Tamil Nadu's politics of welfare

Dravidian Years: Politics and Welfare in Tamil Nadu

S Narayan


260 pages

Rs 550

It was May 2009, just after the general election. Against all expectation, the Congress had increased its seats in the Lok Sabha from 145 to 207. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which had won 16 of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu, had gone up to 18. So, while the Congress was preening in the rest of the country, the DMK was demanding more ministerial berths at the Centre. 

It was during these negotiations that the then editor of the Hindu Business Line and I went to meet a very senior Congress minister from one of the Hindi states. He had just returned from a round of negotiations in Chennai. “Arre,” he said, “I can’t understand you Madrassis at all. Why the arrogance?”

If he reads this fascinating book he will understand why Dravidian party politicians have a right to be arrogant. As the author Dr S Narayan (IAS, 1965, Tamil Nadu), former finance secretary and then economic advisor in the Vajpayee Prime Minister’s Office shows, despite their intense political rivalries, the Dravidian political parties have made welfare work.

Its publication could not have been timelier. The tallest leaders of the two main Dravidian parties have died within 20 months of each other and the political edifice they erected to deliver welfare is now crumbling. As Dr Narayan writes, “There is a vacuum in political leadership”, which is not going to be filled very soon. Even the administration, which cooperated fully to make the welfare programmes work, is now resting a little on its oars.

Before we start to worry about the future, however, it is useful to look at the past.

The cornerstone of the Dravidian parties’ welfare programme has been food. “The food shortages and the family ration cards, in many distinct ways, were the beginnings of the welfare oriented policies that are now associated with the state... one of the first ideas that Annadurai was keen to implement was supplying three kilograms of rice for a rupee.”

The ICS/IAS officers in the state were at a loss as to how to get this done. Their first encounter with welfarism was fraught and tense. They protested, saying there wasn’t enough rice.

Annadurai probably knew this anyway and agreed to one kilo of rice through the ration system. That was how it all began, says Dr Narayan. It hasn’t looked back since then and has been copied, less successfully, in the whole country.

He also describes how this new policy framework of direct intervention created tensions between the politicians and the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats lost and as the years have gone by, they have become enthusiastic about welfare.

Without such enthusiasm, suggests Dr Narayan, welfarism may have been less successful. These policies have now gone beyond food to health and education and when elections come around, to pressure cookers, TV sets and laptops. 

The question remains, though: Why did it work so well in Tamil Nadu and not in the northern states? Dr Narayan hasn’t made the comparison and the book is poorer for it. In mitigation, however, this is perhaps a question for anthropologists to answer. 

In a democracy, whether in India or elsewhere, everything is political and welfare is more political than anything else. And when handouts are in play, that too on the scale involved, not only does the politics intensify it does so in unpredictable ways.  
In the chapter titled “Welfare and Politics”, Dr Narayan describes how the two came together perfectly. Everyone got pulled into it — gender, caste, sub-caste, senior, middle and junior bureaucracy, panchayats, other local bodies — everyone was standing with his or her hands out.  

If you had to please everyone for their votes, not only did you have to retain control in the Secretariat lest someone else got the credit, you also had to make sure that the goodies were distributed in as group-neutral way as possible, especially government jobs. What resulted over thirty years was that everyone got something, except the Dalits.

Overall, says Dr Narayan, M G Ramachandran’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam did a better job of it than Karunanidhi’s DMK. What cooked its goose was the visible greed and corruption of Jayalalithaa and her friend, Sasikala.

Be that as it may, the fact remains: Tamil Nadu had four intense and highly charismatic leaders — Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR and Jayalalithaa. Now they are all gone. 

Little wonder, then, that Dr Narayan ends the book thus: “The future is now a question mark waiting for a new paradigm to emerge.” Until then, as Percival Spear wrote in his Twilight of the Mughals, it will be each man for himself.