Tamil Nadu Is Waiting For A New Idea: How Long Will The Wait Last? 

Tamil Nadu Is Waiting For A New Idea: How Long Will The Wait Last? A time to pray for Tamil Nadu’s future.
  • Tamil Nadu, a fertile ground for extraordinary changes, is continuously held back by irrational ideas and personality-cult-ish attitude. Will that one force arrive on its political stage to bring in the necessary disruption?

ஊழிற் பெருவலி யாவுள மற்றொன்று

சூழினுந் தான்முந் துறும்.

What power surpasses fate? Its will persists against human endeavours. (Kural 380)

By the quirk of fate, unarguably, the least talented of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chiefs in its history, has led his party to its biggest win. The DMK alliance won 37 of the 38 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 32.8 per cent in Tamil Nadu.

Party chief M K Stalin managed to sway 10-12 per cent of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (AIADMK’s) vote share, a feat that even the old master, M Karunanidhi, could not achieve in his hey days. In 2004, even when the DMK-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) blanked the opposition 39-0, the DMK had a vote share of 24.6 per cent.

Stalin has, thus, firmly established himself as the most popular leader in the state. However, the victory was Pyrrhic, given that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power with a thumping win in the Lok Sabha polls. DMK did not sweep the by-elections to the 22 assembly seats (managing only 13), which would have placed it at a touching distance from power in the state.

Edappadi Palanisami, the incumbent AIADMK Chief Minister, had his image dented when DMK washed his party out in west Tamil Nadu, which is home to the community that he and the top ministers in his cabinet belong to. The AIADMK getting 18.5 per cent vote share on the strength of its two-leaves symbol, is making analysts wonder if it is the beginning of the end of the party.

But the AIADMK managed to win nine seats in the assembly by-elections to live to fight another two years. His government has retained majority in the assembly with the help of a clever stitching of alliance with Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), though PMK itself was obliterated in the Lok Sabha polls.

In what was considered a benchmark-setting election after the demise of former chief ministers J Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, many small players had thrown their hats into the ring. Though they did not win any seats, T T V Dhinkaran of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam secured approximately 5.3 per cent vote share while Senthamizhan Seeman of Naam Tamilar Katchi  and Kamal Haasan of Makkal Needhi Maiam ended up with 4 per cent each. It pricked the bubble of Dhinakaran, who was expected to make a big dent garnering three times of what he actually got. His political fate hangs in balance. One has to wait and see if he connives with Stalin to destabilise the state government.

Fringe Tamil nationalist Seeman improved his vote share from 1 per cent to 4 per cent, making it his best show since he entered politics more than a decade ago. Actor Haasan, with his woolly-headed ideas sprinkled with fair doses of communism, got almost the same number. Whether he has the stomach for a long fight has to be seen.

PMK has been unable to expand creatively to an entity that stands for all communities. Its vote share hovers around the 5 to 6 per cent range (5.4 per cent this time). Its only strategy seems to ride on the support of a community that senior Ramadoss fought for starting from the late 1980s.

While there was a BJP wave in most of India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala bucked the trend. A relentless and malicious propaganda dominated the campaign landscape leading up to the polls. The conjuring of grievances, effectively pinning every mishap to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cleverly capturing the pulse of the youth through memes seemed to be the modus operandi. The Tamil Nadu BJP president, Tamilisai Soundarrajan, bore the brunt of the most venomous misogynistic attacks.

With the Tamil Nadu BJP state unit unable to bargain for more seats in the AIADMK alliance and ill-equipped to grapple with the narrative, it ended up being decimated in the state. Since they contested just five seats that did not include any in Chennai, they ended up with a dismal 3.7 per cent vote share, a drop from 5.6 per cent to become the eighth largest party in terms of vote share in the state. S Gurumurthy, editor of Tughlak, has spun the story to imply that it was the AIADMK’s caste-based approach and its internal weaknesses that drowned the BJP along with it.

Another significant result was of the Congress getting nine seats in pre-poll negotiations with the DMK and winning eight, sending their second biggest chunk of MPs to the Parliament, along with Punjab. Its pro-minority image was a winner in the Tamil Nadu calculus. Its vote share increased to 12.8 per cent from the 4.4 per cent it had got earlier while contesting in all the 39 seats in 2014.

It is quite ironical that, politically speaking, the Congress has become the ‘nationalist’ strand connecting Tamil Nadu to the rest of India. The DMK wave also catapulted four communists to Parliament eclipsing the contribution from its traditional strongholds — West Bengal and Kerala.

These formations set the tone for the political future in the state. The DMK and Congress have found a fitting match in each other. BJP’s pre-poll overtures to DMK were unfruitful. It culminated in Stalin not being invited to the inauguration ceremony of the NDA government at the centre. A possible BJP-DMK tie-up can be ruled out in the near future.

With AIADMK’s future uncertain and BJP getting decimated in the state, their partnership is treading on thin ice. Given that AIADMK perceives that there is an anti-BJP mood in the state, their leaders at some point will ditch BJP openly. With a slew of corruption allegations floating against both the DMK and AIADMK leaders, one has to wait and see how the actions of the law enforcement agencies play out politically.

Behind all the politics, the ideological warfare in Tamil Nadu is more pronounced than any other part of India. Tamil separatism, anti-Hindu sentiment, caste violence, communism, radical Islam and strident Christianity are all seeing a rise in various forms in the past few years.

