The Dravidian consensus


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WHEN former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa passed on in December 2016, there were several contenders for leadership of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the government. Eventually, and after a split and several rounds of arguments and counter arguments between various factions, the party settled down to the business of governance. But it continues to be riven within and without – and the present ruling dispensation appears stable chiefly because it is under the tutelage of the Union government, rather the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This has not helped shore up its already sunken credibility nor earned it popular support. Rather it has been mercilessly satirized in social media, and pilloried for looking up to a party whose ideology has had little or no political and cultural purchase in the state.

The AIADMK’s arch rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) too has had to contend with loss – the passing on of the redoubtable M. Karunanidhi has left the party bereft of a leader with whom it has been more or less identified for the past five decades and more. On the other hand, it is not leaderless, and it does seem that it is as disciplined as ever and in fealty to the current leader, M.K. Stalin. However, it is not quite clear how the party intends to go forth, both in a general political sense, and with respect to the challenges that stare it in the face: a failing agrarian economy, stagnant growth levels, increasing unemployment and underemployment, a welfarist model that is not ultimately sustainable, a shrinking of civic space, for dissent and dialogue, continuing violence against Dalits, a persistent misogyny that is writ large in popular media and finally a truncation of the political imagination, evident in the near absence of sustained debates in the state – to do with the environment, growth and social justice.


Thus it would seem the state is caught in a political impasse: it is not quite clear how things will unfold, and beyond election year considerations. The questions that appear germane are: will the AIADMK’s obsequious relationship to the BJP help the cause of the latter in Tamil Nadu? Or will ‘Dravidian’ consensus, the basis on which political life in the state has proceeded, win the day? On the other hand, might one assume such a consensus still exists?

It is useful to list the terms that constitute Dravidian consensus: an inclusive non-brahminism; Tamil cultural and linguistic assertion; the right to regional autonomy; social justice; and the welfare economy. This consensus has been built over a century, and through a mix of social and political struggles. In practical terms, non-brahminism has meant challenging brahmin political, social and cultural hegemony through concerted expression and action, on the part of all non-brahmins, including Dalits, Christians and Muslims. The most fitful expression of this challenge has been the reservation policy – constituted to render government more inclusive, and allow students from marginal caste contexts to access education.

Tamil assertion has run parallel with non-brahminism: in its heyday, until the 1960s, it expressed opposition to Vedic culture and its modern day expressions, pointed to Tamil Nadu’s non-Vedic past, and the persistence of sramana traditions in the region; it also insisted that to be ‘Tamil’ was to put oneself beyond identities premised on caste or faith. In other words, Tamilness was upheld as a secular category, brining various communities into a putative unity and equality. Federalism was the political form that this assertion invoked – and in practical terms, this politics demanded what it called ‘regional autonomy’, that is, self-governance in every sense of the word, including the right to economic planning and cultural development.


Challenging brahminical hegemony and insisting on Tamil cultural exceptionalism were, however, only aspects of the larger struggle for social justice, which in the 1930s and 1940s wanted nothing less than the replacement of manudharma with what was described as samadharma, of the logic of graded inequality with the logic of equal rights, held in common by all citizens. Samadharma was thus to be a crucial adjunct of regional politics – and one that rendered regional autonomy legitimate.

How imperilled are these principles today? And what of these are likely to survive into the future? Non-brahminism is not quite dead in the Tamil context in that there are energetic denunciations of brahmin hegemony, whether as an aspect of the politics of the Hindu right, or as a feature of Tamil cultural life that has not been interrogated enough. Non-brahminization of the services is a more or less completed process in Tamil Nadu – and in this sense, everyday governance is in the hands of people from communities who, until even half a century ago, were not deemed fit to take charge of affairs of the state. To that extent, the reservation policy has been worked to good effect in Tamil Nadu.

On the other hand, non-brahmin castes have not sought to replace manudharma with samadharma. Instead persons belonging to these castes have gone on to assert their caste pride and shown themselves inimical to Dalit assertion, and Dalit educational and material progress – and undertaken acts of violent reprisal, leading to destruction of lives, livelihoods and hard-earned property.1 They have also violently punished those who break endogamous marriage rules, and killed young lovers and conjugal couples, when one of them happens to be a dalit.2 In the intellectual sphere too, votaries of non-brahminism have been less than gracious when dalit scholars assert the autonomy of dalit intellectual or political progress – these votaries insist that in the final analysis dalit assertion must be recouped within a history of non-brahminism.


