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Tamil Nadu Elections: The Period between the 1980s and early 2000s

The period between the 1980s and early 2000s

Harriss argues that the ideology of Dravidianism has been examined from a ‘rose-tinted’ lens by the scholars of Tamilian politics. He cites M.S.S. Pandian, who identified the encroachment of Hindu nationalist organizations into Tamil Nadu before the 1980s itself. The Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981 gave birth to the Hindu Munnani, which he argues, has played a significant role in assimilating Hindu nationalist ideas into the political atmosphere. It composed of non-Brahmins leaders, controlled by Brahmins in a strategic attempt to unify against Muslims – which is core to the Hindutva ideology.

Anandhi S. documents that the ideological fraternity of the Dravidian ideology had regressed in the later decades (1990s – 2000s). This meant that Dalits were marginalized, in contrast to the promises of the regional parties. The Hindu Munnani and the RSS, identified this and provided them with a “positive identity” so the “Dalits…identify with a certain “Hinduness” as a way of subverting their marginality. These two examples suffice to explain that the Hindu nationalist party is increasing its politicization of people along lines that serve its ideology. However, Harriss himself argues that the BJP “does not have a very prominent position electorally” on its own. 

What this means, however, is that the parties that promised to reduce caste inequalities have failed to adequately do so and give more concessions to the privileged sections. Ever since the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the two dominant parties fragmented to give rise to caste-mobilizations that formed various parties representing various castes. ADMK allied with the BJP and won significantly during the 1998 Lok Sabha elections. Pinto argues that the vacuum created by the increasing competitiveness between the DMK and ADMK meant that the BJP could make its inroads to politicize the voter banks such as Dalits and MBCs. Furthermore, the relationship between the state and centre ever since the economy was liberalized meant that the states were now competitive amongst each other in seeking resources from the Centre. Traditionally, therefore, the dominant parties have supported the incumbent central government. 1998 was the first time that the BJP formed a government and it made sense to ally with the same and take part in the increasing globalization of India. Ever since then, BJP has been an electoral alliance of either of the two parties but has never gained electoral success beyond a meagre 4% of all the seats.

Despite heavy campaigning in efforts to mobilize voters, there has been an anti-Modi wave that is shared by voters in Tamil Nadu win the contemporary period too, suggesting that Dravidian ideology is still dominant. Therefore, while the regional- alliance building of BJP with the regionally dominant states of Tamil Nadu does mean that the BJP has become normalized in the political discourse, the dream of BJP to create a Hindu Rashtra is far from reality.

Decline Of Dravidian Politics – what were the economic and policy implications?

As discussed before, the Dravidian parties and their ideologies saw a decline between the period of the 1990s and the 2000s, which subsequently led to the inlet of national parties, even with divisive ideologies like the Bharatiya Janata Party. From another angle, it could be said that the populist measures themselves turned into their foe. Andrew Wyatt argues that the sentiment about populist schemes had now changed, and people, especially from lower castes, but including the marginally better Vanniyars, felt that the populist schemes by the Dravidian parties were not helping the lower castes. Moreover, J Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin who politically succeeded M. G. Ramachandran, was not seen as the ‘protector of the poor’ and was only able to appeal to the elitist circles of the AIADMK. 

Thus, while both the Dravidian parties had to battle elections with opposition from rising caste-based parties, they also lacked the sympathy and the ability to respond effectively to the caste-based violence that was raging in the state in the late 1990s. Moreover, when the AIADMK government came to power between 2001 and 2006, the government had to face a fiscal crisis, where the consolidated fiscal deficit in terms of Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) increased from 2.2% in 1997-98 and stayed at 7.2% till 2001-02, predominantly due to excessive funding of populist programmes. This forced the AIADMK government to swiftly bring in reforms to bring tax transparency, reduce revenue deficits, and direct further debts to tangible capital investments. These reforms directed all the energies of the AIADMK to mitigate the economic crisis and changed the populist, messiah-like image of the party until the 2004 Tsunami when the Jayalalithaa-led government proved that they were a swift, decisive government.

Corruption Allegations

The most important criticism of the Dravidian parties was corruption. According to N Ram, former chairman of The Hindu Group, corruption in Tamil Nadu took a stronghold during the tenure of M. G. Ramachandran. In his book “Why Scams Are Here To Stay: Understanding Political Corruption In India”, he notes that while M G Ramachandran alleged corruption during the DMK-led Government in 1975-76, corruption took a stronghold in Tamil Nadu when MGR himself incorporated the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) in 1983. 

TASMAC became the monopoly over supplying Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) in Tamil Nadu. Although first seen as an innovative way to fund his ambitious Mid-Day Meal Scheme, it resulted in illicit revenues from local distillers and brewers. Excise duty was paid not by these brewers but by TASMAC through its liquor sales. The burden came down to the poor and the low-income people who consumed them. 

Since then, various corruption allegations had been placed against different leaders throughout their tenures. Instead of providing a check and balance on the misuse of power, these allegations became a tool to seek revenge over each other and became a political blame game.  For example, while the Karunanidhi-led government facilitated Jayalalithaa’s arrest for irregularities worth Rs. 8.57 crores in a scheme to distribute colour televisions and other similar corruption cases, Jayalalithaa’s government arrested Karunanidhi and others at 1:45 AM in 2001 for an alleged scam involving 12 flyovers worth 12 crores. 

Economic State – Solving A ‘Puzzle’

In our previous article, we had noted how the Tamil Nadu government, despite its rampant corruption and populist measures, had inclusively achieved economic growth. This trend continued between the years 1980-2010 as well. A Kalaiyarasan notes that between 1980 and 2010, the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) increased at an average rate of 6.3%. Montek Singh Ahluwalia also notes that apart from the acceleration of the State Domestic Product, Tamil Nadu achieved a lot in other indicators: Tamil Nadu reduced the poverty rate from 51.66% in 1983 to 35.03 in 1993-94. It was also able to achieve greater numbers in literacy rates and other factors. 

This was seen as a puzzle by many scholars, but many agree that a primary reason was that despite its socialistic stance, the Government actively worked with industries seeking investments. Lorraine Kennedy, in her article in the book ‘Regional Reflections’, calls this approach ‘stealth’. She notes that both the DMK and the AIADMK, while criticized profusely when the other party implemented a liberalization policy, adopted those policies and implemented them themselves. For example, while the DMK vehemently opposed the Memorandum Of Understanding (MoU) between the AIADMK government and the popular carmaker Ford to set up a manufacturing unit in Chennai, it abided with the MoU when it came to power in 1996. Moreover, the DMK government was also responsible for facilitating investments from Hyundai Corporation from South Korea and Saint-Gobain from France. Thus, on one hand, while they were rolling out many populist schemes to satisfy their vote bank, they were providing various incentives such as tax holidays, capital subsidies, single-window clearances to firms setting up factories in industrial estates, and so on, in an attempt to attract investments soon after the liberalization policies came to effect in 1991. 


Thus, while Dravidian parties saw a decline in politics and were accused of corruption, they were able to achieve inclusive economic growth by investing in education, health, and infrastructure through both planned programmes and populist measures, and inviting heavy investments which also created jobs and increased revenues to the Government, making Tamil Nadu one of the most developed states of the country.  

This article is co-authored by Tejaswini Vondivillu and Siddharth G. They are rising third-year students at Ashoka University pursuing Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and Economics respectively. 

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