A politics of retribution


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AN Ooty boarding school is the last place that would familiarize anyone with Tamil Nadu’s politics. Although mine liked to regard itself as ‘alternative’, in many ways it was a typical sort of place. We learnt to eat brussel sprouts and rhubarb, rode mid-horses in the downs and spent our fortnightly ‘Tuck’ money on stickjaws and marzipan in the town bakery.

I doubt whether our motley bunch of staff members – which at different times included a kindly Irish matron, a sharp-tongued Australian art teacher, an urbane and immensely sophisticated Uttar Pradesh Muslim and a tweed-jacketed Principal with a passion for English – knew or cared much about the state’s politics. If the English-speaking middle classes have a natural contempt for things political, then boarding schools such as mine only served to reinforce it.

In the latter half of the sixties, when I was still a young boy, I remember becoming aware that something important was brewing in Tamil Nadu through the hushed whispers of my teachers. In 1967, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), led by the charismatic film scriptwriter C.N. Annadurai, overwhelmed the Congress and swept to power in the state. This change of guard was preceded by a fierce and emotional agitation against the imposition of Hindi – a protest that fired the imagination of students, led to self-immolations and rounds of police firing.



I do not recall our teachers speaking about the momentous happenings in the state in any detail. But it was pretty apparent that they regarded what was taking place as a bad thing. I guess we did too. Whether you cared about politics or not, back in those days the Congress was the natural party of English-speaking middle classes. That being so, anything opposed to it was viewed with an instinctive suspicion. I recall there was a lot of nudging and winking when the Swatantra Party’s Piloo Mody visited our school. He was treated with the courtesy one would extend to any guest, but we were persuaded to believe he was unreliable, eccentric and entertained outrageous views about economic development. (Funnily enough, I recently heard someone refer to him as the Manmohan Singh of the sixties, a man whose ideas were before his time.)

Unlike the jocular Mody, the DMK didn’t seem funny. Parties with strong regional identities based on language, caste and community are commonplace now. Back in those days, they seemed to pose a challenge to the country’s very unity and identity. The fact that the DMK had advocated secessionism and formally renounced this plank in 1963 didn’t help much either. For a certain kind of cosmopolitan Indian – or for the deracinated English-speaking upper classes as some would prefer to say – the emergence of forces such as the DMK felt like a real threat.



The margin of the DMK victory in 1967 was stunning, but few people could have foreseen that this election would mark the beginning of such a rapid decline of the Congress party. Neither could many have anticipated that Tamil Nadu – if you ignore the brief spells of President’s Rule – would be under the rule of one of two major Dravidian parties for a period of almost four decades or ever since.

As you might expect of such a long period, this has been a time of both achievement and failure. The DMK opposed the Emergency and has consistently struggled for a more thoroughgoing and genuine federalism. Tamil Nadu is the country’s sixth most populous state but one of the better-off in terms of both per capita income and growth. Advances in literacy rates and curbs in population growth have been achieved partly though innovative measures such as former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran’s midday meal scheme. It was rubbished as a populist measure when it was launched in the early eighties, but the growing recognition of its social impact led the Supreme Court to direct all states to implement an MGR-style midday meal scheme in 2001, which it described as ‘a joy – a living example of what can be achieved when quality safeguards are in place.’

On the debit side are such things as the substantial growth in corruption, a marked tendency towards intolerance and authoritarianism and a climate marred by a worrying, all-consuming and potentially calamitous political hatred. I will return to the last issue later, but a detailed balance sheet of credits and debits would be out of place in a rambling and personalized political essay of this nature. A more appropriate, even if somewhat flippant way of looking at Dravidian politics – the result of a movement born from ideology and protest – is to see how it fared in dealing with its enemies, with what it fiercely opposed.

Some commentators have portrayed the Dravidian political movement as having emerged out of the opposition to four principal evils – Brahminism, Hindi, Religion and Casteism. If this were so, then the four fell into two distinct categories. The first two enemies were pushovers; the last two have proved formidable, much too resilient to vanquish.



