Successful populism?

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST


Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India by Narendra Subramanian; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, pages 371, Rs.250.

SON of a Brahmin father and a non-Brahmin mother, and growing up in Tamil Nadu in a family with diverse political affiliations, Narendra Subramanian acquired a passion for understanding Tamil politics early in life. Amongst his first memories, he explain s, are recollections of reactions to the defeat of the Congress by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1967: "The dismay of most adults in my family... made for a stark contrast with the joyous celebration I saw on the streets. This discordance stimul ated my interest in understanding ethnic and populist politics, whose spirit was so foreign to the culturally vacuous brand of secularism then popular among the professional elite, including my parents". This book is the outcome, many years later, of thi s deeply rooted personal passion, and, based on a much more thorough use of Tamil-language sources than other studies, and on interviews with large numbers of political activists, it deserves to be considered carefully. It covers in detail the history of the Dravidian movement, and of the Dravidian parties, up to the late 1980s, but there is no substantial analysis of the 1990s. The book contains fascinating accounts of the social geography of Tamil politics. A weakness, on the other hand, is that it ha s very little to say about the political economy of Tamil Nadu over the period that it covers, even though the analysis begs numbers of questions in this arena.

Though Tamil Nadu has had a powerful political movement, and political parties deriving from it, which have projected a strong ethnic identity - initially that of 'the Dravidian' and later of 'the Tamilian' or 'the common Tamil man' - the politics of the State have not succumbed to ethnically defined exclusivism, in spite of pressures towards it at different times. Rather have the politics of Dravidianism had the effect of fostering social pluralism and a pluralist democracy. It is a case which shows ho w "an active citizenry and flexible leaders may urge the very institutions formed to promote a politics of kindred towards some tolerance of difference". Given the pervasiveness of ethnic conflict in the contemporary world, and the common failure of stat es in managing such conflict, and in the context, too, of the strength of an exclusivist Hindu nationalism in Indian politics, the Tamil case is of great comparative interest. The core of the argument is that in the politics of Dravidianism, though ethni c appeal has supplied cohesion, the dominant motif and mechanism has rather been populist. The populist features of Dravidian ideology rather rapidly became more significant than its ethnic claims in generating support - as is shown, for instance, by the greater success of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) than of the DMK after 1977, in spite of the fact that it adopted less militant postures, and had enormously popular leaders in M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and then Jayalalitha, who wer e not actually native Tamils. Populism has here moderated the potential of ethnicity to generate disintegrative social conflict, and had "sustained success (in aiding) the representation of emergent social groups". Given that populism has often lapsed in to authoritarianism, centred on a 'great leader', and sometimes been allied with fascism (as in Germany and in Italy in the 1930s), and that populism - at the core of which is an idea of 'the people' which veils real differences of interests within socie ty - is usually treated with something like disdain by commentators, this conclusion concerning the 'success' of populist politics in the case of Tamil Nadu itself calls for explanation.

The one which is offered is that Dravidianism has encouraged "organisational pluralism within influential political organisations", and that this "alone explains the emergence and maintenance of social pluralism". By 'social pluralism', which he t akes to be a condition of pluralist democracy, Subramanian means "the existence of many active associations significantly autonomous of the state and of one another" ; while 'organisational pluralism' "denotes the extent of autonomy and flexibility char acterising both relations within an organisation (a movement or party) and transactions between the organisation and society"). The components of the 'organisational pluralism' of Dravidianism are said to be 'leadership flexibility', referring to the fac t that its leaders - as the historical narrative shows - have pursued long run goals which they have been ready, nonetheless, to adjust in the light of the outlooks and interests of support groups and non-support groups; and - relatedly - the autonomy bo th of party cadres and of supporters. A contrast is drawn with Hindu nationalism, which has neither shown the same flexibility, nor allowed such autonomy amongst cadres and supporters. But then, as Subramanian at last concedes, the core leadership of Hin du nationalism - notably in the RSS - has sought quite specifically to oppose moves in the direction of such 'flexibility'. The comparison is a bit of a hare, therefore, except in one respect - to which I shall return.

The argument that 'organisational pluralism alone explains the emergence of social pluralism' is an important one, especially in view of the recent tendency (in much of the literature, inspired by Robert Putnam's Making Democracy Work (Princeton U P, 1993)) to assume that the existence of 'social capital', accruing from a rich associational life, is a precondition for effective democracy. In another statement of his argument Subramanian writes that "the processes of mobilisation which helped the r ise of ethnic parties in Tamil Nadu led to the emergence of a largely inclusive political arena because of the parties organisational pluralism". In thus placing political parties back, centre-frame, in political analysis, this book certainly deserves pr aise, given the way in which these political actors are either ignored or are treated as an irritant (presumably because they are not be relied upon to make 'rational' policy choices), in so much current writing on 'governance'. It is rather a shame, the refore, that in the end Subramaniam seems to renege on his own programmatic statements, when he concludes that "The high levels of mobilisation outside the party system before (emphasis added) the onset of the Dravidianist mobilisation aided the e mergence of cadre and supporter autonomy and urged leaders to adopt flexible strategies and tolerate autonomy within the party fold" - for this, though it seems historically an extremely well-founded conclusion, contradicts the notion that 'organisationa l pluralism' within political institutions explains the emergence (emphasis added) of 'social pluralism'. So at the last the argument is confused, and the implications which are drawn as 'Guidelines for Citizencraft' amount to little more than platitudes , such as the idea that "citizens committed to tolerance must mobilise autonomously of states and parties, even while engaging with these institutions". (This is not quite a platitude, of course, given the mistaken notion which is popular amongst a good many intellectuals and activists that voluntary associations in civil society can somehow stand in the place of political parties, or even the state.)

