Competitive clientelism in Tamil Nadu since 1967: Finding a pattern

Clientelism is a form of distributive politics where political parties direct resources to voters who in turn become tacit supporters of the political setup in exchange for the resources

MGR has meals with children. The competitive clientelism in Tamil Nadu has been kept within the bounds of ‘live and let live’ strategies because both parties share a common ideology.

After much haggling, political parties in Tamil Nadu have almost sealed up electoral alliances for the 2021 assembly elections due on April 6.

While holding parleys and finalising the electoral arithmetic, the parties take into consideration a number of factors with a single objective of emerging victorious. Even the best laid-out plans may go awry because of a number of factors, some of which could go beyond the control of the parties themselves. But is there a method in the madness? In this series beginning today, we look at how numbers play out in the Tamil Nadu elections.

The revolving door phenomenon

There is a clear pattern between the periods, 1987 when the charismatic Chief Minister, MG Ramachandran (MGR), died in harness and; in 2016, when his protégé J. Jayalalithaa breathed her last at Apollo Hospital merely six months after her spectacular return. The political formations led by the AIADMK and the DMK took turns in holding power in the state. In the 2016 assembly elections, Jayalalithaa broke this trend to emerge victorious for the second consecutive term.

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Unwritten consensus and populist policies

Tamil Nadu has always enjoyed high rates of growth both before and after 1991 liberalisation. This has been due to a combination of historical factors that post 1967 allowed its two main political parties to create and allocate ‘rents.’ In many districts of Tamil Nadu, especially rural ones, local party operatives are charged with distributing state goods to citizens and work with local government officials in the logistics and distribution of these goods. These public goods, which include medicine, food, and public employment, are crucial components of anti-poverty programmes. Some are also considered populist freebies. Typically, this means there’s a flow of operation command from the district organiser of a party right down to the booth-level operator. The rule of thumb is that in a polling booth (which has roughly 800 to 1,000 votes) a party worker must service at least 60 to 70 voters. Normally, in each booth, the party deploys five to 10 party workers. The practice was started by the DMK in the 1960s and since been adopted by most parties. The idea behind the arrangement is that through the year, the booth-level workers facilitate distribution of goods and welfare programmes and on the polling day leads the voter to the booth. 

Dravidian ideology and redistributive politics

From the ‘three padi’ (or measure) of rice for 1 scheme announced by DMK founder C.N. Annadurai in 1967, competitive clientelism has been scaling new peaks with the passage of time. After winning the elections, Annadurai became the chief minister and implemented the ‘three measures of rice’ scheme for some time in a few districts but later fiscal burden forced the government to scrap it.

After this, there was the noon meal of MGR, now rebranded as ‘Sathu unavu thittam’ (nutritional meal) scheme. This helped increase enrolment in schools. The DMK government replaced hand-pulled rickshaws with motorised ones as the whole practice was dehumanising. This was another scheme in line with the social justice thought of the Dravidian ideology. 

Populism can go astray as in the case of MGR’s water supply scheme. The CM had announced he would be bringing drinking water to the parched state capital through the Telugu-Ganga water scheme, but failed following a fallout with his Andhra counterpart.

MGR devised a scheme in which coloured, cheap plastic water containers were distributed free of cost to those living below the poetry line. A tractor-drawn tanker would visit their homes everyday and fill up these coloured pots! 

When freebies become a bad word

In 2006, with a foot in the Centre and DMK reasonably sure of getting the required financial support from the UPA government (that it was part of the alliance deal), then chief minister M. Karunanidhi announced a number of schemes (derogatorily referred to as freebies) which included free colour televisions, rice at ₹2 per kg, land for the landless, free gas stoves, an unemployment salary of ₹300, maternity/pre-natal assistance for poor women for six months, and electricity bill waiver to weavers. Jayalalitha also followed these up later in 2011 and 2016 with schemes that varied from free cycles for the girl child to computers for students to sanitary napkins for women. Some of these schemes such as free cycle for the girl child had a positive impact like a reduction in female school dropout rate.

Clientelism is a prominent form of distributive politics in developing democracies globally, wherein political parties direct resources (budgeted) to voters. These voters, in turn, become tacit supporters of the political setup in exchange for the resources. This has been the real mantra in Tamil Nadu. Seeing how such schemes fetched votes in Tamil Nadu, national and regional parties in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, and Chhattisgarh too have started replicating these tactics.

Most theories of clientelism in political science assume that parties earn more votes when they distribute more resources to voters directly and based on legislative approval. With JAM (Jandhan, Aadhaar and Mobile), the whole process has become far more easy and perceivably transparent. This has also led to considerable advantage to the incumbents when it comes to seeking re-elections. 

The lessons

Competitive clientelism in Tamil Nadu has been kept within the bounds of ‘live and let live’ strategies because both the leading parties – the DMK and the AIADMK – share a common ideology. When it comes to grassroots mobilisation, they end up going after the almost-identical social groups. The result is a form of competitive clientelism that achieves a revolving door in and out of the two parties in successive elections.

Here, The Federal illustrate the phenomenon through numbers. 

The incongruity of Tamil political economy is that despite its competitive clientelism, it remains one of India’s most industrially advanced states. Tamil Nadu has one of the  highest levels of urbanisation and a significant manufacturing and services industry base. Due to its historical low rainfall (leading to lack of perennial rivers), agriculture is relatively unviable. High levels of technical education and high social sector spending, backed with an effective public distribution system have ensured that either of the parties have all along competed with each other to see who delivers better. The rent, as an externality, being the icing on the cake. 

While their common ideological history appears to make the competition between the two parties intense, ironically, their common ideological ancestry and the overlap of their constituencies means that from policy point of view there are just simply no divergent policies. Their rent creation strategies included support for industrialisation and these strategies remained stable despite parties involved in the political musical chair. 

The most evident pattern is alliance arithmetic. When the state’s smaller parties ally with one Dravidian party, that party invariably wins. This has been the experience since 1987. There, however, seems to be some kind of a ‘method to this madness’ and clue to this lies in an often missed metric ‘Contested Vote Share.’ We will see more about this in Part 2 of this series.

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