Friday, April 10, 2009

Shifting Allegiances

Whichever Dravidian party led coalition wins the most in the Lok Sabha elections; they will have a major role to play in the centre 

Yet another round of switching of allegiances, alliance building and seat sharing has taken place, as has been the norm for the past few elections – both state and national – in the state of Tamil Nadu prior to the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The defection of the left parties and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) from the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) which includes the Congress has changed the political “equations” in the state. The opposition Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) has now become the new lynchpin for the “grand alliance” which includes the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) apart from the aforementioned parties. 

What drove the left parties to the ADMK led front was their perception that they had to be part of an oppositional alliance to be with a chance to defeat the Congress – their “national” imperative to form an non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), non-Congress government. As for the PMK- the party purportedly representing Vanniyar caste interests, its propensity to flow with the political wind by shifting allegiances was aided by the uncomfortable relationship it held with the DMK over the past year, despite being part of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the centre. The MDMK had already joined hands with the ADMK before the 2006 elections. Only the more recently formed outfit – the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam led by actor Vijaykanth has decided to go it alone, willing to test the popularity of its leader in all constituencies in the state. 

Tamil Nadu’s case resembles other north Indian states, where the main national parties – the Congress and the BJP – have been bumped by stronger regional parties to junior or insignificant roles. What characterises Tamil Nadu’s polity as being unique is that the major regional parties, the DMK and the ADMK have had no qualms about reaching an alliance with either national party to suit their ends and to add to this mockery of coalitions is the sheer desperation of other outfits in the state to fit in as partners with the more dominant of the two at any particular “election moment”. Thus the DMK as well as the PMK have now achieved a stay in the centre through being part of both the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP as well as the UPA, while the ADMK has been in coalition with both the Congress and the BJP and now, the Left. Such a reliance on the state’s regional parties has given a greater federal hue to the centre’s functioning, but beyond this formalism, hardly much has been attributed to these outfits’ role in the centre apart from widely held views about corruption and high-handedness of their representatives in government. 

The logic of alliance building is intended to win from a simple arithmetic addition of caste/social base support enjoyed by the various parties. To an extent, the intent has indeed delivered in the near past in both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly elections; but social bases over the years are no longer set in stone in the much urbanised and socio-economically changing state. 

The political discourse during campaigning has thrived not so much on performance of the ruling/ oppositional parties as on the ability of the two main parties (and others) to use their money power and patronage networks built during days in power (at the Centre or in the state). The political contestations between the main Dravidian parties are aimed at hitting the other with charges of corruption, nepotism and campaigns against each other are greatly personalised. The ADMK aims its criticism against the DMK leader M.Karunanidhi’s all powerful family, while the DMK does the same pointing its finger toward J.Jayalalithaa’s leadership and familial misgivings. Even issues of development – material necessities of the people of the state, health, education etc – are debated through personalised vitriolic attacks aimed at each other by the leaders of these Dravidian parties and including the MDMK and the PMK. 

What has emerged as an additional issue in this election is the situation in Sri Lanka, where there is a humanitarian crisis in the Vanni region. Partly due to the peoples’ empathy for the plight of the affected people in the region and partly due to mobilisations for “support to the Tamil cause” by both ruling and oppositional sections in the Tamil polity, this issue now sees very engaged grandstanding by most political outfits. Interestingly the strongest voices demanding intervention by the Indian government in Sri Lanka are positioned in oppositional fronts – the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is part of the DMK led alliance, while the pro-Tamil-rebels parties, the PMK and the MDMK are with the ADMK led alliance. 

The political story is even more complicated by the fact that there is no guarantee that pre-poll alliances will hold after elections, with the ADMK for example giving no indications of a steadfast anti-BJP, anti-Congress stance, much to the discomfort of the left parties. In the case of the latter, their lamentable dependence on the two highly personalised and patronage based Dravidian parties every election season raises questions about these parties’ limited praxis in the state.   

National elections are still being contested from regional platforms in this state and whatever might be the outcome, it is guaranteed that the winning set of regional parties will have a major role to play in the centre. Whether that role is progressive and addresses real issues that face the people of Tamil Nadu is questionable and that is the discomforting feature about the Lok Sabha elections in the state. 

Draft of the editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly


Vikram said...

On a completely different note, I would like to know what your thoughts are on the creation of Gorkhaland and other smaller states.

Srinivasan Ramani said...

I wrote this on Gorkhaland:

.. a few months ago.

Also this on Telangana, which talks about the new state demands. :

This is my take on the Telangana demand based on "cultural difference" :

Many grievances gather emotive steam through appeals to cultural differences. That is when the logic of “linguistic coherence” inevitably loses appeal. It is obvious that only a focus on removing disparities can prevent such situations, but it requires political will to address structural inequalities. In the case of Telangana, for example, land reforms and other socio-economic measures to address poverty and semi-feudalism should be the immediate remedy. But with the political leadership more interested in a model of development that is decidedly urban-centric, private investment-driven and engaged only in token welfarism, is it possible to prevent the demand for a new state?
This situation does not pertain for Gorkhaland, where administrative malfeasance by a native of Gorkhaland, in this case Subhash Ghising was responsible for much of the problems of civic governance in the area.