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Dravidian power

Print edition : Apr 23, 2004 T+T-
in Chennai

SINCE the birth of the Indian Republic, Tamil Nadu has been influencing the national electoral process in peculiar ways. In the first general elections in 1952, the State (the then composite Madras State) surprised the whole country by denying the Indian National Congress an absolute majority in the Assembly, although the party registered impressive wins in almost every other region.

The Congress leadership had to summon all the manipulative skills at its command to distort the verdict and put the party back in the saddle. After intense manoeuvres, a majority was manufactured by engineering a split in the alternative United Front of non-Congress parties. The leaders of two small regional outfits obliged the Congress by quitting the Front. Veteran national leader C. Rajagopalachari, who only two years earlier had stepped down as the Governor-General of India, became the Congress Chief Minister, accommodating the two leaders in his Cabinet.

Two general elections later, in 1967, the Congress was humbled once again, more decisively this time, by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a relatively young regional party, which, however, has its origin in the Dravidian Movement which represented since the 1930s the political, social and cultural aspirations of the ancient Tamil community.

The DMK was launched in 1949 by C.N. Annadurai and his followers, who broke away from the Dravidar Kazhagam led by rationalist and social reformer E.V. Ramasami. The Kazhagam had entered the electoral arena only five years earlier. Its impressive electoral victory in 1967 was made possible by `an accord on seat adjustment' among the non-Congress parties `to avoid a split in the Opposition vote'. Interestingly, it was Rajagopalachari, who had by then left the Congress and launched the right-wing Swatantra Party, who was instrumental in bringing about this electoral arrangement.

Four years later, in 1971, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought a fresh mandate from the people by advancing the Lok Sabha elections by a year, following a vertical split in the Indian National Congress, with almost all the senior leaders in the party arraigned against her. The popularity of Indira Gandhi was then at its peak, thanks to some radical pro-people measures she took such as the nationalisation of commercial banks. For DMK Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who was consolidating his position in the organisation following the death in harness of his predecessor and party leader Annadurai, the advancing of elections came as a boon. He was quick to extend the regional party's support to Indira Gandhi. The arrangement worked to their mutual advantage and both parties registered handsome victories in the elections.

The 1971 elections marked the beginning of the inter-dependence of the principal national party and a regional party with moorings in Tamil Nadu. The split in the DMK in 1972, which led to the emergence of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or ADMK, (the name was later changed to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) placed before the Congress(I) an equally strong alternative with which it could ally. From then on, the Congress(I) fought the elections in the State in alliance with one of the two parties. In their eagerness to outsmart each other, the two Dravidian parties helped the Congress(I) sustain itself in the State with limited ambitions. For this, the Congress(I) had to pay a price - it had to give up all hopes of recapturing power in the State, which it lost about four decades ago.

The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as an alternative to the Congress(I) at the national level has not altered the situation much. It has only offered one more option to the two principal contenders for power in the State, the DMK and the AIADMK. The BJP, whose political presence in the State was insignificant until the turn of the century, hopes to benefit the most out of the dynamics of the changing power equations in Tamil Nadu.

ALTHOUGH the DMK and the AIADMK started playing some role, howsoever small it might be, in the decision-making process at the Centre from the beginning of the late 1960s, their actual participation in coalition governments came only in 1979, when two AIADMK Members of Parliament, Satyavani Muthu and Bala Pazhanoor, joined the short-lived Charan Singh Ministry which followed the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government (1977-79). The DMK's Murasoli Maran joined the V.P. Singh Ministry in 1989. The DMK shared power with the subsequent United Front governments led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. In the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ministry (1998-99), three parties from Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), were represented. In the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Ministry headed by Vajpayee (1999-2004), the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK had their representatives. In fact, it was in this Ministry that Tamil Nadu had the largest representation. At one stage there were 10 Ministers from Tamil Nadu, seven of them from the regional parties. In the Vajpayee Ministry (1998-99), the AIADMK's presence lasted only a few months.

