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

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The Politics of Dignity and Development

The Tamil Nadu Story

Tamil Nadu has done relatively well, for sure, but whether the state presents a “model” is doubtful. In the wider context of the politics of development, the argument that Tamil Nadu shows that an approach, based in a politics of dignity and focused on status inequality can deliver, by institutionalising “an inclusive populist mobilisation leading to a comparatively egalitarian developmental trajectory” is not proven.


It has been recognised for several years now—thanks, in part, to earlier work by the authors of this important though problematic book—that the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu (TN) has experienced a distinctive trajectory of development, and been more successful than had previously been widely ackno­wledged. The neighbouring state of Kerala has rightly been lau­ded for its success in regard to human development, while much has been made of the success of Gujarat in achieving high rates of economic growth—though the “Gujarat model” associated with the chief ministership in the state of Narendra Modi has also been subject to robust criticism (Ghatak and Roy 2014). Only relatively recently has it been recognised that TN has succeeded in combining a performance in regard to aspects of human development—particularly healthcare and the provision of welfare through the public distribution system—that compares quite well with that of Kerala, with a record of economic growth that compares with Gujarat. This is amply documented by Kalaiyarasan A and M Vijayabaskar, and the central aim of their book is to establish how the welfare interventions of succe­ssive governments of TN, driven by a concern to address social status-based inequalities, “are linked to the emerging processes of accumulation and growth” (Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar 2021: 13). The originality of their analysis, by comparison with other accounts of the political economy of the state—though how convincing it is may be a matter for debate—lies in an argument about how the interaction of the domains of social welfare policies and of economic incentive structures has shaped the development trajectory of the state. Their thesis is, “it is the distinctive way that power and social justice were conceptualised by populist Dravidian mobilisation in the state that may explain its developmental trajectory” (p 9). Others (including the present writer, in Harriss 2003) have emphasised the connection bet­ween the competitive populism of the two Dravidian political parties—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—that have alternated in power in the state since 1967, with their shared history in the Self-respect Movement of the 1930s, and the state’s relative success in regard to human dev­elopment. The two authors set out to show that the left populism of the Dravidian movement has also driven successful and, they argue, relatively inclusive economic growth.

So, what is “the Dravidian Model”? It is an approach to development driven by a quest for social justice, to be achieved by overcoming social status inequality, in this case the inequalities based on the caste hierarchy. The approach has emp­hasised the importance of affirmative action for those who have historically been subordinated by the upper castes, so as to improve their access to education and to “modern” jobs in administration and the public sphere more generally. It has emphasised, as well—and it is here that Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabaskar challenge earlier accounts of the TN ­story (as, for example, by Harriss and Wyatt 2019)—the achievement of inclusive economic growth, so as to generate many more of the kinds of jobs, which rel­ease those who have been shackled by caste-based inequality in rural society. The Dravidian Model has entailed support for education and the health and welfare of those who have been subjected to status subordination, a “productivist ethos,” and support for capital accumulation, so as to realise the structural transformation of the economy. Concern about land reform has not been seen as being of central importance assigned to it by the left movement, because the aim has been, effectively, to get Tamilians from the subordinated castes out of the villages and into “modern” jobs (bypassing the agrarian question, therefore, see Bernstein 1996). Strong support has been given, however, to the development of small and medium non-agricultural enter­prises owned by the members of the lower castes, and so to the “democratisation” of capital ownership.

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Updated On : 24th Apr, 2022
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