Social justice in the state, then, has had a mixed record. It has more or less been reduced to an execution of the reservation policy. Paradoxically, the reservation policy is understood to have benefitted Dalits more than others – commonsensical understanding does not consider reservations for the backward classes as constituting preferential discrimination. That is, reservation for these classes is so taken for granted that the backward classes seem to exist as an ‘unmarked’ default category and whenever the question of reservation is debated, it appears one to do with ‘concessions’ for Dalits, and not for any other social group. This then leads to resentment, anger and for tendentious discussions on merit and caste and the undeserved-ness of Dalits and so on. Significantly, the reservation policy continues to irk brahmins in the state, and they in turn deploy arguments to do with merit and caste (which, after all, were perfected by them) against all non-brahmin communities, including Dalits.


With respect to Tamil assertion: it continues to be a staple of everyday political life, present in conversation, cultural expressions and in how Tamil citizens view their place within India – as exceptional and different. Tamil assertion also informs campaigns to do with education, including higher education, which many in the state insist ought to remain within the provenance of the state, rather than being a concurrent subject. The assumption here is that those who study in the Tamil medium are from marginal communities and their right to education must be affirmed and respected – and not tested in and through all-India examination systems that do not take into account local realities or aspirations. This is not untrue but on the other hand, the state’s record on Tamil learning has been equivocal. It has not made for competent language literacy (as several studies reveal3), nor has it resulted in a local and Tamil vision of education that takes into account the life worlds and skills of marginal communities.

Also, opposition to Hindi has meant an affirmation of English – leading to a mushrooming of English medium private schools that claim expertise in English language teaching, something that is yet to be proved. More generally too the state has witnessed massive privatization of both school and higher education – a phenomenon which has effectively kept away marginal communities from accessing these spaces easily; even if they manage to do so, they have to invest substantial amounts which then gets many from these communities into a vicious cycle of debt.


It might be argued that federalism has perhaps enjoyed a better run of life in the state – with Tamil Nadu, along with West Bengal consistently upholding the rights of states, with respect to governance, planning and matters to do with financial allocations. On the other hand, both the DMK and AIADMK have not demurred from entering into opportune alliances with parties that hold power in the Union government. These include poll alliances, support extended to Union governments from the outside, or from within, which happens when one or the other of the Dravidian parties has been part of government as such.

This choice appear unavoidable, given Indian federal arrangements or the lack of them, and also given the nature of the electoral system. But the problem lies equally elsewhere: both Dravidian parties have sought to consolidate their particular interests by acceding to the federal model, such as it is, for opportune reasons. In return for cabinet berths, to hold their own against local political configurations that appear threatening or other considerations, they have lent their support to Union governments that represent principles and policies that are resolutely opposed to their own.4

The AIADMK has never let principles stand in its way. From its earliest days, it has relied on charisma and propaganda rather than principles to win elections and stay ahead. Thus backing the Union government or not backing it has never been a matter of acting on principles, and if anything the AIADMK has made a virtue of instrumental politics. The question of principles though comes up where the DMK is concerned, since it does posit itself – and has been posited – as the quintessentially Dravidian party. So, when it ended up supporting the BJP from 1999-2003, and through the horrific months of Gujarat 2002, Dravidianism, it could be said, had already suffered a retreat. On this account alone, the DMK is likely to go down in history for helping normalize an authoritarian politics of hatred and violence, which its political forbears had resolutely resisted and challenged.


Whatever its ideological sins, Dravidian rule has delivered, it is argued. It has made for growth and d evelopment, and an enviable welfare regime. Undoubtedly, in the wake of Dravidian rule, there have been shifts in the way governance happens. After the DMK took up office in 1967, the bureaucrat had to heed voices from the ground, often of local political representatives, who carried the grievances of the poor and socially marginalized to the ears of government. Meanwhile, the effects of reservation also bore fruit and the bureaucracy did get transformed from within. But this also meant that the long hand of the party could stretch into government.5

Corruption and nepotism were not unknown during the DMK’s first two terms in office (1967-76). When MGR came to power in 1977, he bent government to his needs, and presided over an increasingly authoritarian political culture. This resulted in ever greater corruption on the one hand and a ferocious populism on the other. A welfare regime was put in place, whose flagship scheme was the famed noonday meal served in state schools and which brought children to school and helped retain them there. This earned MGR public affection and adoration, meanwhile his government turned relentlessly against political dissent and protest, and inaugurated a culture of extra-legal killings – the shooting down of suspected and ostensible Naxalites, amongst others. Economic growth too slowed down, bureaucratic morale hit an all-time low, with twenty IAS officers resigning during his chief ministership (1977-1987).6


