Political theatre in Tamil Nadu promises more entertainment in 2014. Regardless of how party games play out in the general elections, the state’s economic development is unlikely to be affected adversely. With development long delinked from the fortunes of the fratricidal Kazhagams — the AIADMK and the DMK — electoral outcomes have had little bearing on survival issues for the state’s 7.2 crore people.
Whether it remains Jaya-nadu or turns in to Stalin-grad in the power contests between the DMK and the AIADMK, Chennai would remain India’s second-most prosperous city — as shown in rating agency Crisil’s study — for some more years. Tamil Nadu, with the country’s third highest GDP, has a per capita net domestic product of $1,800 a year — 50 per cent more than the national average ($1,200). The Raghuram Rajan committee, which studied the ‘backwardness’ criterion of states, ranked Tamil Nadu as “most developed” along with Kerala and Goa. The committee under then Chief Economic Adviser and (now RBI Governor) Rajan based ‘backwardness’ on an index using measures such as per capita consumption and poverty ratio. Gujarat ranks 12th — so much for Narendra Modi’s much-vaunted “Gujarat Model”.
If cars and computers are a measure, then Tamil Nadu’s economic progress is enviable. Nearly 40 per cent of our automobiles are rolled out of the state, which is home to “India’s Detroit”. Auto leaders including Mahindra, Renault, Hyundai and Ford, and truck major Ashok Leyland are thriving here; as are IT majors, in a climate that produces the best recruits for work at home and abroad. In fact, Tamil Nadu boasts the largest number of US work visas.
The state’s emergence as an auto hub underscores its rapid growth from a time when this industry was confined to Bombay (Premier Automobiles) and Calcutta (Hindustan Motors) until Maruti set up shop near Delhi. Except for bus and truck maker Ashok Leyland, Madras was famous for bicycles churned out by TI Cycles. Today, TI (Tube Investments), with a range of frontline bicycle brands and fitness equipment, is one of 28 companies, including EID Parry, Carborundum Universal and Coromandel Engineering, which make up the Murugappa Group with an annual turnover exceeding Rs22,000 crore.
Tamil Nadu’s education and work ethic make it a magnet for many companies, especially in manufacturing, IT, services and infrastructure. Reservations in education and jobs for the backward classes — decades before it came to the rest of India — secularised the administration, encouraged private educational institutions and made development “inclusive” long before the term became fashionable. MGR’s free noon meal scheme introduced in the 1980s — continuing to this day — boosted school enrolment and raised nutrition levels. In health, Tamil Nadu is leagues ahead of others: infant mortality down by 60 per cent (nationally 45 per cent); under-five mortality of 35.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, (compared to 74.3 per 1,000 for India); massive reduction of maternal mortality (from 319 deaths per 1,00,000 in the 1980s to 111 in 2005) and widespread health coverage with the highest infant immunisation.
Although GDP dipped somewhat in 2012-13, economic growth has been steady since 2000. Indian and foreign companies continue to set up shop, expand and diversify in Tamil Nadu, mainly in and around Chennai. What Chennai looks forward to in 2014 is not the general elections, but opening of the Metro; that could ease Chennai’s traffic bottlenecks and congestion caused by construction work and diversions, which are choking arterial roads and making vehicles crawl.
The foundations for these present-day achievements were laid in the 1960s by Congress leaders such as R Venkataraman and C Subramaniam with the support of K Kamaraj. Ironically, in that very decade (1967) — 20 years after Independence — Tamil Nadu dumped the Congress. Forty seven years after that historic rout, the Congress is yet to recover even a toe-hold in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK and its offshoot, the AIADMK, hold sway. In recent decades there emerged other Kazhagams — MDMK, PMK, DMDK — and caste groupings that scored electoral gains either in alliance with the DMK/AIADMK or on their own. National parties such as the Congress and BJP are quite content to ally with one or the other for parliamentary pickings. The difference is that, earlier, national parties picked them up and dropped them at will; now the AIADMK and DMK have the upper hand. In 2014, both have rejected Congress and BJP overtures for an alliance, the AIADMK because Jayalalithaa expects a larger “national role”; and, the DMK because better bargains may come after the elections.
The state’s developmental strides, welfare measures and culture of freebies do not give an edge to either the AIADMK of J Jayalalithaa or the DMK led by M Karunanidhi and his son MK Stalin. The electorate takes these for granted, no matter which of the Kazhagams prevail, and accordingly votes out one and brings in the other. Competitive populism ensures that the two parties vie with each other — much like Kerala’s Left- and Congress-led Fronts — in their election promises as well as post-poll delivery of goodies.
Yet the tide could turn in unforeseen ways in 2014. Surveys suggest that people are yearning for change, for freedom from the Kazhagams, although conventional calculations indicate that the AIADMK is better placed to bag a majority of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP believes that it could be a surprise beneficiary of the surge for change. So does the Aam Aadmi Party, which is enrolling in lakhs. The BJP’s past presence in the Lok Sabha from Tamil Nadu was as a Kazhagam ally. This time, with every seat in greater demand than before and every party’s eye on post-poll deals, imponderables such as the Modi effect, emergence of AAP, a newly-energised urban middle class and the clamour for change are giving the jitters to all the parties.
The AIADMK and the DMK are acutely aware that, just as the Congress was turfed out in 1967 in spite of its record of industrialisation and development, their ‘achievements’ cannot keep Tamils beholden to the Kazhagams forever. It didn’t take much for AAP to trump the BJP and Congress in Delhi. Not too long ago, the Left Front in Bengal had to bow out after three decades. The DMK and AIADMK have run the show for more than four decades. Can the record hold? Or, will the stuck record be changed?
The author is an independent political commentator