Democracy in South Asia

Does Jayalalithaa’s conviction and DMK’s involvement in corruption provide a chance for the BJP to make inroads?

The conviction of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, one of India’s most popular and powerful politicians in a corruption case, has thrown wide-open many issues that need due attention and analysis. First, the case has renewed people’s faith in the role of the judiciary. The case in question was dragged out for almost two decades thanks to numerous stays and appeals. During this time the person convicted held the highest position within the state of Tamil Nadu, i.e. the head of the state, meaning that she had the power to influence witnesses and legislators. It was fear that the public prosecutor was too beholden to the leader, for instance, that led to the trial being shifted to the neighbouring state of Karnataka.

The fact that, despite all these power equations and questions relating to influence, Jayalalithaa was convicted whilst in post as Chief Minister on the back of a resounding electoral mandate provides a lot of hope to people on the street who see corruption as one of the gravest issues plaguing the nation. There is a long list of powerful politicians who have graft cases pending in the courts and this conviction could set a precedent that there is no escape for wrongdoers from the long arm of the law, regardless of how powerful they are.

Another important question here is a political one: the state from which the leader hails is seen as one of the most progressive regions in terms of socio-political changes and indicators. The state has a long history of taking up the cause of communities from the lower rungs in an otherwise hierarchical social order. Movements demanding equal opportunities and social justice for all communities took power in the state in 1967 and, during the last 50 years, political parties espousing linguistic and ethnic forms of nationalism (Tamil and Dravidian nationalism) laced with concepts of social justice as against national (Indian) identity have held sway.

Political power was shared by the two major Dravidian parties, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (All India Anna Dravidian Progressive Federation) popularly referred through acronyms AIADMK and its precursor the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation) DMK, during the last 30 years. In the 2014 national elections, when the whole nation was swept by a Modi wave (Narendra Modi was the Prime Ministerial candidate for BJP, his political career is a chequered one, he was accused of masterminding the Anti-Muslim pogrom infamously called the Gujarat riots, despite such accusations he was able to win elections back-to-back in his state of Gujarat and now has emerged successful as the Prime Minister of India) and backed the Bharatiya Janata Party BJP (Indian Peoples Party), which is a right wing cultural nationalist Hindu majoritarian political party, Tamil Nadu remained the last frontier that needs to be conquered by them. It is against this background that we need to analyse the recent conviction of Jayalalithaa the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and its political implications in the state. With Jayalalithaa convicted and their main opponent DMK tainted with serious charges of corruption, and with many cases pending against their leaders in the court, it is believed that there is a political vacuum which the right wing BJP could potentially utilise to breach the fortress.

Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader and the person who filed the case against Jayalalithaa stated to the press that the BJP should utilise this opportunity to strengthen its base in Tamil Nadu and the party’s general secretary too mentioned the same,  Now the big question remains: is there really a political vacuum and is it that simplistic to bring down the electoral democratic structures built by these Dravidian parties over the last forty years? The cultural practices of iconicity and symbolism related political practices, not to forget the performatory aspects of political speeches focused on Dravidian political discourse, are not things that could be easily replaced by a right wing party, which insists on imposition of Sanskrit in everyday public culture. The very origins of Dravidian nationalism stemmed from the argument that Tamil is a language, which is superior to Sanskrit, and that the caste system was a Brahmin conspiracy to enslave the indigenous population. Given these origins of Dravidianism, and the fact that parties adhering to this political ideology have dominated Tamil politics for 50 years, it will not be as simple for the BJP to fill any political vacuum as it may appear. Moreover, both Dravidian parties have put the art of governance centred on populism into effective use, which provides them with a connection to the grassroots that few other parties can boast of – witness the numbers of party members and followers attempting suicide, engaging in violence and shedding tears following the verdict.

Is There a Political Vacuum?

On the other hand, it is also imperative to look at why the question of a political vacuum appeared in the first place. The political situation in Tamil Nadu is quite complex. The major parties, which claim adherence to Dravidian ideology, are definitely on the wane and have moved away, ideologically speaking, from their origins. Both parties have aligned with the BJP during election campaigns over the past decade, meaning that the BJP are no longer complete outsiders in Tamil politics although they have been unable to gain more than a seat or two. Congress, which used to have a foothold in the state, has recently lost ground and standing to the point where they could not secure a major local ally for the 2014 elections. In this situation the BJP senses an opportunity to make inroads into the state. This optimism and belief is bolstered by the BJP’s performance in the last election and the fact that they have, in Modi, a leader who imposes himself upon us through all available modes of communication. Ably supported by the media, he has emerged as a larger than life figure who can possibly provide a stronger India with stronger decisions. It is this constructed belief in Modi and a cult revolving around him, which offers Tamil activists, the hope that the BJP can now breach the last frontier.

