ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Verdict 2019

Reinforcing Dravidian Identity Politics in Tamil Nadu

P Ramajayam ( teaches at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Bharathidasan University,  Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu.

The Lok Sabha election results in Tamil Nadu clearly show the reconsolidation of the caste base and minorities and reinforcement of the Dravidian Tamil identity politics. The victory of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam establishes the second round of ideological discourse on linguistic cultural nationalism, secularism, and the regional aspirations within the framework of Hindutva. The election results in some ways indicate the reassertion of Dravidian identities and the key role for the Dravidian parties in the politics of the state.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election was seen as an important one in Tamil Nadu for several reasons. First, both the Dravidian parties, that is, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) had lost their influential leaders and this election was a test to determine who would inherit their respective legacies. Second, after the death of the AIADMK General Secretary and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa there was a split in the AIADMK. Would any one group inherit her legacy was the crucial question. Third, would the same caste polarisation of Vanniyar, Gounder, Thevar and Nadar against Dalits and Muslims help the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to establish its footprints in Tamil Nadu politics was also a question to which the answer was awaited.

The BJP was not able to make inroads into the south except in Karnataka. In 2014, it forged an alliance—the “new social coalition,” with smaller regional parties and could win only two seats with the AIADMK winning 37 of the 39 seats (Ramajayam 2017: 167–82). In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections two strategic alliances were formed. One led by the DMK which included the Congress, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India–(Marxist) CPI(M), Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Indhiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK) and Kongunadu Makkal Desia Katchi (KMDK). The AIADMK entered into an alliance and included the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) in their fold. The DMK-led alliance swept the polls by winning all but one seat (Table 1, p 24).


Tamil Nadu is the only state in India which has been ruled by state-level parties either single-handedly or in alliance with the national parties since 1967. The DMK has been a strong regional political force in the state since the 1960s. Its breakaway party, the AIADMK headed by M G Ramachandran came to dominate state politics. From 1971 onwards national parties have been depending heavily upon the Dravidian parties. This election was an important test of the importance and role of the Dravidian parties in the politics of the state.

Double Anti-incumbency

This election was also an important test of the impact of the BJP in the politics of the state. Prior to this election, the close contact between the leaders of the BJP at the national level and the ruling AIADMK in the state, was being closely watched. Many believed that the BJP central leadership played a key role in uniting a few factions of the AIADMK. The two parties then decided to have an alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This was not favoured by the cadres of the AIADMK. In the past both the DMK and AIADMK have had alliances with the BJP. Yet in all these alliances, the Dravidian party was clearly leading the alliance. The Dravidian parties realised that they had lost the crucial support of the Dalits and Muslims on account of the alliance. This time around, by aligning with the BJP, the AIADMK saw an erosion of its social base among these two important segments.

For the DMK leader M K Stalin, the 2019 elections was a crucial test of his leadership and organisational skills. Could he unite the internal faction within the DMK? Do DMK supporters and cadres see him as the legitimate heir to the Karunanidhi legacy? Can he stitch together a formidable alliance to challenge the AIADMK-led coalition? With the DMK-led alliance securing a victory in all but one of the seats in the state, Stalin seemed to have passed all the three tests.

Apart from the political dynamics, there were other issues which played a key role in this election. In recent times, the state has never seen a split mandate. They have given a decisive verdict in favour of one of the two Dravidian parties. This time around, the AIADMK-led alliance appears to have been adversely affected by the dissatisfaction with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre. Further, the unhappiness with the performance of the AIADMK government at the state level also helped the DMK-led alliance sweep the election. The Lokniti–CSDS National Election Study survey conducted in Tamil Nadu indicates that there was a high level of dissatisfaction with the central government. Its key decisions were not endorsed by the people. While over six of every 10 had heard of the Pulwama attacks and the surgical strikes, a majority of the respondents gave the credit for the same to the armed forces. Close to three-fourths of the respondents felt that demonetisation was unnecessary. Further, Rahul Gandhi was favoured over Narendra Modi as the preferred Prime Minister. If six of the 10 respondents endorsed Rahul Gandhi less than two of every 10 supported Modi. This could also be linked to the fact that the DMK leader Stalin was among the first to endorse Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial choice of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The performance of the AIADMK government led by Edappadi K Palaniswamy was also not positively viewed by the state electorate. More than six of every 10 respondents were dissatisfied with the functioning of the state government.

Split in the AIADMK

The split in the AIADMK cost the party dearly in multiple ways. First, the vote share of the party got split among the factions. The vote share of the AIDMK led by Palaniswamy and Panneerselvam secured a mere 19% of the vote with the breakaway Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) faction headed by Dinakaran securing close to 8% of the votes. In the process neither faction was able to inherit the legacy of Jayalalithaa, the former AIADMK chief.

The impact of the split in the AIADMK was clearly evident in the people’s preferred choice of chief minister. If over four of every 10 respondents wanted Stalin as the chief minister, the current Chief Minister Palaniswamy had the support of around one-seventh of the respondents and the former Chief Minister Panneerselvam had the support of less than one of every 10 respondents. The leader of the AMMK faction, Dinakaran, was way behind with a mere 7% of support from respondents.

New Players

Two new players tested the electoral waters in Tamil Nadu. The Naam Thamizhar Katchi (NTK) led by Seeman, a film director, secured less than 4% of votes and the Makkal Neethi Mayyam (MNM) headed by Kamal Haasan, a well-known cine actor, also secured close to 4% of the votes. The MNM raised the radical question of pan-Indian nationalism even as it endorsed the Dravidian principle of rationalism. The NTK took a hard-line Tamil nationalism stand against the Dravidian parties. The NTK drew some support among rural youngsters in the southern districts of the state while the MNM gained some traction in the metros and semi-urban areas.

The Caste Factor

This election saw the DMK-led alliance consolidate its presence among the upper castes, Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the minorities across the state. The AIADMK-led alliance seemed to have an advantage among the Thevars and Udayars. The Vanniyar vote was split between the alliances and the Nadar vote was split among the two factions of the AIADMK (Table 2).

Though the DMK–Congress-led alliance has performed extremely well in the Lok Sabha polls in the state, it was not able to do as well in the by-elections to the state assembly. It appears that the ruling AIADMK in the state was more focused on doing well in the assembly elections and gave the Lok Sabha polls less attention. It is also evident that the approach of the national parties (BJP and Congress) to issues of language and culture will be critical to their electoral future in the state. The election results in some ways indicate the reassertion of Dravidian identities and the key role for the Dravidian parties in the politics of the state.


Pandian, M S S (2000): “Tamil-friendly Hindutva,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 35, Nos 21–22, pp 1805–06.

Ramajayam, P (2017): “BJP’s Limited Challenge to Dravidian Parties,”Electoral Politics in India: The Resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party, South Asia Edition, Sanja Kumar, Sanjay Lodha and Suhash Palshikar (eds), New Delhi: Routledge.

Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2019


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top