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Tamil Nadu Elections 2021: Part 1 – The DMK, The ADMK, And Different Shades Of Populism

Tamil Nadu enters yet another election season this year, although marked with stark differences. This year marks the very first election without the stalwarts — J. Jayalalitha of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), who died in 2016 and 2018 respectively. This election also marks the entrance of the thespian Kamal Hassan into state politics. This series will look into the importance of this election, and what stands for the people of Tamil Nadu. 

This first article of the series talks about how Tamil Nadu managed to achieve remarkable economic growth. What makes this state different from other Indian states? The article argues that the appeal to populism by the Tamilian regional parties shapes the way the parties compete for power and vote banks as well as the economic policies that they develop and execute. This article looks into the history of politics and development in Tamil Nadu, starting from the era of K. Kamaraj of the Congress Party. 

Tamilian politics can be officially attributed to the formation of the regional political party —  the  DMK in 1949 — following a Dravidian movement that celebrated the history of the Tamil-speaking regions. Dravidian politics was framed by Rudolph as ‘populist radicalism’. Essentially, populism vis-a-vis the Dravidian culture involves identification with a common ‘people’ coupled with the narrative of victimization — elite versus the poor and other sects of people that share disproportionate privilege. It also involves the acceptance of capitalism to further the interests of the middle- and lower-middle-class people in the state. 

Given that the state is characterized by large proportions of OBCs, SC/STs, and Muslims (an article claims this number to be as high as 95% as opposed to the 5% upper caste), and that populism involves pandering to these sects to gain electoral victory, it became the vehicle through which the regional parties constituted their economic policies as well as campaigned for them. 

A. Wyatt defines populism as an ideological construct that celebrates the importance of the ordinary people, asserts these people should not be divided by social hierarchy, and justifies improvements in their welfare. This is, however, a general definition. To explore the nuances in how this has been internalized in the party system and ideology, the histories of two competing political parties, DMK and the AIADMK, and their subsequent economic practices must be delved into. It also grounds their narrative in understanding how this recent election cycle differed, since the incumbent dispensation’s ruling party, encroached and pursued rather aggressive tactics to pander to vote banks. 


Brief history

The origins of the two Dravidian parties, and Dravidian ideology in general, can be traced back to the Justice Party’s times and the Dravida Kazhagam. Historian Rajmohan Gandhi writes that the Justice Party, initially founded as the South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF), was a response to Brahmin domination that was prevalent in spheres of education and power. 

Despite forming only just over 3% of the entire population of the Madras Presidency, there were 4074 graduates compared to only 1035 Non-Brahmin graduates, between 1901 and 1911. Similarly, the literacy rate among Brahmins was 22%, compared to 2% for the Vellala communities, and below half per cent for Kammas, Reddis, and Nadars. By 1911, 68.7% of all the officials employed across various departments under the British Government all over India, were Brahmins.  

Being the vehicle of non-Brahmin expression, the first elections to the Madras Presidency Council were dominated by the members of the Justice Party, and many of the Chief Ministers were from that party. Despite these victories, it had its flaws: it was elitist, there were public disagreements amongst the founders, and the support for them from the British for standing against Annie Beasant and her Home Rule League was an embarrassment (They disagreed with her policies and the Congress for being dominated by Brahmins). 

This image changed when Periyar E. V. Ramasamy became the president and changed the party into the Dravida Kazhagam, which became a social movement and distanced itself from politics. Periyar mobilized the Dravidian masses and launched the Self-Respect Movement, propagating views of anti-Brahmanism and views against the influence of Hindi and North India on Tamil Nadu. He even spearheaded the demand for a separate Dravidian country, which never materialized. Soon, he had differences with one of his staunch disciples — C. N. Annadurai. Annadurai left the Dravida Kazhagam with his followers and started the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He began contesting in elections. It began seeing victory after winning the 1967 elections. After Annadurai died in 1969, the party would go on to be led by its stalwart, M. Karunanidhi. 

Economic Policies

In Tamil Nadu, the Congress Government, led by K. Kamaraj, is usually credited with starting the state’s development trajectory. He pioneered schemes that would win the support of Dravidian icons like Periyar. He started the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, thus increasing the enrollment rates of children of ages between 6 to 11 from 45% to 75% in the seven years he was the Chief Minister. He also rolled out schemes for the betterment of the oppressed classes and the state’s general economic development — electrification of villages, building homes, creating community centres, developing cottage industries, and creating infrastructure such as roads. Heavy industries such as the Neyveli Lignite Corporation, was set up during his time. 

His legacy was tarnished after M. Bhaktavatsalam, who took over, mishandled the protests against the imposition of Hindi, spearheaded by C.N. Annadurai and others, killing hundreds. The subsequent artificial food scarcity, rising prices of essential commodities, and multiple scandals increased public anger, and gave the DMK a chance to win the elections in 1967 and build over K Kamaraj’s legacy, by promulgating economic activities, along the lines of what Narendra Subramanian calls “Assertive Populism”. 

