Lessons In Progress From Tamil Nadu And Dravidian Politics
The story is almost apocryphal. In 1994, following the opening up of India’s economy Sharad Pawar, then chief minister of Maharashtra, visited Seoul and met with his friend Chung Se-yung who was the head of Hyundai Motors and invited him to invest in Maharashtra. On offer: an investment friendly regime and a robust eco-system. Chung Se-yung and Hyundai found the offer alluring.
However, by the time Chung Se-yung got to India in 1995, Maharashtra went to polls. Pawar was out of power. Regardless, Pawar took him around the Pimpri-Chinchwad auto cluster and introduced him to the new chief minister, Manohar Joshi. The investment climate though had worsened after the Enron episode. Foreign investors faced rough weather. Chung Se-yung was uncomfortable. Pawar suggested that Chung Se-yung visit Tamil Nadu and introduced him to J Jayalalithaa who was the chief minister there.
Jayalalithaa saw the opportunity and rolled out the red carpet - and an array of incentives. Folklore has it that by day four Hyundai had an office to work out of. However, a few months later, in May 1996 Tamil Nadu went to polls too. AIADMK was trounced. DMK led by K Karunanidhi came to power. Regime change though, did not result in reversal or change in policy. Hyundai Motor India Ltd was registered in July 1996 and the first car rolled out in September 1998. All this was much before the advent of Ease of Doing Business into the political lexicon.
Detroit Of India
Tamil Nadu in 2016, is home to Hyundai, BMW, Renault, Nissan, Ford, Daimler, Mitsubishi, Kamaz Vectra, Caterpillar, Isuzu Motors, Yamaha, Royal Enfield, TVS, TAFE, Bharat Benz, Mahindra and Ashok Leyland among others. Tamil Nadu accounts for nearly a sixth of all auto exports. Chennai is the hub for Hyundai’s small cars exported to over 100 countries. The Hyundai facility alone lured over 200 Korean companies to set up units in Tamil Nadu. The Chennai cluster is now known as the Detroit of India.
What is significant is that the transformation was enabled seamlessly even as two parties explicitly inimical to each other reigned in Tamil Nadu. The state is often cited as a habitat of a politically committed bureaucracy. While this may be true in parts, what is also true is that the system is committed to developing the state.
J Jayalalithaa, a torch bearer of Dravidian politics, died this week. Her demise affords an opportunity to review the clichéd narrative about Dravidian parties and Tamil Nadu politics. Frequently, the narrative is riveted to electoral freebies, scandals of corruption and is waylaid by high decibel dramatics, the colourful dramatis personae, the mass adulation and hysteria.
The State Score
The sense of purpose that Dravidian parties brought to governance is visible in the socio-economic data on Tamil Nadu. It tops large states in poverty reduction - barely 11 percent of its population lives below poverty line. Its per capita income - Rs 128,399 - has grown at 15 percent since 2004 and is better than that of most large states. Take industrialisation - Tamil Nadu tops states with the largest number of factories and industrial employment.
Consider human development indicators: It has the lowest fertility rate, has a literacy rate of 80.3 percent, is second in low infant and maternal mortality and has the lowest rate for crime against women. Living conditions are better - four of ten roofs are of concrete, 47 percent homes cook with LPG, 93 percent of homes are lit with electricity, 87 percent homes have television sets and thanks to high mobile ownership it tops large states in tele-density. Doubtless there are challenges - but these are lesser than those of other large states.
The babel about electoral freebies - about subsidized meals, medicines, water et al under the political brand of ‘Amma’ - is relentless. What is missed in the drone is that sops nurtured in the crib of populism in Tamil Nadu are gleefully adopted by parties across states - whether it is laptops for students, mobiles for households, gold at marriage et al. Yes, the state borrowed to pay for sops but its debt-to-GSDP ratio at 21.5 is among the lowest.
The Genesis Of The Midday Meal Scheme
Welfare economics is embedded in the DNA of Tamil Nadu politics. On September 15, 1982, MG Ramachandran sat on the floor for a meal with school students in Pappakurichi. Simultaneously, Jayalalithaa - the heroine of Annam Itta Kai - sat with 100 school girls in Chennai. It was the birth of the midday meals scheme. This was not an entirely new idea - it was tried in 1923 in municipal schools in Madras by the Justice Party and later by K Kamaraj in government schools in 1955. MGR universalized the idea at 45 paise per student for 6 million children.