For these four regional parties, the DMK, the AIADMK, the MDMK and the PMK, the gains in the bargain are significant. Apart from strengthening their base in the State, it has helped them move closer to the corridors of power at the Centre for what it is worth.

Listing the benefits accruing to the State from sharing power at the Centre, the DMK has stated that "the presence of the DMK Minister (Murasoli Maran) in the National Front Cabinet and the resolution passed in the (Tamil Nadu) Assembly during the DMK regime (1996-2001) resulted in a Tribunal being appointed to adjudicate the Cauvery Water Dispute in the case filed by the Thanjavur farmers in the Supreme Court". The success of the efforts of Prime Minister Vajpayee in persuading Karnataka to accept the Tribunal's Interim Award ensuring 205 tmc.ft. of water to Tamil Nadu has been seen as one of the benefits of the DMK's presence in the BJP-led government. Prime Minister V.P. Singh's announcement in 1990 that the Mandal Commission's recommendation to extend reservation in employment in the Union government to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), would be implemented was "in accordance with the resolution to that effect, passed in the State Assembly".

According to the DMK, the "creation" of 11 Navaratnas and 97 Mini-Ratnas in the public sector "with administrative and financial autonomy", during the United Front government at the Centre (1996-98) was because of the party's presence in the Cabinet.

Another benefit cited is the substantial share the State has received in foreign investments since the start of the liberalisation process. According to a party statement, of the total investment of Rs.13,15,017 crores that has flowed into the country since liberalisation began, Tamil Nadu has received 1,51,187 crores, which is 11.5 per cent of the total investment in the country.

The MDMK manifesto highlights the Vajpayee government's announcement that the long-pending Sethusamudram project would be taken up for implementation as an achievement that has resulted from the power-sharing exercise.

The allotment of Rs.780 crores from the Rural Infrastructure Fund of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) for projects in Tamil Nadu has been seen as yet another benefit resulting from the DMK's participation in the United Front and NDA governments at the Centre.

THE list is long and impressive too, but the list of projects that remain unimplemented is equally long. These include demands for assistance to small industries such as match factories, free electricity for agriculturists and tourism development.

The real challenge for the Dravidian parties, however, relates to larger issues such as federalism, social justice, empowerment of women and Dalits and the language and cultural interests of Tamils, which the Dravidian Movement has been espousing for long. The association of the principal Dravidian parties with coalition politics at the Centre for over two decades has not helped them make any significant headway in respect of these issues. Despite repeated appeals to the Centre to make Tamil an official language at the national level, no initiative has been taken, observes a PMK handout. The MDMK has regretted that Hindi is still being "imposed, though indirectly" through directives. Even the demand of the Dravidian parties that Tamil be declared a classical language, which had the backing of almost all the national parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party, was not carried through. On the contrary, the BJP-led government had no reservation in conceding that status to Sanskrit and celebrating the year 2000 as the Year of Sanskrit.

In respect of reservation, the demand that the Constitution be amended to allow the States to decide the percentage of reservation, in view of the Supreme Court judgment limiting reservation to 50 per cent, is yet to be considered. The concept of positive discrimination for the purpose of social justice has suffered a jolt in the context of the growing tendency among Central and State governments to disown social responsibilites and the policy of disinvestment in the context of a regime of globalisation.

The Dravidian Movement has, in the past, sought the implementation of its policies and programmes through struggles and legislative measures by the State government. Many laws were enacted even during the early years of DMK rule, including the Hindu Marriages (Madras Amendment) Act, 1967 which legalised ritual-less weddings, the law that provides for reservation in employment and in educational institutions for backward classes, the legislation providing reservation for women in government jobs, and a law providing for property rights to women. Some laws concerning reservation and the appointment of non-Brahmins as temple priests could not survive judicial scrutiny. Attempts made by Dravidian parties to get the Constitution amended in order to circumvent court rulings on these two issues have not succeeded. There has not been any genuine effort by these parties to mobilise people's support to get the necessary amendments passed. Sections of the old guard in the movement wonder whether prolonged stay in power has blunted their fighting spirit.