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Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties must reinvent to keep others out

Unless Dravidian parties reinvent themselves to stay relevant, the era of their domination in the state may end

editorials Updated: Aug 15, 2018 11:10 IST
Hindustan Times
People pay tribute to the late DMK leader M Karunanithi after a silent rally, Coimbatore August 10, (PTI)

In the past five decades, no national party has held the reins of power at Fort St George, Chennai. Power has always alternated between Dravidian parties — the DMK and the AIADMK — with national parties at best acting as a swing factor in determining who rules, or at worst hanging on to the coat-tails of the regional parties to stay relevant.

M Bhaktavatsalam from the Congress, who ruled from 1963 to 1967, was the last chief minister representing a national party. What makes Tamil Nadu such a fallow ground for national parties, and will this change in the near future? Even before Independence, when Madras Presidency — the precursor to what eventually became Tamil Nadu — existed, it elected local parties rather than national ones. The first chief minister of Tamil Nadu was from the Justice Party whose ideals eventually gave birth to other Dravidian parties such as the Dravidar Kazhagam, DMK,the AIADMK and numerous other offshoots.

Tamilians take (justifiable) pride in their ancient language and literature which predates even Sanskrit, considered the mother of most Indic tongues. Tamil empires of the Cholas, Pallavas and Cheras covered vast swathes of modern India and even extended beyond, into what is South East Asia today. Even before social equity became an article of faith for the Constitution makers of India and before Mandal politics consumed large parts of northern India, Tamil Nadu led the way with its social justice movement. Dravidian politics at its finest insisted on social justice, rationalism, equality, self-respect, educational and religious reforms. Charismatic leaders such as E V Ramasamy Naicker, Natesa Mudaliar, CN Annadurai and, later on, M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa built up a base of committed party workers.

Outside of communist parties, it is the Dravidian parties which — appropriately enough — insist on referring to their fiercely loyal workers as cadre. Dravidian politics has deftly woven issues of language, culture and identity and has been led by charismatic individuals. Centralised national parties have found it hard to combat this formula in a state which takes enormous pride in its heritage. However, with Dravidian parties increasingly riven by nepotism and turning into family-run commercial enterprises, and with the ideological battles having largely been won, the death of charismatic leaders has meant that for the first time parties such as the Congress, the BJP and others sniff an opportunity in Tamil Nadu. Unless Dravidian parties reinvent themselves to stay relevant, the era of their domination on the state’s power may end. Politics in Tamil Nadu is on the cusp of change.

First Published: Aug 15, 2018 11:10 IST