Assertive Populism, according to Subramanian, urges supporters towards militant action to open up spheres restricted before. It creates an entitlement amongst the restricted communities to education, jobs, loans, subsidized producer goods, and sometimes, small pieces of property. They are usually rationed due to the scarcity of those goods, but it’s not granted freely to all. Mostly, groups with modest social power can compete for these entitlements. 

Accordingly, the DMK has been promulgating schemes that help the Backward Castes and the Dalits to empower themselves and help them conquer spaces that were once restricted to them – like education and jobs. For example, C. N. Annadurai, after becoming the Chief Minister in 1967, abolished taxes for dry land and made pre-University education free for children whose parents did not earn more than Rs. 1500 per year. 

Karunanidhi for his part increased the reservation quota for the Dalits from 15% to 18%, and from 25% to 31% for the Backward Castes. He also pioneered the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Tamil Nadu known today for its efficiency and inclusivity. It covered the entire state and different caste groups by 1976 and gave three measures of rice for a rupee. Today, the efficiency and inclusivity of the PDS system in Tamil Nadu are appreciated. He is also credited with starting the Small Industries Development Corporation and the State Industries Promotion Corporation, which served as the basis for the infrastructural and industrial growth that is seen in Tamil Nadu. 


Brief history

Standing in opposition to DMK is the regional All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, formed in 1972. It was formed by the movie-actor-turned-politician Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran (MGR) when he decided to break away from the parent party, DMK. MGR is a critically acclaimed actor who was well known to the Tamilian-speaking population. He could be associated as the key apologist of paternalistic policies within the DMK, which he was a part of, building his reputation from that angle. Popular among the masses, he had gained immense traction during his years as an actor, which he then used in the political sphere to gain electoral victory since his vote banks consisted of vulnerable Tamilians, to whom he had pandered. It was his direct appeal to fame and populace that ensured political victory especially upon forming the ADMK party. Generally, the party banked on the image equivalent to a saviour when campaigning. 

When MGR passed away in late 1987, the party was inflicted with turmoil over the party leadership. The position was contested between MGR’s wife, Janaki Ramachandran as well as Jayalalitha Jayaram. The party briefly split, however, Jayalalitha gained her place as the leader of the party in a short period. It becomes imperative to mention that she is also another famous actress, starring in lead roles in many films and building her reputation in line with the paternal populistic image her party endorses. 

To gain electoral support, the party, along with endorsing already established personalities as their leaders, also contested for the partnership with the Indian National Congress. For instance, during the Emergency, ADMK, instead of partnering with the INC at the time, supported the same. However, its alliance ended by 1980, only to be restored during 1984-1989, and periods during which they maintained alliances ensured they won electorally. Jayalalitha died in 2016 amidst rather suspicious circumstances. Post her death, the party echoed back its organizational disunity and now is finally headed by Edappadi, who is also the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. 

Economic Policies

The framework of populism that is associated with this party is that of paternalist populism.  Subramanian defines paternalist populism as, “Paternalist populism promises that a benevolent leader, party or state will provide the poor and powerless with subsidized wage goods and protection from repressive elites. The lower strata and women, often unable to assert themselves independently or compete for the more substantial benefits assertive populism provides, are its main supporters.” A particular characteristic of this branch of populism involves playing the theatrical narrative of a heroic leader who promises to protect vulnerable segments of society. 

Paternalistic populism paid attention to the needs of “Dalits, women and the rural”. As opposed to DMK which espouses the Dravidian cultural identity, ADMK was much more inclusive in the sense, it was more open to migrants and other people who were not ethnically Tamilian. Subsequently, the policies devised include ‘welfare provision by the state’ which, Subramanian argues, is less likely to encourage individual autonomy. After the 1977 elections, which resulted in electoral victory for AIADMK, restrictions on alcohol were reintroduced. 

They expanded the Noon Meal Scheme in 1982 wherein they provided free meals for school children up to the age of 9. The government further expanded ‘food subsidies and increased the number of ration shops so that poor got better access to this benefit’. Wyatt argues that these policies served to enhance MGR’s image as protector of women, children, and the rural population — serving to reinforce the paternalistic ideal that the party endorses. Laclau argues that such populism is characteristic of a highly flexible nature, that makes it easy for parties to justify their policies and also seek broader support in a society that is traditionally diverse. 


Both these shades of populism have been used time and again by both political parties to gain support from the people of Tamil Nadu. Despite its flaws, the growth of Tamil Nadu socio-economically can be attributed to these spheres of populism. To understand what is in offer for the people of Tamil Nadu in this election, it is important to understand the recent flaws of populism. But before that, it is imperative to understand what role it served for the betterment of the state. 

This article is coauthored by Tejaswini Vondivillu and Siddharth G.

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