Freebies and movies: Why do the two Dravidian parties have such a hold over Tamil voters?

By the time this piece appears, the residents of Tamil Nadu would have exercised their electoral right and every newspaper and news channel would have begun predicting the outcome. Until now, for us, the people of Tamil Nadu, elections have only meant two political outfits and their respective symbols, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (rising sun) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (two leaves). To be more precise, they have meant two parties and three personalities – say M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha. These three have trapped and controlled the political imagination of the people. For an electorate that led the way in social reform, we have lost almost all our social awareness and reduced politics to hero-worship and sycophancy.

But this is an unusual election, as for the first time we have been given what could be called a three-cornered fight in the shape of the Front created by the Left, a couple of major Dalit formations and one led by a cine star banding together. This alliance could, technically, spoil AIADMK’s and DMK’s calculations and significantly democratise political power in the state. But will that happen? It seems highly unlikely – I should say impossible – that it will overtake the two large Dravidar formations to form a government.

Irrespective of what happens, it is true that our hero-worship, especially the display of unabashed mother-worship that Jayalalitha receives from her followers, has made us the laughing stock of the country. Therefore before we drown ourselves in the arithmetic of these elections, let us try understanding some aspects of this DMK/AIADMK loyalty.

Analysts relate Tamil Nadu’s electoral behavior to caste-based politics, “freebie culture” and pre-election bribery that has become the norm in the state. They also imply that the Tamil people in general are gullible illiterates who have been taken for a ride for a very long time. These are the easy answers but is there more to it?

At the base of our choices lies an essential cultural fact: linguistically and racially, we see ourselves as different from the rest of the country. Tamil is so different from most Indian languages that the people of Tamil Nadu do feel different, special – and isolated. The intentionality of the rest may or may not be to see us differently – and let me as a Tamil identify myself as a Tamil – but that it happens even today and quite naturally, is true. This only further necessitates the need to establish who we are. We don’t look like most people of India and the texture of our habits, rituals and celebrations are entirely Tamil. How much ever historians and anthropologists may argue the validity of the Aryan-Dravidian divide, under the skin and in the mind of every Tamilian the division exists. It is this socio-cultural reality that brought to the fore the Dravidian movement, and this is one of the reasons the Dravidian parties have taken over politics in Tamil Nadu. In spite of the emergence of so many other Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK even today own the Tamil card. May be it is their political lineage that gives them this strangle hold?

Amma’s appeal

Whether we like it or not this distinction also plays a role in the voting pattern of the upper-castes vis-à-vis the others. But this is not crystal clear, since at times convergence takes place due to some complex reasons. Take for instance Jayalalitha. Many forward castes prefer to vote for her and her caste and class has a role to play in this choice, not to forget that she is not seen as anti-Brahminical as M Karunanidhi. But she also has a huge support base among other caste groups. Firstly she is MGR’s heir and therefore the strong Dravida connection is confirmed even if she is upper-caste. Here political identity takes precedence over the individual. There is another paradox that cannot be brushed aside: her fair complexion that defines her upper caste-ness is also a draw. The connection between beauty, honesty, success, trust and whiteness affects all of us. Added to this is the perception of motherhood making distrust almost impossible. Here, we must remember that the “mother” culture is very strong in Tamil-land.

On the other hand, Karunanidhi and team challenge this perception and try their very best to further establish themselves as the real Dravidian representatives. In fact the worship of Jayalalitha is played up subtly as an example for Dravidian subjugation. Whenever the DMK consolidation occurs the balance tilts in its favour. But it is obvious from the recent political statements of M Stalin, that there is a clear shift, even disowning of many of their core principles. The need to appear aspirationally upper caste/class has influenced their move towards embracing a more western looking, business-like and less atheistic approach. Muddled in this is once again the “white” that appears not just in skin but symbolically as upper class power.

But we have to wonder why no other outfit has been able to challenge the DMK and AIADMK. To the credit of both these parties, they have over the years established an electoral base that cuts across caste lines. Though their choice of candidates is still caste-influenced, the parties themselves have a support base that is wider. This cannot be said of most other parties like Pattali Makkal Katchi or Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. This has reduced their role to being second-class partners. What about the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party? Here is another twist. Both these national parties have in their ranks very Tamil leaders, yet they will never be considered Dravidian. The strength of their party identity makes it very difficult for their leaders to convince voters that they are truly Tamilian. The Congress and BJP are, let us admit it, seen as parties of Hindi-speaking Northerners.

Screen dreams

Where does cinema fit into all this? After all Tamil Nadu has had chief ministers from the cine-world for the past 50 years. We have to understand this historically, without reducing this to “film-madness”. Tamil cinema and literature were very important tools in influencing people and accelerating the Dravidian movement. The stories that were told via Tamil films were part of the Dravidian philosophy and consequently changed peoples thinking. The novels or short stories that were adapted, the screenplay, song-lyrics were drenched in the Dravida philosophy. This also led to a change in the caste-class participation in cinema influencing everything from acting to the music that captured the hearts of millions. It is here that CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran created an identity for themselves.

This direct connection between cinema and Tamil Nadu’s socio-politics continued right up to the 1980s. Even though it has moved away in the last few decades, in the psyche of the Tamilian this bond has not been broken. When a cinemagoer watches a film, he/she is unconsciously connecting the political and cultural, film personalities with the power of change. The umbilical link between Tamil politics and cinema is so deep-rooted that even new voters have imbibed this tradition subliminally carrying it forward to the next generation of film stars.

What about the freebie culture? Are people so naïve that they vote based on the gifts they receive from the establishment? This is not gullibility; it is cultural conditioning. In the hierarchy of society, we have constructed a giver-receiver model. This system establishes a giver-taker power syndrome and the gift confirms benevolence as a virtue. On the other side of the scale, the receiver is thankful for the kindness. If you see how politicians distribute these gifts and the frenzy that surrounds these events, you comprehend how political outfits cultivate an environment of competition among those who are beneficiaries, always keeping them in check and consciously positioning themselves as kings and queens. This is only an extension of the landowner-labourer syndrome.

The pre-election money distribution is unfortunately seen only as another gift. The AIADMK and the DMK are masters at this craft. But I am not going to straightjacket citizens that easily. Existing within this bamboozled environment, voters also figure a way to exercise some pressure and pit one gift against another. Yet, they remain within the established condition.

Economic gains

We forget another important aspect about Tamil Nadu. We have never really been at the nadir of economic development; in other words Tamil Nadu has not been a Bihar or UP. In spite of the rampant corruption, the state has moved forward albeit slowly. Crucially reservations have been largely a success story, providing opportunity to so many. These have also kept voters at large, within the DMK/AIADMK ambit.

What have we really lost under these Dravidian giants? The truth is that over the last two decades we have lived under fear. Whether it is the DMK or the AIADMK in power, in matters of freedom and citizens rights, they are not very different. We citizens are mortally afraid of taking them on, scared that gondaas will physically harm us. The cadres of both these parties abuse their strength with great regularity and no police force will come to your aid. Tamil Nadu has been a dictatorial democracy for far too long.

Will these elections change anything? I am not sure they will, but I am certain that in the next decade political powers centres will shift. We are, in my opinion going to witness the downfall of the DMK and the AIADMK resulting in a period of turmoil and uncertainty. What will eventually come out of this upheaval is anybody’s guess, but that this is vital for Tamil Nadu is unquestionable.

Originally written for Scroll.in

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