Politics of cult, caste and corruption in Tamil Nadu

Half-baked concepts of social justice and identity politics are used in Tamil Nadu as a protective shield to escape corruption

C Lakshmanan

Politics of cult, caste and corruption in Tamil Nadu

Sasikala pays respects at the memorial for former state chief minister Jayalalithaa before leaving to surrender to authorities, following SC order (AFP)

By: C Lakshmanan | Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India | Feb 16, 2017, 11.10 AM (IST)

The Supreme Court of India has convicted V.K. Sasiskala, Ilavarasi and V.N. Sudhakaran in the Disproportionate Assets case. In doing so, it has reaffirmed our confidence in the judiciary.

The conviction has come with a high-voltage political drama in Tamil Nadu.  The drama for so long was being played out between the AIADMK’s O. Panneerselvam and Sasikala. To capture power and the allegiance of the party, the former has proclaimed his devotion to the late Amma while the latter has built her claim over her long association with the late leader and as a natural heir to her legacy. 

The war of succession in the AIADMK is not new. The current drama and the conviction show how hollow the Dravidian party’s claim is of being radical, rational and as an upholder of social justice.

Tamil Nadu has been India’s trendsetter in politicking since the 1960s. This was an absurd reduction from early 1900, when the region saw a movement of self-respect based on a "radical" and "rational" agenda that aimed to achieve transformative sociopolitical changes in the polity. This contrasted sharply with the prevailing politics in North India, which was dominated by pan-Indian nationalism. 

In the late 1950s, new trends were set in motion for political mobilisation and for capturing power, which opened up opportunities and political positions for persons coming from humble socio-economic background. 

To promote its ideology, the Dravidian party made use of mass media and leaned heavily on personalities from diverse mass media, including heroes and heroines who ruled the box office, script writers, film producers and cinema halls owners. These agencies established a new kind of political culture in the state, which had spread to some extent to other regions in the south, except Kerala.

Political crises and instability are good for Dalits assertion in Tamil Nadu politics
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Tamil Nadu is a showcase for how historical assertion of intermediary caste identities are articulated to corner the benefits from the state – both colonial and post-colonial. Thus, different caste groups mediate between society and state. While at one level, caste groups claim socio-economic backwardness to seek state intervention – particularly caste-centric reservation – at another level, they claim socio-cultural superiority to hold on to structural status. This has been brought out starkly in the overt and explicit assertions of caste superiority and anti-Dalit behavior. 

Hence, one has to understand that the qualitative difference between anti-Brahmin politics as against anti-caste politics remains only at the level of rhetoric. The manner in which Dalit aspirations are trampled by the ruling class/castes in the state and the widespread prevalence of untouchability and caste violence are a testimony to this fact.

Here, Dravidian politics replicates and enforces caste-centered supremacism across the microstructure (civil society, educational institutions, media) and macrostructure (state, industries and others). A system of (un)earned privilege that was developed and is maintained through a coded assertion of caste-centered supremacist beliefs and practices encompasses many structures.  In this milieu, one is required to engage with the intersectionality of caste, class, gender, religion etc. Thus, the intermediate castes, particularly in southern India, made a headway to replace/ displace Brahmins in structures of power.

Political crises and instability are good for Dalits assertion in Tamil Nadu politics. In the state, neither the Dalits nor the other marginalised groups have been able to utilise the situation in their favour. 

The Dravidian legacy of contemporary Tamil Nadu politics is such that even under these circumstances, a Dalit is neither considered for a puppet chief minister or as a stopgap. 

Despite a strength of 31 in the current AIADMK regime, the Dalit MLAs are nowhere in the scene. The caste configuration of AIADMK in Tamil Nadu Assembly and Cabinet: 28 MLAs of Gounder had five ministers; 20 MLAs of Thevars had 9 ministers; 19 MLAs of Vanniyar had 5 ministers; 31 MLAs belonging to others castes had 10 ministers; whereas 31 MLAs of Dalits had only 3 ministers. The numbers tell their own story.

Barring Kerala, in all the other four southern states, celluloid personalities impact politics and corruption
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Political culture is embedded with certain patterns of beliefs and practices over a period of time at a particular region. Barring Kerala, in all the other four southern states, celluloid personalities impact politics and corruption. 

Corruption is the pernicious disease of any given democracy, impacting its governance, political economy and polity. It has been booming in the everyday materiality of people and their history despite numerous crusades against the disease across the globe. 

Indeed, the pervasive impact of corruption on contemporary Tamil society is universally acknowledged. In fact, the more we devise mechanisms to arrest corruption, the more we discover unique ways in which it expands and infests many sections of the society. 

From the late 1980s onwards, Tamils/ Indians have witnessed an unprecedented boom in corruption. It has become a part and parcel of the people's existential struggle. This could be fortunate because at least people learn about the multiple means of corruption and learn to live with it or develop the courage to resist it. It is equally unfortunate because honesty, simplicity, public morality and a sense of shame are becoming rare in contemporary times. Indeed, the pervasive effects of corruption are detrimental to the process of governance and democracy.

The cult behaviour and sycophancy of political cadres encourage the leadership to loot the public resources and amass wealth
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Unfortunately,  people who hail from a humble socio-economic background with limited skills and abilities have been unable to attract the masses to meet political ends. Therefore, they need to create a new psychology of neo-feudal culture. Such a culture relies on patronage politics, fueling sycophancy and personality cult. 

The cult behaviour and sycophancy of political cadres encourage the leadership to loot the public resources and amass wealth.

The rule of law, public morality, and sense of shame are becoming a rarity. 

In order to maintain control over the newly accrued disproportionate assets, political leaders unscrupulously practise dynastic politics. They deceive and depoliticise the masses through personality cult, freebies and cinema.

Besides, half-baked concept of social justice and identity politics are used as a protective shield to escape corruption. Indeed social justice is reduced to mere caste-centric state intervention, or reservation, and negating dignity of labour and decent standard of living.

 Ever since the late-1980s, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been consistently increasing their prospects by using a diverse range of issues, such as Ganesh Chaturthi, anti-conversion etc. Most recently, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it had new political partners such as PMK, MDMK, DMDK and a few Tamil Nationalists group in the state. While they could not gain in terms of seats, their acceptability is visibly rising. Now, with  the demise of Jayalalithaa and the conviction of V.K Sasikala, BJP would certainly gain better scope in the state. 

MGR was able to manage the party without caste(s) dominance but Jayalalithaa’s close association to Sasikala led to an explicit dominance of the Thevar caste in the party.

Sasikala neither has charismatic appeal nor has any direct connection with common people, therefore her removal will have no significant impact on Tamil Nadu's political future.

C Lakshmanan

The writer is associate professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies. He specialises in Dravidian Politics and political culture.

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