What then stands in the way of the BJP’s rise in Tamil Nadu? The first point to make is that whilst both the AIADMK and DMK may be beset by troubles at the top, both remain reasonably well-organised and resourced organisations, which are tied into local and regional networks both politically and socially. Looking beyond the Dravidian challenge, the BJP would also need to reach out to a strong Dalit (ex-untouchable castes) and Muslim electorate, which has historically stood against them. In 2014, the BJP pulled together a ‘Rainbow Alliance’ of smaller Dravidian parties and groups based on the intermediate castes. Whilst this coalition managed to win two seats and prevent Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK gaining a clean sweep, the leaders of these parties have already questioned the BJP’s stance on Sri Lanka and the Tamil language. To really make gains in the South, the BJP would need to embrace the fact that India is a plural, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation. Nothing the party has done since coming to office suggests that such a reinvention of the party is occurring; and, failing such a change in direction, there is no indication that Tamil voters are prepared to back a non-Tamil party in large numbers. If the AIADMK and DMK do implode, therefore, it is as likely that the smaller and caste-based regional parties will attain greater prominence in the state before the national parties make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, the Vanniyar (numerically large intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu) based political party PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) (Toiling Peoples Party) leader and former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has also claimed that PMK would fill the political vacuum that is existing in the state.

An important thing to note here is the question of a sympathy wave, a phenomena that has already worked towards the advantage of political parties, both during Jayalalithaa’s previous arrest and her arch rival DMK president Karunanidhi’s arrest, there was a sympathy wave that swept across the state resulting in electoral gains. Moreover, the conviction was for a charge that was during her first tenure as Chief Minister and she has changed a lot; DMK also has much more serious charges of corruption levelled against them. Last but not least, since a court in Karnataka has ruled the conviction, a state with which Tamil Nadu has longstanding river-water dispute, this arrest and related events might become politically favourable for Jayalalithaa.

AIADMK cadres staging a road roko in Madurai following the conviction of Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister Jayalaithaa under corruption charges.

AIADMK cadres staging a road roko in Madurai following the conviction of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalaithaa under corruption charges.

This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies. He was previously working as a Correspondent for The Hindu Newspaper in India.

Image Source: special arrangement

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One comment

  • This is a most insightful Feature, which carefully assesses the argument that Jayalalithaa’s arrest may open up a vacuum that can be filled by the BJP. As the author rightly points out, the Tamil Nadu political landscape is a complex one and one that non-Dravidian parties may find hard to navigate, let alone thrive in.
    There are a couple of brief observations that I would like to add. Firstly, one of the main issues, it seems to me, is that although the AIADMK has no doubt been heavily affected by the arrest of its leader, the party’s grassroots political support is stronger than ever before, with the AIADMK having obtained 37 out of 39 seats in the May elections, and being on its way to an impressive victory on 2016. This broad-based support is hard to weaken, as shown by recent regional and smaller party’s struggles to make inroads into DMK-AIADMK political dominance. Any party, be it BJP or PMK, will find it very hard to redirect this grassroots support to their own party agendas and interests, especially where these are non-Dravidian and non-Tamil in nature.
    On the other hand, and this is my second point, despite the dominance of these two main parties in the recent history of Tamil Nadu politics, their singular leadership around one key figure – Karunanidhi (DMK) and Jayalalityaa (AIADMK), respectively – could also form a simultaneous weakness of these parties. It remains to be seen, for example, how each of these parties will re-invent, re-organise and re-direct itself in the aftermath of corruption allegations and arrests. And, who will be able to fill the leadership vacuum within the AIADMK itself in the absence of its charismatic leader? How long and how well will leadership ‘from a distance’ – whether in jail or on bail – work?
    Finally, it remains to be seen in which way accusations, arrests and convictions will affect democracy, and Tamil people’s belief in it.

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