Periyar and Anna: The conflict over electoral politics

If Anna’s path is the walking stick that will ensure we don’t fall down, Periyar’s path is the light that illuminates the road ahead.
Periyar and Anna: The conflict over electoral politics
Periyar and Anna: The conflict over electoral politics
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Periyar and Anna are both important figures in Dravidian politics, and it is essential to understand both their beliefs, and study both their histories, in order to make sense of the politics of today. For a student of Dravidian politics and history, however, a question arises: Why did Anna split from Periyar? It’s important to understand that the underlying reason for the split lies not in ideological differences – but in their approach to disseminating their ideology. The divergence in the approach was not only in the domains of art, literature, and culture, but also in the political domain.

Be it in British India or Independent India, Periyar never trusted electoral democracy. Select instances when Periyar took up election campaigning were driven primarily by the need to avoid a dangerous coalition from taking advantage of the situation on ground, and not because he believed in the transformative aspects of democracy. But Anna truly believed in realising the ideal world he dreamt of, via electoral democracy.

In fact, Anna’s efforts to enter electoral democracy predates his association with Periyar, and his acceptance of Periyar’s leadership. Anna got acquainted to Periyar in the year 1934; he contested the Madras Corporation Elections in 1935, as a Justice Party candidate, at the age of 26, which he lost. It was this electoral debacle that made Anna embed himself in the Self Respect Movement two years later, in 1937, which stayed away from electoral politics. It was only by 1937 that Anna involved himself in he Kudiyarasu magazine, which was run by Periyar.

Periyar, on the other hand, has always been opposed to participating in elections. In 1938, when he assumed the leadership of the Justice Party – which had been participating in elections since 1921 – he steered it away from the electoral path, and converted it into Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944.

It is indeed an irony of historic proportion that such a change in Justice Party was brought about by none other than Arignar Anna. It was the resolutions proposed by Anna in the Salem Conference of 1944 that transformed the Justice Party from a political party to a political movement.

It is unclear whether Anna was harbouring an interest in electoral politics all this while. But, after the transformation of Justice Party into Dravidar Kazhagam, historical events suggest that he indeed has always had an inclination for the electoral path.

In an essay where Anna calls the Day of Independence a Day of Joy, he echoes admiration for electoral democracy. He underlines the fact the prime reason why Muslim League was successful in securing Pakistan was because they contested in elections, and proved that people are indeed supporting their call. Throughout the essay, the tone suggests that Dravidar Kazhagam cannot secure an independent Dravida Nadu without a show of strength via elections.

When he voiced his protest against the Congress in 1948, he once again pointed to the political vacuum in the state. “The rulers are complacent because there is no opposition party… There is no one to shake them out of their slumber in the Legislative Assembly,” he said.

In the historic Erode Conference of 1948, when Kuthoosi Gurusamy spoke in favour of elections, Anna readily countered that idea. But the tone of Anna’s counter did suggest that he didn’t consider electoral victory as unattainable. Observers of history understand that the speech given by Periyar, where he said that Anna should act responsibly on assuming leadership of the DK, is in fact about electoral politics.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was born within a year of the Erode Conference. When it was formed, they said that along the lines of DK, the DMK too would engage in institutional politics over electoral politics. But the words of Periyar at that juncture proved prophetic – within four years of its founding, the DMK chose the electoral path.

The DMK assumed power in Tamil Nadu 18 years after its founding, and as envisioned by Anna, Periyar’s social justice policies started to get transformed into laws. But, as forewarned by Periyar, DMK had to compromise on various policies linked to social justice, due to electoral compulsions.

As of today, it is difficult to form an informed judgement of who is right, amongst these two stalwarts.

In this essay, there indeed lies a danger of trivializing the broad vision and towering personality of Anna as someone who created possibilities and used them to realise his vision of electoral victory. The decision of Anna to select the electoral path was guided by India becoming a Democratic Republic, after securing independence, and now looking back, it was indeed right. Had Anna not chosen the electoral path, Tamil Nadu wouldn’t have proceeded steadfast in the path of social justice. Tamil Nadu might have also had to struggle hard to legislate various social justice policies, which seamlessly became laws after Anna’s victory of 1967.

But then the question arises – is Periyar’s institutional path, which declared the electoral path useless, vestigial? The answer to that is that what Periyar said is also right, as the state of the nation right now proves.

According to Periyar, the government machinery functions on the basis of exploitation. It is always at the service of sections who occupy the higher echelons of caste and class, and it will always protect their interests. Hence, he was of the opinion that a government of this kind would never be able to do good for the sections of society who are socially and economically oppressed.

The truth of this thought can be verified by observing the reality around us. It is because of this that Periyar did not consider elections, and the power secured via elections, as a weapon – as visualised by Anna.

But, at the same time, Periyar was also clear that regressive forces should not be allowed to occupy seats of power, and hence undertook election campaigns. Periyar used elections not as a weapon, but as a shield to prevent regressive forces from becoming powerful.

For the Dravidian stock, Anna’s path is like a walking stick to travel the path ahead without falling down. Periyar’s path, meanwhile, is akin to a lantern, which illuminates not just our footsteps, but also the path that is ten steps ahead.

Puthiya Parithi is a journalist in Tamil Television media. His interests lie in understanding the Dravidian movement. Here, he would like to credit Yazhini PM for translating his Tamil writing to English.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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