Welfarism continued to define governance thereafter, reaching a crescendo during J. Jayalalithaa’s tenure as chief minister, when welfare economics was consciously feminized: even as women grew poorer, unable to earn what they deserved for their labour, and deeply in debt for sourcing money to provision their families’ health and educational needs, they became the objects of welfare, deigned to receive mixers and grinders and the occasional goat and cow. While it is true that welfarism staved off hunger and suicide deaths, it also made for a low level of subsistence – keeping the lid on aspirations that could only be fulfilled through borrowing or the elaborate credit systems operated by the so-called self-help groups.7


Also, with the onset of the welfare model, political representation becomes reduced to clientilism in the most fundamental sense of the term. With the AIADMK, clientliism was cultivated assiduously – with the chief minister being the ultimate patron, a role that M.G. Ramachandran, founder of the AIADMK played to perfection and which J. Jayalalithaa inherited and refashioned. The other side of welfare economics has been the conscious curbing of political demands and dissent. This was evident during MGR’s first term as chief minister, as I have noted above, and it continued in Jayalalithaa’s regime too.

One important consequence of welfarism has been the neglect of productive aspects of the economy, leading to rural dispossession, which economists argue might appear cost-less at present, being buttressed by welfare schemes and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, but is likely affect growth prospects in the long run.8

Given the mixed record of Dravidian governance on all accounts, is it possible to speak of a ‘Dravidian consensus’ as anything more than a convenient fiction that helps evade important questions regarding the historical progress of Dravidianism? In a context where non-brahminism is not linked to the annihilation of caste, and instead has got hitched on to a developmental process that has made possible the upward mobility of sections of the backward classes, it stands to reason that it could equally well be hitched onto other political projects. It is not surprising therefore that some sections of these classes, particularly castes dominant at the level of the region, have either gone on to form caste-specific political parties or gravitated towards Hindutva.


As for Tamil assertion, it has resulted neither in a decisive cultural politics that is set against caste and brahminical hegemony nor has it resulted in distinctive educational practice. On the contrary, ‘Tamilness’ circulates as an idea that exists as so much political currency that can be exchanged for any and every purpose: from acute expressions of Tamil nationalism, to granting Tamil its rightful place within a greater India, from opposing this or that measure of the Union government to justifying misogyny. Meanwhile, regional autonomy continues to be a bedevilled subject: it is best off, opposing the Union government for its sins of omission and commission. But it has not been able to make a case for an autonomous Tamil society that is mindful of dalit claims to justice and equality and gender justice.

Speculation on the future of Dravidianism would need to then keep this longer history of its undoing in focus. However this need not only be cause for dismay – the antinomian traditions of thought the Dravidian movement enabled and drew on are still alive in the state. They are debated in small circles and across Dalit, non-brahmin and even left constituencies, and more recently in popular cinema. The challenge is to keep this memory alive, without giving in to either rhetorical over-praise or cynical rejection.



1. V. Geetha and S.V. Rajadurai, Periyar and Dalits.; (accessed 1 December 2018).

2. See Kavitha Muralidharan, ‘Tamil Nadu "Honour" Killing Verdict Offers Fresh Hope for Those Battling to Annihilate Caste’,; (accessed on 1 December 2019).

3.; (accessed on 1 December 2019); also see, M. Rajshekhar, ‘Tamil Nadu Tried to Reform its Schools but Made Them Much Worse’,; (accessed on 1 December 2019).

4. See, Mythily Sivaraman, ‘Electoral Politics’ in Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation. LeftWord Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 313-378.

5. S. Narayan, ‘How Tamil Nadu Changed after 1967’,; (accessed on 1 December 2018). Excerpted from The Dravidian Years: Politics and Welfare in Tamil Nadu, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

6. See S.H. Venkatramani and Prabhu Chawla, ‘Tamil Nadu: A Decade of Decay’,; (accessed on 1 December 2018).

7. M. Rajsekhar, ‘A Tsunami of Debt…’,; (accessed on 1 December 2018).

8. M. Vijayabaskar, ‘The Agrarian Question Amidst Populist Welfare: Interpreting Tamil Nadu’s Emerging Rural Economy’, Economic and Political Weekly LII(46), 18 November 2017, pp. 67-72.