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A schizo polity called Tamil Nadu

June 11, 2019 18:16 IST

Why did such a ‘socially conscientious’ people adapt to cash-for-votes and the like, as fish to water? N Sathiya Moorthy offers an explanation.

IMAGE: A protest against the Tamil Nadu government after 15 people were killed in police firing in May 2018 at protesters calling for the closure of the Vedanta Resources-controlled Sterlite Copper smelter in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu. Photograph: P Ravikumar/Reuters

In southern Tamil Nadu, which supposedly bucked the national trend in recent elections, ‘environmental conscience’ co-exists with societal sin of ‘cash-for-votes’, and both in a very big way, and across the board.

If called upon to balance the two, even a seasoned social psychologist would look baffled.

For six months now, the state government’s court-induced ban on the use of plastics in daily life has held, especially where it was meant for. Stores, shopping malls and restaurants, you name any commercial establishment, and the use of cheap plastic bags went away at the stroke of the midnight on the New Year 2019 -- and across cities, towns and villages, in the plains and in the highlands.

 

Considering that Tamil Nadu is also where decades-old ban on smoking in public, gutka have not held, and where the citizenry have flouted repeated court orders on the mandatory use of two-wheeler helmets with gay abandon, questions arise as to the incongruity of conflicting public perceptions on issues and reactions.

It is thus that during the long run-up to the 2016 assembly polls, even shop-centric protests (marred by violence and police intervention) for the imposition of prohibition did not have much impact either on a revenue-deficit state government or the public, who otherwise suffered all the ill-effects of large-scale liquor consumption.

Yet, just years down the line, there are reasons to believe the public mood against what some ventured to argue as a ‘well thought-out rape and plunder of the nature’ is being acknowledged as among the reasons for the ruling AIADMK-BJP combine’s complete rout in elections 2019.

And five years back, in the assembly elections of 2011, the voters threw out the ‘corrupt and inefficient’ DMK government -- ‘corrupt’ because of the 2-G scam and the like, and 'inefficient’, owing to the long years of longer hours of power-cuts across the state. Yet, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the incumbent Jayalalithaa government had not wholly solved the power-cut problem as much as promised, and the voter did not hold it against the late chief minister.

They had drawn a distinction -- the previous government was not doing the job, nor was it seen as doing the job, whereas it was becoming increasingly visible that the Jaya leadership was attempting to address the same. That this was the woman who was facing and delaying the ‘wealth case’ flowing from her forgotten first term as chief minister (1991-96) did not matter to the voter. He had punished her for it, and personally so after she lost her own seat, too, in the 1996 polls -- and that was it.

There is no denying that environmental concerns impacting on the individual’s life and lifestyle were at the centre of the large-scale public apathy against the government of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. You name a district or region, there was at least one project or issue that whipped up the environmental consciousness of the Tamil voter, over the past five years.

Thus, you had the container port issue in the then BJP Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan’s Kanyakumari constituency, anti-Sterlite protests and police firing in neighbouring Thoothukudi, the farmer protests for Cauvery waters and against hydro-carbon extraction schemes in the central region, and the Chennai-Salem ‘Green Corridor’, which had an electoral fall-out across five LS constituencies directly, others in the periphery...

For add-ons, there was the public perception of the Centre purportedly and abruptly closing down ASI excavations in Keezhadi along the Vaigai river-flow which, it was claimed, pointed to an ancient (Tamil) civilisation in these parts, and also the anti-neutrino protests along the highlands and low lands of Theni district and the adjoining plains, in the south.

Then, there was the all-pervasive ‘land mafia’ involved in smuggling riverbed sand in tens of thousands of tonnes, whose sale again was nationalised around the time of liquor sale take-over.

But successive state governments seem to have adopted different yardstick as to their enforcement, with the result people, based on their knowledge acquired from the social media, starting with Google, blame ‘sand smuggling’ as the major cause for water shortage all across this summer, when again the elections were held.

It is thus that the Tatas’ titanium project hit a road-block when DMK’s Karunanidhi was in power, after protestors in southern Tirunelveli district possibly took a leaf out of Singur and Nandigram in faraway West Bengal, the state government, which was obviously unprepared for it all, quickly respected the public sentiments and cancelled the projects -- whatever be other causes behind the protests and compulsions behind the cancellation.

More recently, in the very same district, where local protestors opposed the Kudankulam nuclear project, the excessive involvement of outsiders and the political class meant that the locals’ concerns got diluted and forgotten after a point, and the government machinery wormed its way to neutralise the protest leaders with their questionable past and funding sources and mechanisms.

Yet, none of it should explain why such a ‘socially conscientious’ people adapted to cash-for-votes and the like, as fish to water. The explanation may have to be sought elsewhere. In this election in particular, when the rest of the nation was seen as praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘anti-corruption drive’, in Tamil Nadu, the people had a different perspective -- or, is it experience?

Despite a series of raids of the IT-ED variety on senior ruling party leaders, including incumbent AIADMK ministers, and their industrialist friends, which were all well publicised, too, the TN voter saw that nothing came out of it, other than perceptions that they were all aimed at arm-twisting the party leadership to ‘toe’ the BJP’s political line on administrative decisions and electoral alliance. 

