100 years of Dravidianism: Why TN remains a tough nut for BJP to crack

Federalism, in all probability, will be a key issue dominating Indian politics in the near future.

Palanivel Thiagarajan did not mince words. “How is it possible to have a uniform policy that would apply to the average Bihari who is 20 years old, has finished only primary school, and earns Rs45,000 a year as well as to the average Tamil who is 29 years old, has finished college, and earns four times as much?” he wondered.

An MBA from the Sloan School of Management in the US and a former Wall Street professional, Thiagarajan comes from a family in which three generations have been associated with the Dravidian movement. Presently a DMK MLA who helms the party’s IT wing, Thiagarajan is convinced federalism will be among the key issues dominating Indian politics in the near future.

Thiagarajan’s father PTR Palanivel Rajan was a DMK leader and former Speaker of the legislative Assembly. His grandfather PT Rajan was one of the leading luminaries of the Justice Party, the original organization of the Dravidian movement founded more than 100 years ago.


The Justice Party was meant to be a counter to the Congress. The founding leaders of that party came from the elites but they were not of the Congress variety, and their politics was more plebeian. Not particularly anti-British, they spoke directly against the discrimination faced by non-brahmin caste groups – the vast majority of the population – and against Hindi.

When the Congress formed the government in Madras Presidency in 1937 and introduced Hindi, the Dravidian movement coalesced around the anger against it. Periyar, a social reformer and former Congressman who became its bitter opponent because of its apparent blindness to caste issues, joined the Justice Party.

Across India, Hindi or Hindustani had been held up by the Congress as a binding, nationalizing force but among Tamils that move triggered protests. Politically, Tamil Nadu had historically never really been part of Delhi-centred kingdoms for any sustained period of time in the past. And two developments in the 19th century had served to solidify modern Tamil identity as a separate ethnic group based on a unique language.

Impact of literature

Irish missionary Robert Caldwell, while serving in Tamil country, wrote a book that established the Dravidian family of languages, with Tamil at the core, as distinct and non-Sanskritic. The book had an impact on how Tamils saw themselves.

Another contemporary development was the rediscovery and publishing of ancient Tamil treatises that established the Sangam corpus of literary works. The poems portrayed the people of the early Sangam period, which scholars date to 500 BC, as largely irreligious, concerned with secular aspects of life, were apparently caste-free, and had little to do with Sanskrit and the Vedas.

The Dravidian movement gave a political edge to these two core ideas and promoted a certain reading of Tamil culture, history and language. Initially, the movement was inimical, even opposed, to Indian Independence, seeing it as the ushering in of brahmin and north Indian domination. But the political party that emerged from the movement, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (organization for the promotion of Dravidians), supported Indian Independence and over the course of time dropped its secessionist demand. It, however, became a strong advocate of federalism and more power to states in tune with its idea that Tamil Nadu is a contiguous entity with its own unique characteristics. In 1967, as the Congress faced defeat across India, the DMK rode to power in Tamil Nadu.

The DMK represented a radical shift in political mobilization. The Congress party was a party of the local bigwigs – feudal landlords and such. Scholar and academic Narendra Subramanian, in his book, “Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization”, says the DMK, unlike the Congress, was led in the grassroots by common folk. Dividing the state into five electoral regions, Subramanian notes that while the DMK was able to displace the Congress in the northern part of Tamil Nadu and the Cauvery delta, it was not so successful in the west and two southern regions.

In 1971, when the Congress under Indira Gandhi vacated from Tamil Nadu as part of a deal with the DMK, the AIADMK took its place. The AIADMK, formed by film star MGR who himself was a DMK veteran, was a halfway house between the DMK and the Congress. It represented the poorest and the most marginalized of the people who would typically look up to a charismatic mass leader as their patron. It was not as strident in caste issues as the DMK, and soft pedalled ethnic exclusivism and language pride. Yet, the AIADMK, drawn from the Dravidian movement, has remained a regional party. Its leader J Jayalalithaa was a critic of the cooperative federalism policy of the Modi government.

The welfarist policies of the two parties including the noon meals scheme introduced by MGR in the 1980s can be said to have created the social base required for rapid growth in the state. Subramanian says the populism of these parties has its basis in the Dravidian ideology. The average Tamil in Thiagarajan’s analysis is what he or she is largely due to the policies of the Dravidian movement.

Time for change?

It’s been 50 years since the Dravidian parties started ruling the state. Is it time for a change, now that Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are no more? Has Tamil Nadu outgrown the Dravidian parties? Is it time for Tamil Nadu to join the national mainstream, as the BJP often says?

If the AIADMK were to collapse and there was no other competitor to take its place, a national party could fancy its chances. Politics everywhere is becoming transactional and is not about identity or shared history. And that is increasingly the case in Tamil Nadu also. The Dravidian parties have become transactional too. Their manifestos are closely read for the new welfare measures they promise.

The Congress, however, is not in any position to emerge stronger in the state. The BJP may therefore be a more natural inheritor of the core AIADMK vote base since, as Subramanian points out, the AIADMK grew to replace the nationalist Congress more than the DMK.

The nationalist narrative is alive in the state to some extent, which could give the BJP an opening. But Tamil Nadu challenges the Hindutva narrative in its entirety.

For the BJP, growing in Tamil Nadu is not just a political challenge that can be overcome by clever electoral engineering and arithmetic. It is an ideological battle since the BJP’s ideas on nationhood, religion, culture, language and identity run counter to Dravidian ideas. It’s a battle that the BJP seems determined to wage but it will have to wait for the 2021 Assembly polls or later. Even then, it will have to advocate federalism and acknowledge that one size cannot fit all to be able to speak to Tamils, aka Dravidians.

(This is the second of a three-part series on the domination of regional parties in southern India. Click here to read the first article).

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