The Tamil Nadu assembly election witnessed multi-cornered contests — but the results have shown that the fight continues to be between the DMK and the AIADMK. All candidates from the Left and the Viduthalai Siruthaigal (VCK) were defeated. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, whose political rhetoric is resonant with casteist rancor on the one hand and developmental energy on the other, also could not win any seat. The BJP, for all the loud noise, also drew a blank.
Jayalalithaa’s victory is not as conclusive as it might appear. She has perfected a style of populism that is fundamentally cynical — and relies on what might win favour both in a political and “moral” sense. The cynicism is apparent in the much praised PDS handouts. The quality of the rice that is given free is invariably poor, there is a dearth of goods, especially cooking fuel, pulses, and it is never quite clear whether these are unavailable or have been diverted into the shadow economy. It is also evident in the freebies, which are procured at unbelievably low prices and are sold and resold by the recipients — the charmed circle of the party faithful affords an efficient patron-client setup that manages these transactions. Most recently, this cynicism is evident in her assurance that she will roll back the sale of liquor from state-owned shops — it remains to be seen how effective that will be, given her earlier protestations on the grounds that abkari revenue is important to the state.
The question, of course, is what may be expected from the AIADMK in its consecutive term. There is no dearth of issues. These are of two kinds: First, the deleterious changes that have affected agriculture, growing unemployment, the retreat of capital investment, ostensibly because of the high kickback rates that are legion in the state, the rise in rural and urban indebtedness, falling standards in school education, the unregulated growth of private interests in higher education and health, and the ruin of the state’s environment by a relentless political mafia invested in speculative real estate, sand mining, illegal granite quarrying, and water extraction. The second set of issues has to do with democratic and civil governance. The widespread corruption that is no more a dirty secret, but the stuff of commonsense and which can prove deadly as we saw with respect to the alleged suicides of three young women who were studying in a private medical college, who had protested the lack of basic amenities in an institution that had been allowed to function despite not fulfilling even basic and necessary criteria; the perversion of democracy that has become so naturalised that no one bats an eyelid when defamation cases are routinely slapped on critics of the ruling party (perfected to a fine art by the AIADMK), or when that party’s leader refers to the government as “hers” and makes clear that things happen in this state through “her” munificence and will; the open encouragement of casteist outfits and deafening silence when it comes to crimes against Dalits.
The state’s record in dealing with casteist violence is dismal. It boasts of being a “garden of peace”, but even a cursory listing of crimes against Dalits, to say nothing of crimes against children and women, gives the lie to its assertions. It swears fealty to regional aspirations, but is decidedly indifferent to local governance, and has sought to remake the latter in its own parochial image.
It is unlikely that a DMK victory would have ensured that any or all of these problems would be addressed with the rigour and attention they deserve. For, it is evident that great economic and political clout has come to be vested in an emergent rentier class, drawn from leading political parties, whose members often act in concert, in spite of publicly stated political differences, and a class of entrepreneurs, who prefer to remain in the shadows but who do not hesitate to literally get rid of opposition to their loot and gain methods.
And so, we are in for a further round of ferocity and populism — and as for those who wish things were otherwise, there is more futility to reckon with.