MGR pointed out to Indira Gandhi that midday meals prevented hunger, created 2 lakh jobs, propelled enrollment and promoted social harmony. Yet the Centre denied Tamil Nadu additional funds and criticized the idea. MGR persisted - raising funds via taxes on liquor. He was proved right. Five years after it took off, a World Bank appraisal revealed the scheme curbed malnutrition, reduced infant mortality and lowered birth rates. It took Government of India until 2002 to make it national. Today the midday meals scheme is recognised as the driver of enrollment and literacy in India and as the world’s largest welfare scheme.
Dravidian parties are also instrumental in triggering the creation of a national food security programme. It was MGR’s idea that inspired NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh as he entered politics in late 1982, to promise rice at Rs 2 per kiliogram. The idea was soon on election manifestos and led to the birth of the right to food movement, and triggered public interest litigation in the Supreme Court. It is the Supreme Court that propelled the universalisation of midday meals and provided the impetus for the enactment of the Food Security Act.
100% All-Weather Roads
The Dravidian parties though did not depend on entitlement alone but spurred empowerment. Urbanisation is the key to job creation and growth. Over 48 percent of Tamil Nadu is urbanised, the highest among large states. The parties framed polices for investment in physical infrastructure for connectivity led growth. The state boasts of excellent road transport and rail network, three major and over 20 minor ports, seven airports and has achieved 100 percent all-weather roads.
Notwithstanding political rivalry DMK and AIADMK ensured continuity of policy, adopted and adapted new ideas like SEZs.
The state has over 45 special economic zones that have fueled FDI inflows.
Unsurprisingly, Tamil Nadu has attracted Fortune 500 companies - ranging from finance to foods - to invest in the state. Policy and politics embraced migrants and migration unlike many other states. The convergence of investments in auto, software and pharma sector was recognised by the late CK Prahalad as the coming together of capabilities to be converted into capacities.
The Tamil Identity
Although fiercely independent, the DMK and the AIADMK have allied with the Congress and the BJP. The AIADMK allied with the Congress in 1991 and then with the BJP in 1998 before Jayalalithaa pulled down the Vajpayee regime. The DMK similarly had alliances with the BJP till 2003 and then with the Congress in UPA I and II. However, neither yielded on Tamil identity and autonomy for the state.
The Dravidian parties have thwarted every attempt to foist any kind of hegemony and have been on the frontier of the war to preserve identity and therefore diversity. Take the issue of Hindi as national language. Twice in history - in 1928 and again in the 1960s - it was CN Annadurai who thwarted its imposition. When told that Hindi speakers were a majority, Annadurai had reportedly quipped,
“Why have peacock as our national bird when the crow is ubiquitous?”CN Annadurai, Justice Party and DMK
It is the foisting of Hindi that resulted in the rout of Congress and banishment from Tamil Nadu.
Since 1967 Tamil Nadu has deployed political logic and legal instruments to preserve the interests of the state - be it political hot potatoes like reservations or economic issues. The opposition to GST by Tamil Nadu stems from the belief that it “jeopardizes the autonomy of the States in fiscal matters”. In 2013 when the UPA enacted the new land acquisition law, Tamil Nadu declared it an assault on the autonomy of states.
Mind you, Tamil Nadu is a rare state that has not struggled with land acquisition - having insulated land acquisition for highways, industrial purposes and for Harijan welfare by legislating exemptions. More recently, even as the Modi Government struggled to amend the UPA land law, Tamil Nadu invoked provisions of article 254 (2) to insulate its laws and programmes from the Centre’s overreach. Indeed, the NITI Aayog is now asking other states to follow Tamil Nadu.
49 Years And 9 Months
Speculation is abuzz about a window of opportunity for the BJP to enter the state after the demise of Jayalalithaa. Politics is the art of the possible and the possibility cannot be ruled out. Those proselytizing the idea may want to consider some facts. Amidst the Narendra Modi wave in 2014 Tamil Nadu chose to elect AIADMK candidates on 37 of the 39 parliamentary seats. In the 2016 state assembly polls the Dravidian parties cornered 223 of the 232 seats. It bears mention here that the Dravidian parties were born out of the movement for the creation of Dravidistan - wariness to cultural and hence political domination is embedded deep in the psyche of the state.
An indelible fact of history is that Dravidian parties have dominated Tamil Nadu now for 49 years and 9 months. There is lot that that the DMK and AIADMK have been accused of. Equally relevant is their track record. It is not histrionics alone but a history of transformative progress that has kept them relevant. Unlike the identity warriors in the north, the DMK and the AIADMK have empowered the people and delivered - both social and economic outcomes.
Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst, is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change.
The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.