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Some analysts are arguing that a pan-Indian Dravidian model may be the best way to defeat the BJP. They have a simplistic view of the so-called Dravidian model of Tamil Nadu as just politics based on OBC empowerment against upper caste groups and economic populism.

Secular thinkers see that the continuing hold of Dravidian parties has kept the BJP struggling for space in Tamil Nadu despite doing its best to leverage its position as the party in power at the Center. National secular opinion seems to pine for a Dravidian model applied to national politics. But this is easier said than done.

The throne of the Dravidian model has four legs. Three are OBC empowerment, economic populism, and love of Tamil language and construction of an ethnic Tamil identity. The fourth provides the We vs They equation in identity politics that is essential to the third leg.

Dravidian parties have been ruling the state for nearly 55 years but they had been around for 50 years more. The core ideas had been forming another 40 – 50 years before.

We the Tamils are non-brahmins. Whereas “they” that “we are not” are the Aryan, the brahmin, the Sanskrit language and its derivative Hindi language, and the north Indian. This is the Dravidianist ideological position and is based in large part on fact and history. The reasoning is that Vedic religion guarantees the caste system and should be opposed.

Dravidian parties have been ruling the state for nearly 55 years but they had been around for 50 years more. The core ideas had been forming another 50 – 60 years before.

Dravidian politics is a call to history and primordial identities. Much scholarly work has gone towards showing how separate, independent and ancient Tamil is. Any Tamil village presents multiple forms of worship modes going back to various periods but meshing into each other. Tamils have a pre-Vedic past that survives and thrives to this day.

The Dravidian parties have created a system of social justice that goes beyond just caste-based reservations. For instance, there is a Tamil Nadu government programme that provides free care to newborns suffering from a rare, congenital ear disease. One of the earliest government programmes instituted by the DMK was a beggar rehabilitation scheme. Among the first acts of governance of the DMK was giving legal status to non-Vedic marriage.

But the Dravidian parties are not Luddites in practice. They are a powerful modernizing force. The DMK helped usher in globalization across India when it controlled key portfolios at the Center. It has been ahead in using the latest technologies to communicate its message and for propaganda.

M Karunanidhi started a newspaper when he was barely in his teens. People flocked to the DMK’s historical and social plays that conveyed powerful, yet simple messages regarding Tamil identity and subjugation and denial of opportunities. In the 1950s, the DMK leaders were alive to the popularity of cinema and moved on to use films for propaganda. Film producers saw a business opportunity in Dravidian propaganda after seeing the Dravidian plays drawing crowds.

SUN TV, owned by the Maran brothers, was among the first cable TV channels in India. Before that, the Maran brothers were onto video news magazines like Newstrack.

M Karunanidhi was on Twitter before most political leaders. Today, the DMK holds regular zoom calls to convey its ideas. In the 2019 elections, the DMK that has a regional focus stood second only to the BJP that has a national focus in terms of online ad spend.

The messaging is constant and the politics is professional. The DMK can orchestrate Twitter trends as quickly as the BJP. It can beat the saffron party at its own game.

Sons, daughters and grandchildren of early DMK leaders are now becoming second and third rung leaders. They are schooled in the party ideology but are savvy and educated. The recently elected Chennai mayor is a granddaughter of an early Dalit DMK leader in Chennai.

The DMK’s victories against the BJP in Tamil Nadu are the outcome of a tradition of 150 years that sustains to this day and is communicated effectively to the people. Narendra Modi’s lack of appeal in Tamil Nadu is largely due to him being a bombastic, Hindi-speaking north Indian. He and the BJP are up against 150 years of Dravidian ideas.

A national Dravidian-type counter to the BJP will need several decades to crystallize as a powerful, sustaining political force. It will need ideas, a social base, a call to a transcendent identity, and an “other”.

The DMK stands on a legacy. It has a coherent set of ideas that it uses politically. Ahead of the recent urban local body polls, the party deftly steered the debate towards NEET in which the BJP has been portrayed as against Tamil Nadu’s interest. Civic issues were ignored and the party won massively.

The DMK’s history, identity politics, and live social networks cannot be replicated easily. Further, if there were to be a Dravidian model nationally, it has to find two other legs to stand on: to what history, ethnicity and transcendent goal will the model speak to, and what will it speak against?

There are regional variants of the Dravidian model. Telugu country has a somewhat similar setup that keeps out the BJP.

A national Dravidian-type counter to the BJP will need several decades to crystallize as a powerful, sustaining political force. It will need ideas, a social base, a call to a transcendent identity, and an “other”.

But what opinion writers are seeking is a counter to the BJP in the next elections. At best a grouping of regional parties plus the AAP and the Congress is the best that can be hoped for.

 

 


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