The strengths of the analysis lie rather in two other areas: in what is said about the ideology of Dravidianism (where comparison both with Hindu nationalism and with the secularism of the Nehruvian state is valuable), and about its modes of political mo bilisation. Conceptually the historical narrative depends upon the posing of two distinct categories: 'assertive populism' and 'paternalist populism'. The analysis shows how these modes of political action have intertwined in the history of Tamil politic s. The meaning of 'paternalist populism' is more or less self-evident (and it is what is often identified as 'populism' in general): a benevolent leader - and MGR, the founding genius of the AIADMK was the very archetype of such a figure - or a party or state, promises to provide for 'the people', through subsidised wage goods and protection from repressive elites. AIADMK rule in the 1980s brought paternalism to the fore. Under 'assertive populism', however, excluded groups are urged to assert themselve s against the discrimination which they have faced (partly focussed in Tamil Nadu by agitations over the language issue), and to secure entitlements (to education, jobs, loans, subsidised producer goods and small pieces of property). This mode of populis m strikes more, therefore, against social deference than does paternalist populism; but its forms of action also mean that the groups most involved are likely to be ones with some 'social capability' - in Tamil Nadu, 'intermediate castes of small propert y'. Paternalist populism appeals more strongly to the 'lower strata' (mainly Dalits) and women, who are often unable to assert their demands independently. Crucially for Subramanian's central argument - and more persuasive than much that he says about it elsewhere - "The assertive populist outlook regards the activist's self-willed activity as the basis of the movement and the social change it introduces. This is conducive to organissational pluralism and militates against patrimonialism". It is the str and of assertive populism, combined with the existence of vigorous competition between the Dravidian parties, with their differing constituencies, which accounts for the sustained success of populism in Tamil Nadu. It is underlain by the embracing, and m ulti-layered ideology of Dravidianism.

DRAVIDIANISM grew out of anti-Brahminism (directed against Brahmin dominance in the institutions of colonial rule). In the hands of E.V. Ramaswami ('Periyar') in the 1930s and 1940s it was associated with a vision of Dravidian and Shudra primacy against 'Aryan' Brahminism. But his were politics of protest rather than of social change, and the development of an inclusive Tamil nationalism - associating the Dravidian community with the non-Sanskritic Tamil language and cultural tradition, and with its ter ritory, rather than with the Shudra category - and then the projection of this into active electoral politics, was the achievement of C.N. Annadurai and his followers in the DMK. Theirs rapidly became much more a populist than an ethnic discourse - of a plebeian stamp, emphasising the notion of the common (Tamil) man - and the genius of Annadurai and others in the DMK was in their ability to create and to communicate a mytho-history which had meaning for ordinary people in a way that the 'scientific', developmental project of the Nehruvian state did not. Sudipta Kaviraj has written eloquently about the 'neighbourly incommunication' between the modernising national political elite, and the 'vernacular' masses. The emerging Tamil political elite, howeve r, was extraordinarily adept in building precisely that "common thinker we-ness... and a single political language" which, according to Kaviraj, the elite of the Nehruvian state neglected. No matter what its policy achievements, or its success in maintai ning support amongst the 'big men' of the Tamil country, Congress lost out through the 1950s and 1960s, to the world of meaning - precisely a 'common thinker we-ness' - created by the DMK, as well as to its increasing organisational strength. It is this culturally-rooted and engineered meaning system that Subramanian opposes to the 'vacuous brand of secularism' of his parents' generation, and which he wishes to oppose also to the homogenising intentions of Hindu nationalism. Unfortunately neither the c onstruction of such an ideology, nor assertive populism, is a 'policy choice'. The point is rather to recognise the importance of political articulations of 'meaningful ideas' such as can underpin pluralism.

Though the principal arguments which Subramanian himself wants to draw from his analysis appear confused, the book does illuminate the distinctiveness of Tamil populism. It helps to show why - though some sustained political economy would add greatly to the value of the book in this respect - Tamil Nadu stands out, alongside Kerala (which it follows, in terms of performance in regard to most indicators of human development) and West Bengal, amongst the States of the Indian Union. These are the three Sta tes in which lower castes/classes were mobilised politically at an early stage, against Congress, and where there is evidence, subsequently, of the inflection of public policy towards the needs and aspirations of the poor (for example in the allocation o f public expenditure to the social sectors). The analysis needs to be elaborated, of course, for the 1990s, when under Jayalalitha Dravidian politics took an authoritarian turn, and communalism mounted in the State as not before; and, later, the DMK reno unced the tenets of Dravidianism itself, when it joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the leadership of the BJP. If there were important progressive elements within Dravidianism, they have been vitiated by the bitter personal rivalry betwe en the leaders of the DMK and the AIADMK, which is inseparable from these new political developments of the last decade.

Dr. John Harris, Reader in Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has studied since the early 1970s social change in Tamil Nadu. He is currently in Chennai working on a research project on business and economic gl obalisation.

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