Simply put, the ‘Tamil pride’ was hurt as earlier even when the likes of DMK’s M Karunanidhi or AIADMK’s MGR and Jayalalithaa fell in line with the ruling party at the Centre, they had explanations to extend, excuses to offer. There were also cadre hopes that they would raise again, and then pay back the ruling party at the Centre in their own coin. It was too early for them to have such ‘high hopes’ on the EPS-OPS duo from within the ruling AIADMK, post-Jaya.

Thus, this time, as also ahead of elections 2014, the Tamil Nadu voter perception of the local revenue/police raids acting for the Election Commission, for ‘unaccounted cash’ ahead of the polls, was not as much sullied as those by IT-ED. Ever since such raids came to be organised by the EC, Tamil Nadu has invariably come on the top of ‘cash seizures’, and there has not been much of abuse or misuse of powers, either by the ruling party in the state or the lower level officials on the ground.

It is against this backdrop, some of the ruling AIADMK second-liners are ruing their leadership’s decision to put off the state-wide local bodies polls by months and years, citing new excuses, even after the Madras high court first and the Supreme Court later had reprimanded the state government.

As they concede now, in the absence of local body councillors and municipal/panchayat chairmen, officials were taking decisions and ministers (alone) were lining their pockets. Under the ‘panchayat scheme’, whichever party representative was elected, purportedly under a party-less election plan, they would have taken care of the ‘mutual interests’ of fellow-travellers from other/Opposition parties, too.

If thus the AIADMK cadres had cause to be upset about their ministers and leaders, the DMK campaign managers, who were also in charge of the allies’ constituencies, were said to have circumvented the absence of local bodies, first by blaming it on the ruling party and then promising cadres producing the best results in individual booths, with candidacy for the local body elections, whenever held.

It was enough to enthuse or energise the cadres, who in turn knew that outside of the government, their leadership could do little else to assuage their sentiments. A clearer picture/conflict may emerge only when the local bodies polls are actually held. Indications are that the state government has suddenly woken up to the possibilities, post-polls now, and want them all in place long before the assembly polls are due in May 2021.

If however the ‘cash-for-vote’ phenomenon has caught on in Tamil Nadu, the reasons are not far to seek. In a state urbanisation is on a high speed -- 42 to 52 per cent over the past 10 years or so -- lifestyle and living expenses, leave aside the family ambitions for seeing their children as engineers and doctors all mean the need for more money in the pocket, an amoral justification has come to be offered, by the individual to the individual.

The argument that “this is my money that the politician is giving back” and there is nothing wrong in accepting the same, as this is also all that he is going to give us in terms of welfare, has become self-satisfying, even if it is even more self-defeating.

Yet, taken at random, even for an upper middle class family with five voters on the rolls, Rs 1000-2000 per vote per mainline candidate is a lot of money, and at one go. For the rural poor, facing near-eternal distress and his ‘migrant labour’ cousin struggling on the periphery of the urban milieu, it may be even more, not less.

What is even more perceptible is the fact that nearly 70 per cent of ‘postal votes’ in the state went to Opposition party candidates, across the board. According to some, barring the police force, almost every other segment of government employees voted against the twin governments, in the state and at the Centre.

Translated, with an average four or five dependent voters per family, close to 22 lakh government employees and pensioners in the state government’s rolls, they add up to nearly one crore voters across Tamil Nadu in an electorate of 5.8 crore people on the electoral rolls.

Averaging close to 20 per cent and cutting out the political affiliation of individual government employees, the figure constitutes possibly one of the ‘single largest’ constituencies, if not the largest, that too spread near-equitably all across the state.

Considering that the ‘postal votes’ mostly concerned only state government staff and affiliates, the chances that the central government staff too could have played along. This was even more visible in elections 2004, after the then Jayalalithaa government sacked a lakh of employees overnight and called in the police and party goons to harass their families in the employees’ quarters.

Elections for long have become the Tamil voter’s voice of democracy, going beyond street protests and political rallies. In the case of environmental protests, the record is fresh and in everyone’s memory. For the state government employees, the EPS regime had caused their repeated protests by ignoring them through and through. It is so with public protests, where however in some cases, the police was used to put down the protestors -- through firing, lathi-charging and indiscriminate arrests.

Where the public protests are seen as anti-development, it is easy for the political administrator to blame it on the Opposition, and the bureaucracy on anti-socials, dubbing them as ‘naxals’ and worse. They are there, but they can exploit only an existing and overwhelming ground situation, to which they do not contribute much, or next to nothing. That is the government’s doing, and ends up as their electoral undoing.

The way out is for the governments, be it at the Centre or in the states, to be even hyper-sensitive to ground realities and reactions, and seek to educate the people about the comparative benefits accruing to both the community and the individual from such projects -- and also address such issues as illegal land-mining, fairly and squarely, where the politician’s hidden hand is seen, whoever is in power.

For this to happen, the rulers and the ruling class have to acknowledge the better educational standards, exposure and aspirations of the masses as given, and work with and on them, not around or against them. As the pre- and post-Independence socio-political history of the nation has shown, what is true of Tamil Nadu today is repeated elsewhere in the next 30 years or so. In this era of telescoping time, thanks to communication explosion, this window can only come down, not go up.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiya Moorthy
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