At less than three per cent of the Tamil Nadu population, Brahmins were a cinch. Even though they continue to flourish in the private sector and the arts, their overwhelming dominance in politics and in government was quickly broken. In fact, the available evidence shows that the challenge to Brahmin domination had begun at the turn of the 20th century with increasing numbers of non-Brahmin castes being admitted to school and college. It was against such a background that the richer sections of the non-Brahmin castes founded the Justice Party in 1916, the ideological precursor to Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam and Annadurai’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Organizations such as the DK and the DMK were fighting Brahminism and not Brahmins. But waging a political campaign against the idea is difficult to sustain when its proponents have been rendered politically irrelevant and when they are not big oppressive landowners in rural areas. Dravidian parties prefer to ignore this, but on the ground, the real caste tensions exist between the non-Brahmin castes, principally between Dalits and other backward castes. Clashes between Thevars and Dalits reached a feverish pitch in the southern districts as recently as 1997-1998. According to the state government estimates, at least 251 people were killed in caste violence between August 1995 and October 1998. Tense situations because of strained relations between the Dalits and the Vanniyars are not uncommon in Tamil Nadu’s northern districts.

As for Hindi, the battle against its imposition was won at considerable human cost. But the fierce agitation forced the Centre to capitulate completely on the plan to make Hindi the sole official language. Non Hindi-speaking states were assured that Hindi would not be imposed as the sole language of communication between Centre and state governments as long as even one state objected. Moreover, the Centre made it clear that examinations for the central government services could be taken in any of the scheduled languages.



The battle against Hindi-imposition was won in 1965, months after the protests were launched. Today, the problem, as some Dravidian parties see it, comes from another and unexpected quarter: English. In a state where the political class, a fair section of it anyway, is obsessed about protecting the purity of the mother tongue, spoken or colloquial Tamil borrows heavily from English. Tamglish has been around decades before the term Hinglish was invented and, with every passing month, more and more English words seem to find their way into spoken Tamil.

Tamils recognize that English is a passport to social and economic betterment as much as anyone else in India. English medium primary schools have mushroomed in the state. Worried about this, the DMK government issued an order four years ago that Tamil be the sole medium of instruction in the state. However, the Madras High Court struck down the order; one of the arguments in favour of annulling it was that parents have a right about the choice of education they would like their children to be exposed to.



What about religion and caste-ism? Rationalism was one of the cornerstones of Periyar’s historic and revolutionary self-respect movement, but Dravidian parties have made their peace with religion. In theory, the DMK still professes rationalism, but in practice it prefers to avoid addressing the issue. As for the AIADMK, it has given up even this pretence. During both her terms as chief minister, Jayalalithaa has made no secret of her religiosity and has gone out of the way to undertake schemes for temple renovation and for the welfare of priests.

As for casteism, what impact has the Dravidian movement – which culminated in four decades of Dravidian rule – had on the phenomenon? Periyar decried casteism and promoted intercaste marriages and reservations have been extended to benefit a slew of backward castes. But is caste sentiment less prevalent than elsewhere, for example, the neighbouring southern states? It is probably impossible to make such sweeping comparisons with any accuracy, but caste calculations have become an abiding feature of the polity. The 2001 assembly election saw a proliferation of outfits based either on caste or communal lines. Most of them were accommodated in the DMK-led front, which was possibly banking that the incremental votes they would deliver would count in what was essentially a bipolar contest.

The nascent Makkal Tamil Desam, founded by a former AIADMK minister, was accommodated with an eye on the Yadava votes in the southern districts. The Kongu Nadu Makkal Katchi was unabashed in its portrayal as a part of the Gounders and the Tamil Nadu Mutharaiyar Sangam, as the name suggests, was a party for the Mutharaiyars. Added to these were other formations such as the Tamil Nadu Muslim United Jammait, a breakaway group from the Tamil Maanila Congress led by the late G.K. Moopanar, and the Thondar Congress, founded by a former state Congress president with an eye on gathering Nadar votes. As it turned out, these parties performed very poorly, leading some commentators to conclude that they were rejected by an electorate that found these upstart caste and communal parties simply unacceptable. But their poor performance must also be viewed in the context of the overwhelming defeat of the DMK-led front, which was all but trounced by the one put together by Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK.



