2017: A generational change in Indian politics

The past week was characterised by ongoing power struggle in Samajwadi Party, Sasikala taking over AIADMK, and emergence of DMK’s MK Stalin


Akhilesh Yadav may not have Stalin’s experience, but he seems to score on ruthlessness. Photo: AFP
Akhilesh Yadav may not have Stalin’s experience, but he seems to score on ruthlessness. Photo: AFP

2017 is barely upon us and it is already proving to be a year of transitions. The ongoing power struggle in the Samajwadi Party (SP) has hogged the headlines. This is understandable, given the impending elections in Uttar Pradesh. Still, it is important to juxtapose the SP with developments in other regional parties that are in similar throes of change.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the aftermath of J. Jayalalithaa’s passing is an obvious case in point. But it is less instructive in as much as the leadership of the party, if not the government, is passing on to Sasikala Natarajan almost by default. More interesting is the election of M.K. Stalin, son of the party supremo M. Karunanidhi, as acting president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The SP and the DMK have some superficial similarities. The politics of both parties is centred on the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Starting out with a politics of social mobilization, these parties have been turned into family firms or, perhaps more aptly, Hindu coparcenary property.

In each case, the patriarch has been unwilling to hand over all the reins to the next generation. Factional fights involving various family members have marked these transitions. And in both cases a clear successor seems to have emerged—at least for now.

However, there are significant differences as well. For one thing, the DMK draws on a much longer record of social mobilization than the SP. The origins of the non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu go back to 1870, when the British administration created the umbrella category of “backward classes”.

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By 1920, it had found political expression through the Justice Party, an outfit dominated by notables of the non-Brahmin castes. As a social force, it reached its apogee under the leadership of E.V. Ramasamy (commonly known as Periyar), whose Self-Respect Movement fashioned a Dravidian identity for the lower castes. Ramasamy also founded a political party, the Dravida Kazhagam, in 1944. Just over two decades later, its offshoot, the DMK, had unseated the Congress party in Tamil Nadu.

By contrast, OBC politics in north India came into its own rather late. It was the upper castes’ virulent opposition to the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations that gave the category of OBC a political cast.

Mulayam Singh Yadav surfed this wave of OBC mobilization. But as a political identity it has proved more tenuous than the Dravidian identity that continues to buttress the DMK.

Over the years, the SP has effectively narrowed down to a party of the Yadavs, who are able to pull in other groups from time to time.

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The performance of the two parties in power is also strikingly different. No one would hold up the DMK as a model of administrative efficiency or probity. But the party has a record of fostering social development that cannot be denied.

The SP, by contrast, has a well-earned reputation for abysmal governance and for fostering lawlessness. Akhilesh Yadav’s slogan of “development” bears little resemblance to the reality of the past five years.

Part of the reason the SP has gotten away with this is the delayed and uneven mobilization of the OBCs in Uttar Pradesh. The longer Dravidian tradition in Tamil Nadu has ensured that both the DMK and the AIADMK are held up to higher standards of governance and development.

The next-generation leaders of the SP and the DMK are studies in contrast too. Akhilesh Yadav was wet behind the ears when he was elevated as chief minister of the largest state in India. Mulayam Singh Yadav may rue the decision today, but he would have done well to study M. Karunanidhi’s playbook. The latter too sought to promote his son over other DMK leaders such as Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy (or Vaiko), but went about it more deliberately.

It is worth recalling that M.K. Stalin, like so many other prominent political leaders today, came into politics during the Emergency. Stalin was among the party workers who were jailed for protesting against the Emergency—even as then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dismissed Karunanidhi’s government.

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In the mid-1990s, when the DMK returned to power, Karunanidhi desisted from inducting Stalin into the cabinet. Instead he asked his son to contest the mayoral election in Chennai. Only in 2009 did Stalin become deputy chief minister. By that time, his grip over the party machinery was evident. Interestingly, Karunanidhi also chose to induct another son—M.K. Azhagiri—apparently to check Stalin’s growing popularity. But eventually Stalin prevailed.

Akhilesh Yadav may not have Stalin’s experience, but he seems to score on ruthlessness. Indeed, thoughtful political observers have compared his unseating of his father to N. Chandrababu Naidu’s ouster of his father-in-law, N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), in August 1995.

The script is similar: the dispute between various parts of the family, the bickering over lists of candidates and the desertion en masse of party notables to the younger man. But there is a salient difference.

Naidu’s bid for power was backed not only by party workers tired of NTR’s caprices, but also by a rising entrepreneurial community—the Kammas—and by urban professional classes eager for specific forms of economic and industrial development. There is no such discernable impulse behind Akhilesh Yadav’s takeover. Nor is it clear that he can tap into a wider aspiration for development in Uttar Pradesh.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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