Future of Tamil Nadu Politics
12 September 1991
The immediate future of Tamil Nadu's politics now depends on
three things. They are: firstly the ADMK government's massive
economic problems; secondly the internal feud in the Tamil Nadu
Congress 1 which seriously threatens to divide that party; thirdly
the difficulties faced by the DMK in disowning the LTTE's Tamil
Jeyalalitha was able to defeat Karunanidhi's DMK mainly because of
the rising prices of essential commodities. The sympathy wave
following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination made her victory a landslide.
Karunanidhi complained that his government was sacked before he
could take the necessary measures in the State budget to bring down
prices and ease the economic burden on the farmer. Karunanidhi's
efforts to increase revenue and reduce the State's massive deficit
came to nought due to traditional political compulsions which arise
from the populist ideology of the Dravidian political parties.
Large budget deficits and an increasing number of subsidies became
indispensable for securing political power in Tamil Nadu after the
death of C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the DMK.
The populist politics of MGR and Karunanidhi reduced Tamil Nadu from
one of the most industrialized state economies to one which has to
be heavily subsidized by the Centre and which has to get many of its
consumer goods from other states.
Although free meals, rations, price subsidies,agricultural subsidies
etc made MGR immensely popular he had to lean more and more on the
Centre to run the State. Delhi at times has not failed to use this
as a means for political influence and manipulation in its
relationship with the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu.
Just before the DMK was sacked this year, Chandrasekar's government
reduced subsidized rice supplies to Tamil Nadu, under pressure from
Congress 1 and ADMK. P. Chidambaram in January argued that the DMK
government should be dismissed for the following reasons: That rice
of good quality, palm oil and kerosene were not available in the
State run ration shops (called reasonable price shops); that these
shops were opened only one or two days in the week, that many poor
families did not get ration cards after the DMK took action to
detect and cancel a large number of ration cards; that many pregnant
women were not given the Rs 200 state assistance due to a secret
order to limit the number of recipients; the free meal given to
widows in the villages - a scheme started by MGR - was cancelled;
that many old people in the villages did not get dole, that there
was a drastic reduction in rural loans and that only Rs 30,000 was
made available to the Panchayats under a Central government scheme
to create employment in the villages instead of the Rs 100,000 to
each village council during Rajiv's tenure.
The ADMK for its part came up with more instances than Chidambaram
where Karunanidhi had withdrawn many subsidies and free goods and
services which had been made available to the vast majority of Tamil
Nadu's rural poor by MGR
This why it is still difficult to undermine MGR's political legacy
in Tamil Nadu, and this is why the ADMK's political base cuts
through all caste differences among the rural poor in general and
rural women in particular.
MGR engaged in this ruinous economic policy of emptying the state
coffers to sustain a politicized system of subsidies and free goods
and services, because of his bargaining power with Delhi, which
hopeful of making the Congress powerful enough to capture Statepower
again in Tamil Nadu by working close with the ADMK provided the
necessary assistance to MGR's policy. Even a brief study of how
Tamil Nadu which was industrializing at a rapid pace in the last
sixties deteriorated into an economic back water as a result of the
populist economic policy of MGR's ADMK would no doubt clearly show
how the heavy politicization of the economic aspect of the
Centre-State relations in India has been one of the major causes of
its current woes.
Karunanidhi's economic policy arose out of the DMK's desire to
decrease State's economic dependence on the Centre and thereby
diminish Delhi's power to manipulate and undermine the State
government. The DMK, it should be pointed out, partly inherited the
modernizing, strongly pro-British capitalist outlook from the South
Indian Liberal Federation (the Justice Party) the self-respect
movement and the DMK.
In the sixties it reflected the interest of the budding Tamil
industrialists. C.N. Annadurai's Panathottam (the Money Garden)
gives a vague idea of what the DMK thought about the economy. Its
main concern at that time was to secure the Tamil Nadu market for
the emerging Tamil industrialists. Some scholars have argued that
DMK gave up its separatism under pressure from these industrialists
who had become interested in the all Indian market.
MGR saw his opportunity when he broke away from the DMK, in the vast
majority of the rural masses who had not benefitted very much from
the capitalist oriented development strategy.
During his 12-year rule he built up a heavily subsidized economic
system. Karunanidhi tried to gradually dismantle this system but his
defeat has shown how far it is politically entrenched. Jeyalalitha's
first major announcement after she became Chief Minister was the ban
on the cheap packeted arrack which had been introduced by the DMK to
increase state revenue. The ban will cost the Tamil Nadu treasury Rs
3.22 billion. The deficit is already 3 billion. A proposed price
subsidy for rice might cost a similar amount. Jeyalalitha has said
that she immediately needs 12 billion rupees to tide over the
She has had discussions with Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister
Manmohan Singh to persuade the Central government to come to her
rescue. But Delhi can no more afford to pump in so much money into
the Tamil Nadu Treasury even if it is to save a strong ally like Ms.
Jeyalalitha. Delhi's inability to subsidize the economic programme
of the ADMK which is tailored to fit its populist goals will have
definite and long term repercussions in the politics of Tamil Nadu.
Prices of many essential commodities have already begun to
skyrocket, despite the ADMK government's much publicized but frantic
efforts to rationalize market prices.
Jeyalalitha has also to worry about the farmers - another large
constituency - who strongly opposed the DMK for not raising the
guaranteed prices at which the State government purchased their
crops. Tamil Nadu's sugar cane cultivators were the most vociferous
and bitter in their constant agitations against the DMK regime. They
demanded that the State should double the guaranteed price for sugar
The ADMK has to appease the farmers to retain the anti-DMK vote
bank. But Jeyalalitha has found to her utter dismay that she may not
be able to raise the money to do so either from the Central
government or the State Treasury. The Cauvery waters crisis gave her
an opportunity to blame Delhi for not acting in the interests of a
strong political ally, and tell the people of Tamil Nadu that she is
unable to deliver the goods because of Delhi has not given her
money. She cannot transfer onus on Delhi for too long because she
cannot seriously fall out with the Central government if she has to
find money to subsidize her economic programme.
If India sets in motion the process whereby national resources are
increasingly transferred to private investment and growth and if the
wasteful and politicized system of Centre subsidies for stagnant
state economies, gradually is depoliticized, the ADMK may find it
difficult to sustain MGR's political legacy and Jeyalalitha's
Ms. Jeyalalitha is quite mindful of the fact that the Congress 1's
first defeat in Tamil Nadu in 1967 was also due to the rising cost
If India is to continue with its economic reforms Delhi might have
to sacrifice the ADMK's economic policy at some point. The ADMK and
Congress 1 together secured 59.8% of the votes in this election. The
DMK got 30.12% (in the past it has averaged at 42%). The PMK got
6.21% the powerful G.K. Moopanar faction of the Tamil Nadi Congress
1 is now demanding that the party should oppose Jeyalalitha.
A bad economy and a faction ridden ally can affect her plans to
crush the DMK for a long time. The DMK can go up to its 42% in the
next election, and unless Jeyalalitha tactfully dismantles the
populist and anachronistic economic policy of the ADMK, she cannot
prevent the re-emergence of the DMK in India's fast changing
economic environment and the inevitable compulsions it can create in
India's political sphere.