you pick.
It’s the D that counts. The word Dravida, given political meaning by the remarkable EV Ramasamy or Periyar, has been central to the AIADMK (J Jayalalithaa), DMK (M Karunanidhi), MDMK (Vaiko), DMDK (Vijayakanth) or the hardcore DK (K Veeramani).
But, across the board, the letter has atrophied into little more than a forlorn memento for the bearded firebrand Periyar; now it’s at best a lucky charm or an attempt to squeeze the final drops of juice from what was once a fruit that kept giving.
Some of the newer parties have dispensed with it altogether — Ramadoss’ PMK focuses on fighting for Vanniyars; the VCK stands for ‘liberation panthers” and the mildly fascist organisation of filmmaker Seeman, another likely also-ran in this poll, prefers to tap into Tamil identity more directly.
The truth of the matter is that ideology has been driven to the sidelines in what was once a fiercely ideological state; a bankruptcy whose void is sought to be filled by all manner of giveaways, ranging from government jobs to scooters. What was once a proud fight against upper-caste dominance is now variously a scramble to dole out goodies and a narrow battle between similarly backward castes.
Periyar must be revolving in his grave. The AIADMK and DMK, the mass-market inheritors of his legacy, used to stand for egalitarianism, land redistribution, opposition to Hindi and support for Lankan Tamils. Now the game has moved on; Karunanidhi scion MK Stalin’s Namakku Naame movement, a bid to woo first-time voters, saw him don a T-shirt and jeans instead of a veshti, a move that underlined the shift to the trendier.
Hindi is no longer a burning issue, thanks to the two inheritors allying at various stages with the Congress and BJP, to Bollywood and to an influx of northern workers. Vaiko, an icon of support for Lanka, is not even standing for election.
At its core, the Dravidian movement has run aground because it wasn’t really anti-caste; it was anti-Brahmin, not even anti-Brahminism. The Brahmins, who account for a mere 3% of the population but had cornered a wildly disproportionate share of influential jobs, have either shipped out or brought their famous survival skills to bear, aligning with power.
Indeed, in a state where atheism and religiosity have co-existed with a fair degree of comfort, it’s fairly obvious which side has won; a few decades of determined rationalism never had much chance against centuries of religious belief. Temples are packed and swamis and sants abound.
Make no mistake: Tamil Nadu has made good progress in distributing the fruits of prosperity. State GDP per head, at nearly `1,28,000, is one among the highest among big states; literacy is at 80%, good for a relatively large state; the gender ratio is well above the national average; health and other social indicators are satisfactory.
Arguably, the egalitarian aspect of many of these achievements may owe something to the Dravidian movement, but now it needs to be truly transformative, or to be replaced by a movement that is; it needs to carry with it the impoverished in every community. The state’s Dalits, for instance, have been left behind, and they constitute nearly 21% of the population of 72 million.
There needs to be a wider recognition of the fact that it’s the state’s backward castes who have been most oppressive of castes below them in a social order that has proved stubbornly resistant to change.
The party that gets its social engineering right — and with a long-term and truly egalitarian vision — has plenty to gain. The AIADMK under Jayalalithaa dare not breathe the word “succession”, leading to worries of an implosion after her; the DMK is obsessed with its ruling family. There is room for a third alternative, but the Congress in the state is in continued disarray that syncs with the stasis of the party centrally.
That should be fertile ground for the BJP, but it’s not in evidence. The party is said to be active on college campuses and planning for the long term. Dravidianism may be dying but it is still difficult to imagine a polarising Hindu-Hindi party ruling Tamil Nadu.
In fact, opposition to Hindi can always be dusted off and rekindled by the Dravidian parties if someone in the Union Home or HRD ministries come up with something outrageously bigoted. A move to centralise medical entrance exams — and confine the test to Hindi and English — could be a handy occasion to see if the powder is still dry.
Ironically, one hope for Dravidianism, or its successor movement, lies in a backlash to the threat posed by a monolithic and homogenous Hindutva. It could be just the spark the movement needs to come alive again, albeit in a drastically different form from that dreamed up by Periyar more than seven decades ago.