This year is a landmark year at many levels for Tamil Nadu, for both its history and politics. It is the 101st year of the founding of the Justice Party which was supposed to change Tamil Nadu totally. The Justice Party is the precursor to the Dravidian parties that have ruled the state for 50 years. EV Ramasamy, known as Periyar, broke away from the Justice Party and set up Dravidar Kazhagam, to fight for social justice. He and his followers wanted to end the upper caste (Brahmin) dominance in all walks of life and the humiliation of other castes in the state.
What started as a self-respect movement evolved into a strong political entity. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), headed by CN Annadurai (Anna), quit the Justice Party in 1949, fought the assembly elections and put an end to the ruling Congress party in 1967. So this year marks 50 years of Dravidian rule (DMK and AIADMK) in the state. The national parties, try as they might, do not exist here. No other regional party outside Tamil Nadu has seen unbroken success for 50 years.
Social justice, too, prevails, even though not with perfection. This is a state where minorities do not feel threatened. Caste clashes happen, but they remain localised, and have no bearing on state elections. The historically oppressed classes are the rulers now.
Muthuvel Karunanidhi, DMK’s patriarch who became the chief minister after Anna’s untimely death in 1969, has headed the party ever since and has served five times as the chief minister. This is his 60th year as a legislator. He started as a firebrand anti-North, anti-Hindi politician, but has emerged as a national leader in the past two decades. He will turn 94 on June 3, and celebrations are planned around his birthday to build a national opposition front. Sadly, he may not be able to attend because of age-related ailments.
It is the 100th birth anniversary of Karunanidhi’s arch rival, film star-turned-politician MG Ramachandran, who unseated him in 1977. J Jayalalithaa inherited MGR’s legacy in 1991. Between the three of them, they have transformed the social, political and industrial landscape of Tamil Nadu. The parties have also left their mark in central-state relations. In their different ways, the two parties have fought for federalism and have been able to extract their pound of flesh from the Centre.
How did sleepy Tamil Nadu, far from the national capital and which appeared anti-national at one point, grow into one of the most developed states in the country? Its growth rates match that of the much-praised Gujarat. Tamil Nadu has only recently started attracting attention because of its success under various parameters. Nobody beyond the southern borders paid much attention to what was happening here. The state has only been seen as a place where film stars became leaders.
Anna, in the early days of the Dravidian movement, understood that medium is the message. He used theatre and cinema as effective instruments of communication. For many years, the Centre controlled radio and television. Cinema could, however, reach every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu. Anna instinctively understood that affirmative action will eventually lead to progress. He became chief minister at a time of severe food shortage and inflation. It was his election promise to provide ‘three measures’ (around 4.5kg) of rice for Rs 1 through the state’s public distribution system (PDS). After winning, he implemented the scheme for some time, but later had to scrap it because the state could not afford it. Karunanidhi was his successor and providing for the underprivileged got strengthened during his time. Free education, subsidised power and other schemes started covering a wider number of people. MGR launched his party AIADMK, defeated Karunanidhi in 1977, and the universal noon meal scheme he pushed through is seen as a game-changer even today. He allowed private engineering colleges after providing for 69% reservation in education.
The step made it possible for a generation of youngsters to enter professional colleges. During Jayalalithaa’s last years, Tamil Nadu was increasingly turning into a welfare state. What is sneeringly referred to as the freebie culture has managed to reduce abject poverty. For example, free distribution of mixer-grinder kitchen machines reduces hours of slogging for women of poor household. It allows women to go out and earn more income even as a domestic. Giving away cattle to the rural poor has provided them a steady income. The PDS is much better administered in Tamil Nadu than in other states. In fact, most other states have copied Tamil Nadu, seeing that welfare schemes win elections. A highly subsidised rice scheme won Chhattisgarh for the BJP in 2013.
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However, Tamil Nadu is not just about ‘welfare’ under Dravidian parties. It has never been properly acknowledged that it was largely due to government support for education, various schemes for empowerment of girls and developmental programmes that the state was ‘ready’ for foreign investors soon after Liberalisation. Successive governments have actively encouraged industrial development through the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation and the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu, founded in 1965 and 1971, respectively.
In fact, the latter (SIPCOT) set up industrial estates in the 1970s and 1980s. These agencies have been responsible for creating land banks that proved very useful when foreign investors came knocking. There are more industrial clusters in the state than anywhere in the country.
Dravidian parties’ rule has been far from perfect. Corruption charges have tainted their many achievements. The DMK has to live down the 2G scam and accusations of family rule. Jayalalithaa, with all her dynamism and political acumen, was an inaccessible chief minister. She ruled with an iron hand, and freedom of expression suffered most under her. The Supreme Court has called her the most corrupt and she would have gone to prison had she lived.
The much-touted education standards are falling rapidly. There are engineering colleges being shut down and seats going begging. All oppressed communities have not progressed equally. Although it is the most urbanised state in the country, infrastructure in its cities is far from adequate. The state is facing one of its worst-ever droughts and not enough is being done about it.
In spite of all the problems plaguing it, the 2016 growth figures still put it among the most progressive states. Tamil Nadu is one of the three most preferred states for business investments and it is ranked second behind Maharashtra in GDP. Foreign investments attracted during the last five years is double that investments from 2000 to 2011. In terms of poverty alleviation, Tamil Nadu is only one of eight states that recorded poverty reduction at a rate higher than the all-India average. Its per-capita income—Rs 1,43,547 at current prices (2015-16)—is about 70% more than the all-India average and the third-highest amongst large states. Its Human Development Index is second amongst large states and socio-economic development status is much higher than the national average.
A lot needs to be done for the state to retain its premier position. Other states have become equally competitive. Neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are wooing investors. Ever since Jayalalithaa’s death, there has been political instability. The phase of larger-than-life leaders whose word is law appears to be over. It is little wonder that all the aforementioned landmarks are not being celebrated with the usual Dravidian vigour and extravagance.