Seeing the amount of brazen ugliness in rhetoric, one realises the kind of forces Jayalalithaa had put a lid on during her tenure. A leadership vacuum in AIADMK and with some gentle prodding of their patron saints in DMK, these lumpen elements operate with gay abandon, amplifying their message through social media. Stalin’s overt and covert political shelter raises concern about his credentials as a moral leader that could guide Tamil Nadu 2.0.

The Colombo blasts should have been a wake-up call for the citizens who believed that the Islam of the south could never transmogrify into something violent. Zahran Hashim has travelled through the state to network with jihadists in Kerala and in other parts of India. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) recently raided and arrested eight people of the Islamic State module based in Coimbatore. Tamil Nadu Thawheed Jamath, the sister group of the organisation that bombed the churches in Sri Lanka, is under watch.

The rich foreign-funded churches, especially in the deep south, perpetuate and deepen divisions in the society. Ezra Sargunam, Mohan Lazarus and many other preachers continue to disparage Hindu religion and practices. Lazarus once said: “No other state in India has as many structures for Satan as Tamil Nadu does. Why does Satan have such a stronghold in TN? No other state has as many temples and Satanic structures.” Many church leaders openly appealed for support to Congress during the recent elections.

But the most apparent and deeply problematic of all these destructive forces is the Tamil separatism driven by multiple organisations in the name of propping up Tamil identity. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Naam Tamizhar, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Makkal Needhi Maiam and Dravidar Kazhagam keep adding fuel to the eternal fire of separate Tamil Nadu or Dravidian land.

They manufacture grievances out of thin air and propagate effectively through outrageous statements, double-entendres, clever puns, co-opting many in the media, Tamil academia, debaters, authors and people in the film industry. They dog whistle to the worst anti-national impulses in the cinema-crazy Tamil youth.

It is the immutable law of nature that every attempt to polarise whips up countervailing forces. In the torrent of negative, inward-looking political discourse, is there an alternative? Is there space for ‘spiritual politics’, as actor Rajinikanth had announced? Can the land that built the greatest temples, and produced the most uplifting literature discover its deep spiritual history at some point? Will people of Tamil Nadu realise that the ‘Periyarist’ dogma has run its course and that they have to shed the baggage for them to take the next leap?

How societies course correct is a topic for a book. Collective self-analysis happens only during times of crisis. Or a powerful leader with his/her dint of personality should shepherd the community to a promising future. But Tamil Nadu is trying to rediscover itself when no apparent crisis or no towering leader is on the horizon.

The lack of powerful leadership that acts as the lightning rod of constructive ideas in an open society is making it a cauldron of ideas, a virtual milky ocean where both nectar and poison are being churned out. Tamil Nadu is in search of the Neelakantha that drinks the halahala so that the ‘samudra manthana’ may continue.

More than two years ago, after Jayalalithaa’s death, this author wrote in Swarajya calling Tamil Nadu a “metastable” state. I had argued that as long as the then chief minister, O Panneerselvam and Sasikala Natarajan were able to balance the power structure, they both could manage to survive. But in a matter of weeks, the political soap opera unfolded. Palanisami pulled the rabbit out of the hat to become the chief minister and managed to survive for two years in a masterly display of political craftsmanship. So, any exercise in prediction is perilous in the current circumstances.

Tamil Nadu’s political shakiness colours business perception. The image of Tamil Nadu as one of most dynamic states in the country, comparable to say, Gujarat, has taken a beating. Highly-publicised protests on the Chennai-Salem expressway project, and the Sterlite and hydrocarbon issues have showed the presence of powerful vested interests that are intent on pushing the state into economic darkness for their own political gains.

The omnipresent corruption, causing delays in clearing projects only points to an out-of-grip leadership. Construction delays due to ban on quarrying has only added to the woes. The recent water woes of Chennai have shown the government in poor light.

However, all this should not hide the fact that Tamil Nadu has the third-highest per capita income among large states, at around Rs 2 lakh. Tamil Nadu's human development index is second among large states. There are more than 40,000 large industries and over 900,000 small and medium enterprises. Around 600 Japanese companies operate in the state. There is no organised violence. Crime against women is comparatively less.

The culture of bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu is top notch. Even during the extreme instability in early 2017, it figured among the best as far as implementation of central government schemes is concerned. Even after the reduced growth all over India due to demonetisation, teething issues with the goods and services tax, and cyclones and droughts in the last few years, Tamil Nadu managed to clock a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.5 per cent in the last seven years.

As with the politics and the ideological battles, the economic challenge is to take Tamil Nadu to the next level. With a gross enrolment ratio of 48 per cent — almost twice India’s figure — and an excellent base of IT companies, can it transform itself as a leader of ‘Industry 4.0’? Can the ‘Detroit of Asia’ make it big in the defence manufacturing, taking advantage of the defence corridor? Almost every district is ripe with possibilities of high-tech agribusiness. Can Tamil Nadu replicate its success in poultry to become a bigger food-processing hub?

Tamil Nadu is exciting and exasperating because it is always pregnant with possibilities of something extraordinary but is always held back by the irrational and manufactured ideas that its emotional people willingly lap up.

In Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, the protagonists engage in conversations about miscellaneous things, while waiting for a person named Godot to arrive but he never does. Tamil Nadu’s current phase is one that is not too dissimilar. The personality-cult-ish state is waiting for a messiah to guide it through moral and economic tangles, little realising that the world will not hold its breath waiting for it to succeed.

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.


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