My first brushes with Tamil Nadu’s politics came when I worked in what was then Calcutta for a now defunct weekly magazine. Among the occasional reporting assignments I did in what was then Madras was a cover story on who was then Jayalalitha. (She had not added the additional ‘a’ to her name at the time). This was in 1991 and Jayalalithaa had stormed to power with an enormous majority. She was still in her honeymoon period and the national press seemed fascinated with the new chief minister. Her tough and no-nonsense ways – which, among other things, was reflected in the manner in which she dealt with the LTTE – won her many admirers.

She had agreed to an interview. However, when the appointed day arrived, I received a call saying she was down with a sore throat and fever. Could the questions be faxed? She promised to answer them. The headline on the magazine cover we had designed read ‘The Iron Butterfly’ and I asked her what she felt about the description. I was struck by the force and intelligence of her reply. She pointed out that Iron Butterfly was used to describe Imelda Marcos, implying that she had nothing in common with the controversial Philippines leader. ‘I agree with iron,’ she said, ‘but not butterfly.’



I returned to Kolkata and wrote an extremely flattering piece accompanying the interview, the kind of article that any politician would have been delighted with. Or so I thought. After the article was published, I spoke to the official who coordinated the interview. I was surprised to learn that he had been asked to convey to me ‘Madams’ displeasure with a line here and another there in the article. I cannot recall exactly what all her objections were. But apparently, she felt I was somewhat uncharitable about her role as a parliamentarian. There was also a suggestion that I had been too kind to her DMK rivals at one point in the article.

In some ways, this was my first lesson in Tamil Nadu politics. Criticism, even of the mildest kind, is frowned upon; a kind word about a political rival is regarded with disapproval. One year later, in 1992, I moved to Madras to work for the Indian Express. It was only then that I realized the extent of the bitterness and acrimony between the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK. To the four evils they are supposedly waging a war against, either party could add the other as a fifth.

Political hatred is commonplace in India, but I suggest that what exists in Tamil Nadu has no parallel. The relationship, if this is the right word for it, between the DMK and the AIADMK is characterized by a total and all-consuming revulsion. So much so, politics is not a competitive game for power but a platform for pursuing hostile agendas. The consequences of such an attitude have already been extremely undesirable. How dangerous this can be in the long run is something that is not adequately recognized.

One way of examining the mutual hatred between the two big Tamil Nadu parties is by looking at the non-relationship between its leaders, the AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa and the DMK’s M. Karunanidhi – something that sets the tone for the non-relationship between those in the middle and lower rungs of their respective parties. To my mind, one somewhat trivial incident illustrates this non-relationship best. In February 2001, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi boarded the same flight from Madurai to Chennai, after completing a leg of campaigning for the Lok Sabha election. The very fact that they sat on opposite sides of the aisle on the same flight sent the press into a frenzy. Airline sources were questioned to find out whether they spoke to each other. (No, they did not.) Did they at least exchange a hello? (Nope.) One newspaper described the fact that they were on the same commercial airliner as ‘incredible’.



The vicarious interest provoked by an accidental encounter in an aircraft illustrates the extent of how personal (or impersonal) Tamil Nadu’s politics has become. Even a hello between the two leaders becomes news. What originally caused the relationship to plummet to such an extraordinary low is not clear. But the one between Karunanidhi and the AIADMK’s founder, M.G. Ramachandran (who split the DMK) wasn’t quite like this at all. Underneath the bitterness lay a grudging acknowledgement, even respect, for each other. It is exactly this complex attitude that film maker Mani Ratnam attempted to explore in his emotional, and somewhat cloying, Iruvar. DMK flags flew at half-mast when MGR died in 1987 and Karunanidhi’s generous condolence message suggested that their personal relationship outweighed their political differences.



