Understanding Tamil Nadu politics ahead of May 16 poll

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Tamil Nadu will see elections to form its 15th Assembly on May 16. The southern state has a unique political culture---marked by dominance of the Dravidian parties and film personalities.

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For a fresher who is following the state's election for the first time, here is a brief guide to the state's political history.


The Self-Respect Movement

The Madras Presidency which preceded the state of Tamil Nadu saw the birth of the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 under the aegis of EV Ramaswamy, popularly called Periyar. The movement wanted the Dravidians or non-Brahmins to give up "superstitions" of the Vedic culture and revert to the ancient Dravidian culture and nurture rationalist thoughts.

The Brahmins were disliked for practising alien exercises like the caste system and popularising things that are "North Indian". Atheism was the basis of the movement, unlike the Brahminical rituals. "Self-respect marriages" were started as an alternative to marriages conducted by Brahmin priests. And above all, the championing of the Tamil language was the biggest cornerstone of the movement.

m karunanidhi

Dravidian politics before Independence

The Justice Party was formed in 1916 and shared ideals similar to the Self-Respect Movement. It introduced reservations in educational institutions and brought religious reforms during its heydays between 1920 and 1937.

It was once the alternative to the Indian National Congress but after losing the Madras Presidency Legislative Assembly election in 1937, it never recovered, thanks to it being identified as a strong anti-Brahmin outfit. In 1944, the Justice Party merged with Periyar's Dravidar Khazagam (DK), the predecessor of today's two main parties---the DMK and AIADMK.


The anti-Brahmin sentiments became stronger in the late 1930s when Hindi language was made compulsory and Periyar saw it as a move to colonise the Dravidians. The demand slowly fizzled out after 1962 by when the DMK had gained prominence.

The DMK was formed in 1949 after several followers of Periyar, led by former chief minister C N Annadurai, left the DK after Periyar anointed his young wife Maniamani as his successor.

Filmstars in Tamil politics

Cinema had played a major role in transforming Tamil politics as it was chosen as a medium for propagating the Dravidian ideals. The 1952 film, Parasakthi, which was written by DMK supremo and former chief minister M Karunanidhi, marked a watershed for the Dravidian movement by propagating social justice, rationalism and anti-Brahminism.

In 1953, late Tamil matinee idol MG Ramachandran joined the DMK and popularised the party. Other actors like Sivaji Ganesan, SS Rajendran and MR Radha were also identified with the DMK. In later years, filmstars like Rajinikanth and Vijaykanth, too, have had a say in politics---directly or indirectly.

While the former's clarion call to vote against Jayalalithaa, also a former actor, saw her AIADMK being routed in the 1996 state polls; the latter's DMDK is being chased by all parties to get a hold on his small but solid vote-share.

The rise of DMK and the divide in it

The DMK swept the Assembly elections in 1967 to end the Congress's 20-year-old dominance in the state. Annadurai became the chief minister and remained so till his death in February 1969. He was succeeded by M Karunanidhi---the incumbent president. It legalised "self-respect marriage", implemented pro-poor initiatives and promoted Tamil language. It also won the 1971 election but by now, inner-party rivalry and allegations of corruption weakened the party's ideological stand.

The clash between Karunanidhi and MGR saw the later leaving the DMK and floating his own AIADMK in October 1972. The party drubbed the parent party DMK in parliamentary and assembly by-elections in Dindigul in 1973 and Coimbatore in 1974, respectively. The two Dravidian parties continue to be the two fiercest opponents in Tamil Nadu politics till date.

The MGR era

The year 1977 was a landmark in Tamil Nadu politics just as it was in the national politics. MGR's AIADMK won the election that year and the actor-politician became the first filmstar to become the chief minister of any Indian state.

MGR continued to be the CM of Tamil Nadu till 1987 when he died, winning the elections of 1980 and 1984 as well. The much talked about midday meal scheme---a successful example of the welfare state in our country---is a legacy of the MGR government. But MGR's populist governance was also hit by charges of rampant corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude and the state bore the brunt.

His AIADMK also became the first Dravidian party to become a part of the central government as two of its members were inducted in the government of Charan Singh, which did not last much long. MGR's death saw a power struggle between two women---Janaki Ramachandran, his wife, and J Jayalalithaa, once his leading onscreen pair.

Jayalalithaa's time

Jayalalithaa joined the AIADMK in 1982 and was appointed the propaganda secretary and nominated to the Upper House of Parliament.

She ultimately prevailed following MGR's death and made a big impact as the next big leader of Tamil Nadu by sweeping the 1991 state election in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur in the state. In the 1996 election, the exact opposite happened as the AIADMK was routed.

She returned again in 2001 and 2011 with massive majorities and is looking for the sixth term as the chief minister this time. She also became the first sitting CM to be disqualified after conviction in a disproportionate assets case.

She returned to head the government in May 2015 after the Supreme Court acquitted her. She took oath as chief ministers twice in her 2001 and 2011 terms with the interregnum being served by her finance minister, O Panneerselvam.

Tamil parties in national politics

Both the DMK and AIADMK have been allies at the Centre, marking a departure from the days of the anti-Centre ideological stand. The DMK has been more regular as a partner at the Centre though it doesn't have a single MP in the current Lok Sabha which is dominated by the NDA. The last time it was in a central alliance was in 2013 when it had withdrawn from the then UPA II led by the Congress on the question of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Earlier, it has also been part of the National front, United Front and NDA governments. The UPA, of which it was a part, had swept the state in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

The AIADMK, on the other hand, has been part of the Centre only twice---once in 1979 during the days of MGR and in 1998-99 when the 13-month-old government of Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the Centre.

The life of the NDA government was cut short after Jayalalithaa withdrew support and it lost the no-confidence motion by a solitary vote. In 2014, the AIADMK won all but two Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu but yet could do little to exert pressure on the Narendra Modi government since it had got the majority it required.

Caste matters in TN politics today

Although the Dravidian movement had visualised a casteless society, the party politics in Tamil Nadu today play the caste card in their pursuit for power. The state politics today is dominated by castes like Chettiars, Nadars, Mudaliyars, Vanniyars, Thevars and Gounders and except the Chettiars, all other castes are backward ones and constitute a big part of the population. Both the DMK and AIADMK eye these castes. Outfits like the PMK and VCK represent the Vanniyars and Dalits, respectively, but they are more fringe players.

Today's scenario

The electoral politics in Tamil Nadu has virtually been a two-party affair now between the AIADMK and DMK. The Congress has been relegated to a side player since it had last ruled the state in 1967 while the BJP is still in no position to replace the Dravidian parties as a new force.

The election this year, however, is witnessing a multi-pronged battle with a few alliances. While the AIADMK and its small allies will look for the maiden successive victory (nobody has done it since MGR in 1984), the DMK-Congress and others' alliance will look to return to power after a decade.

There is a third front led by the DMDK and comprising five other parties including Vaiko's MDMK, GK Vasan's Tamil Maanila Congress, VCK and two Left parties while other competitors are the BJP and PMK.

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