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The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its leader, Tamil Nadu chief minister M. K. Stalin have, in the recent past, been seeking a national role. It has sought to project its brand of social justice – economic populism and social engineering in favour of backward classes – on the national scene.

In October last year, Stalin wrote to the chief ministers of 12 states on the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET); he has been networking with chief ministers to press the Union government to share a greater part of Goods and Services Tax (GST) revenue with states; and has made moves towards the formation a ‘united front’ which would include the Congress and Left and state parties to effectively take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next elections.

And now, the inauguration of DMK’s ‘Arivalayam (temple of intellect) in New Delhi – its party headquarters in Chennai is called ‘Anna Arivalayam’ – is a concrete manifestation of the party’s national projections.

The DMK had studiously kept the BJP or even Union ministers out of its events.

The AIADMK spokesperson’s announcement shows that even as the DMK and its leader Stalin are reaching out for a more national profile, a powerful combination is waiting to chip away at its home base.

Dravidian parties have played roles in New Delhi whenever they got an opportunity. The AIADMK had sent ministers to the Charan Singh cabinet, which had come after the preceding DMK government had hosted Janata leaders fighting the Emergency in the 1970s.

The DMK was a willing participant in the past United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments , although as a coalition partner. Today, the DMK is seeking a national stake not just on the basis of its strength within Tamil Nadu, but as an ideological counterweight to the ruling BJP. As such, it has been touting its ‘Dravidian’ model as an alternative to the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ ideology.

In 2014, AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa, seeking a national role, had briefly pitched herself against Modi in the general elections. However, that was largely an electoral ploy to win in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; one that paid off.

The DMK was a willing participant in the past United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments , although as a coalition partner. Today, the DMK is seeking a national stake not just on the basis of its strength within Tamil Nadu, but as an ideological counterweight to the ruling BJP. As such, it has been touting its ‘Dravidian’ model as an alternative to the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ ideology.

Dravidian parties against Hindutva in Tamil Nadu
The DMK; or rather, the Dravidian ideology, has certainly made Tamil Nadu buck the national trend of BJP dominance. By and large, BJP’s brand of Hindutva does not get any purchase in the state. The credit for that must go to the politics of Tamil identity and language, as well as the well-established Periyarist construct of anti-Brahminism. As such, BJP is perceived as representing ‘Brahminical Hinduism’ in the state.

The recently-concluded urban local body polls were supposed to be a test of where the BJP stood in the state, since the party went it alone without allying with the AIADMK. The BJP did well in Kanniyakumari and Coimbatore, which are its traditional strongholds, and in Chennai, the party threw a surprise by getting some 8% of votes. BJP candidates came second in 20 wards and, overall, got more than 10% of the votes in one-fourth of the wards.

There was also much talk of the AIADMK standing down and not putting up a serious fight in order to favour the BJP.

Despite attempts to leverage its position as the party in power in the Union government – Tamil Nadu, for instance, leads in disbursal of Mudra loans, which is a Union government scheme – the BJP’s performance this year was not much better than in 2012, when it had also gone alone.

However, the BJP has been assertive and has, publicly and vigorously, taken on the DMK through its state president, former IPS officer from Karnataka, K. Annamalai. It has even launched campaigns pushing its Hindutva agenda, noteworthy among them was the case of a female student who died by suicide.

Before taking her own life, the student is purported to have said in a video that she was being pressured by one of the sisters at her convent to convert to Christianity. There have been many conflicting reports on why the girl was prompted to take her own life and the dodgy circumstances under which the video was recorded (by a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad no less), but the BJP went to town, using the student’s death in its campaign in the urban local body elections.

However, judging by the results, it did not seem to have much of an impact.

Sanghi  whisper campaigns on social media have been talking about how the promised food processing and logistics centres of Lulu Group, which will be meant to procure and process agri-products for exports to the Middle East, will actually be abattoirs and meat processing units. The group, as yet has not spelled out what the units will be, but if they do, indeed, turn out to be meat processing units, the BJP will surely launch a campaign against the same.

In the 2021 assembly elections, that the DMK swept, the AIADMK front had got a creditable 40% vote share. The elections had taken place against the backdrop of a shift in party bases and the results had indicated the firming-up of that shift.

Political shifts in Tamil Nadu
In the past, the DMK has had a solid vote base that was, in large measure, ideologically driven. Coalitions served as force multipliers when the issues of the day favoured the DMK during elections. The AIADMK, on the other hand, was the natural party of the marginalised – Dalits, tribals, fisherfolk and women were its natural constituents. They were driven by the party’s welfarist measures while in power and its charismatic leaders, whom supporters revered, even worshipped.

More recently, however, especially after the passing away of Jayalalithaa, the DMK has sought to reinvent itself as the natural party of Dalits, minorities and women. Projecting a photogenic leader, the party has targeted women.

In the recent budget, for instance, the government came up with a scheme to give Rs 1,000 per month to all girl students of government schools who are pursuing a college education. The scheme is estimated to cover six lakh girls every year.

Moreover, before the urban local body elections, the party had passed a legislation for the reservation of the post of mayor in several corporations for women. The Chennai mayor, herself, is a young Dalit woman.

More recently, however, especially after the passing away of Jayalalithaa, the DMK has sought to reinvent itself as the natural party of Dalits, minorities and women. Projecting a photogenic leader, the party has targeted women.

Dalit politics has, of late, veered significantly towards the DMK. In the past, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), that represents the interests of the Paraiyar caste group, would flip-flop between the two parties in recognition of the fact that the AIADMK was still the party the Dalits liked. Today, the VCK is firmly in the DMK camp, along with the Left and the Congress. Even as late as 2016, the Communist Part of India (Marxist) (CPM) attempted to forge an alternative ‘third front’, but that move was a dismal failure.

The BJP even attempted to drive a wedge in between Dalit voters by bringing into its ideological fold Pallar leader K. Krishnaswamy. However, the election results showed that the Pallars had rejected that. Tamil Nadu has three major Dalit caste groups – Pallars, Paraiyars and the numerically smaller Arundhathiyars.

The AIADMK’s drift away from minorities can be seen in the formal sidelining of district level Muslim leader Anwar Rajha. The alliance with the BJP has, ostensibly, come at a cost.

The AIADMK, though formed out of a vertical split within the DMK, historically had a somewhat non-Dravidian ideological base and geographical spread. In recent times, the AIADMK has spearheaded a more caste-based approach to politics, such as that of Gounders and Thevars.

The DMK’s open endorsement of Dalit politics has, however, helped the AIADMK polarise the Other Backwards Classes (OBC) community against the former, to an extent. In 2014, the BJP had tried to create a caste-based National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but without the AIADMK, it didn’t do well. Now, the AIADMK is fully on board.

It does seem that the battle lines are being drawn in terms of an increasingly Dravidianist DMK leveraging its position of power to forge a coalition of Dalit, minority and women voters against a more explicitly caste-based alliance, supported by Hindutva.

Any misstep in governance, poor performance, or mishandling of problems by the DMK could very well prove to be a decisive issue in the next election.

(This article was originally published in The Wire)


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