In the early years, there were a number of incidents which sharpened the antagonism, the principal one perhaps being the violent incidents in the state assembly during Karunanidhi’s short tenure as chief minister in 1989. Jayalalithaa alleged her ‘dignity’ and ‘modesty’ were assaulted by DMK MLAs, something they completely denied – resulting in two totally disparate accounts of the events. But if there was a time when the equation between the DMK and the AIADMK reached the point of no return, it was in 1996.

In that year, the DMK swept to power on a tidal wave of resentment against Jayalalithaa, who had completed her first term as chief minister. In alliance with G.K. Moopanar’s newly formed Tamil Maanila Congress, the DMK made the ‘corruption of the Jayalalithaa regime’ its central campaign plank – a strategy that worked. So deep was the resentment against her rule that Jayalalithaa was defeated in her constituency (Barugur) and her party was virtually wiped out of the state’s electoral map.

Having promised to ‘expose Jayalalithaa’s corruption’, the DMK government was expected to conduct a few investigations against members in the previous regime. Nobody, however, could have anticipated the extraordinary scale of the exercise. Apart from Ms. Jayalalithaa, corruption investigations were launched against virtually every minister in her cabinet. A number of them were arrested (Jayalalithaa spent 27 days in remand) as were a few senior bureaucrats. At one time there were preliminary inquiries into approximately one-third of the total strength of IAS officers in the state. Of course, only a few of them reached the charge sheet stage.

As someone who spent a lot of time in those days meeting bureaucrats in the Secretariat at Fort St. George, I could not help being struck by how totally engrossed the state government was in this exercise. Key officials of the Karunanidhi regime spent more time on these cases than on their routine work. Clearly, there was and is no parallel – no comparable instance of a government initiating such a systematic and wide-ranging exercise to prosecute members of the political opposition. Some have argued that this was necessary because of the unprecedented corruption during the Jayalalithaa regime. Others believe that the huge landslide in favour of the DMK had led Karunanidhi to misread the situation. In other words, the corruption cases were mechanisms to place a judicial seal on Jayalalithaa’s already finished political career.



As things turned out, Jayalalithaa performed extremely well in the Lok Sabha election two years later, a poll that saw a BJP-led government in place at the Centre. Having gained a critical toehold at the Centre, she began pressuring it to take action against the DMK government in Tamil Nadu. Her decision to pull the plug on Vajpayee in 1999 was a result of her frustration over the BJP’s reluctance to do as she wanted – principally, its refusal to impose President’s Rule in Tamil Nadu. Even before she returned to power in 2001, in an assembly election in which the DMK was all but routed, she had made one thing clear. She would do unto ‘them’ what was done unto her. There has been a worrying familiarity to the subsequent events. Karunanidhi and other DMK leaders were arrested, corruption cases slapped on a number of former DMK ministers and so on.



Such goings on in Tamil Nadu suggest that in their mutual hatred, the two principal players have forgotten that politics – even at its worst – is but a competitive game for power. It is not – or at any rate should not be – a mechanism for carrying out vendettas, for taking decisions that are vindictive or vengeful. The damage this has done to the state is not adequately recognized and the potential it has to harm it even further is rarely addressed. What is obvious in the meantime is that it is not merely the two parties alone that have been hurt by this acrimonious relationship. It is the state itself.

It has led to a situation where the bureaucracy is demoralized and, perhaps worse, is divided down the middle on the basis of political loyalties – either real of perceived. Even the judiciary and the press have not been free from the influence of such acrimony, which has resulted in a political attitude that suggests ‘you are either with us or against us.’ It has created a situation where the two parties are unable to make common cause even on issues that are vital for the well-being of the state – for example, the Cauvery water dispute. And it has consumed too much governmental time on such things as charge sheets and arrests, time much better spent on the larger issues of administering the state. In short, the implications of the politics of retribution in Tamil Nadu do not stop with the polity alone. They have a bearing on the very social and economic well-being of the state.