From legislating for self-respect marriage to ensuring property rights for women, DMK’s progressive social policies have paved the way for significant social development in the state.

How Karunanidhis patronage politics ushered in a new era of social justice and economic services
news Opinion Saturday, June 03, 2017 - 09:30

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is celebrating Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s achievements as a legislator over the past several decades, along with his birthday on June 3, 2017. In the past sixty years, since 1957, Kalaignar has been elected thirteen times to the Tamil Nadu assembly and has served the state as chief minister five times.

The entry of DMK into electoral politics and the legislative career of Karunanidhi are inseparable. In 1957, the DMK contested Assembly Elections for the first time and won fifteen seats, and at the same time Karunanidhi too kicked off his legislative career by winning his first MLA seat from Kulithalai constituency. From then on, even when DMK was not in power, Karunanidhi has been victorious on the electoral front every single time. Since 1969, he has been leading the party as its President. Though much reviled for its populism and ‘patronage politics’, no one can deny that Karunanidhi and DMK offered better politics of social development than most other states in India.

From legislating for self-respect marriage to ensuring property rights for women, DMK’s progressive social policies have paved the way for significant social development in the state. For instance, in 1989 alone, under the Chief Ministership of Karunanidhi, several women’s welfare measures were intiated and implemented quite successfully. The Moovalur Ramamirtham Marriage Assistance scheme, Anjugam Ammaiyar Inter-caste Marriage Assistance Scheme, Dr. Dharmambal Ammaiyar Memorial Widow Remarriage Scheme , EVR Nagammaiyar Memorial Free Graduate Education for Girls Scheme and the Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Memorial Maternity Assistance Scheme have benefitted several subaltern women of the state. Again in 1996, there were several new economic and health schemes introduced to benefit women, which included the 33% reservation of seats for women in the Panchayat elections and the women entrepreneur scheme.

Critics have been quick to interpret these welfare measures as a top-down process of provisioning public goods and services. Some have dismissed them as mere populist measures to strengthen vote bank politics. Seeing how the two Dravidian parties have waged “welfare wars” on women, critics have often concluded that these are examples of ‘patronage politics’ that have exploited women’s economic and social vulnerability.

The concept of ‘patronage politics’ has come very handy to dismiss DMK’s effective social policies and programme in the state. Popular memory is indeed short on the long history of social actions promoted by DMK and Karunanidhi outside the legislature, which culminated in the introduction and implementation of  welfare programmes for women and the other marginalised groups. The diamond jubilee celebration is an important occasion for us to remember and recognise the range of political practices adopted by Kalaignar in creating political intimacy with the masses (he addressed them as ‘Udan Pirappe’, blood brethren) mainly through his powerful speeches and writings.

These were not just populist rhetoric or gimmicks to woo the Tamil masses to vote for him and his party. These were powerful calls for collective welfare which further resulted in social development. ‘Solavathai Seivom, Seivathai Solvom’ (we implement what we utter and we say what is done) was not just about delivering public goods and services, but also about shared ethical obligations of the party, people and leaders who have to work for the common good of the Tamils. Karunanidhi’s glorification of Tamil culture and identity through his writings, speeches and films were therefore integral to the economic development of the state.

His call for Tamil solidarity and economic sovereignty of the Tamil state were not two separate schemes or strategies to just win elections. They worked together to build up a bottom-up support for his policies.

Recognising and learning Kalaignar’s art of combining the passion for Tamil and the promotion of social justice and economic services is one way of honouring this remarkable politician, who worked tirelessly for his party and turned it into an iron fort which is unlikely to be destroyed by the BJP, which of late has been scribbling on the walls of Chennai calling for the destruction of Kazhagam politics. 

S. Anandhi is a historian and women’s studies scholar.

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