Democratic politics in India at this moment is in a state of depression. At the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party, on a juggernaut, is attempting to colour saffron those spots on India’s map that have so far resisted its onslaught. There is a sense of inevitability to its dominance as it swallows the North East, and threatens to destabilise Kerala. At the state level, there seems to be an emptiness in oppositional politics, which has lost its chutzpah, a nerve that would normally have allowed dissent to play havoc with the regime.

Tamil Nadu politics after Jayalalithaa best exemplifies the emptiness of this battle. In the past three to four decades, politics in this state marked itself out as distinctive. It projected a distinct animosity to the Centre even in the years its dominant parties were part of a coalition ruling from Delhi. There was always a whiff of secession going back to Tamil icon CN Annadurai, who founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1949.

There was a sense of a broader Tamil loyalty, which extended to Sri Lankan Tamils, and which virtually amounted to an anti-Hindi posture. The social movements in Tamil Nadu sustained a deep sense of the search for equality and justice, evoking the legendary presence of the social reformer Periyar.

The dream of politics was translated through film, and the reciprocity of film and politics, which set the stage for similar structures in Kerala and Karnataka. Connecting all this was an anti-Delhi feeling which gave a distinctive edge to Tamil Nadu politics. J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi shared this opposition almost genetically.

Jayalalithaa used her cunning and skill to play the federal money strings with success. Her death in December dented the creativity of Tamil politics. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which she wrested control of in the late eighties after the death of its founder and her mentor MG Ramachandran, was lost. It was caught between creating a division of labour between Jayalalithaa as myth and her aide VK Sasikala as dross. But in creating the myth of Jayalalithaa, the party has lost a bit of its magic and its desperate attempt to claim power has even made it vulnerable to the BJP, ever on the lookout for a Trojan horse to appropriate Tamil Nadu politics.

With Karunanidhi, at 93, ageing, his son Stalin desperate, and the AIADMK growing politically mediocre, BJP president Amit Shah must be getting ready to invade Tamil Nadu, piously feeling like Ram invading Sri Lanka.

Politics of survival

As Tamil Nadu falls back on anti-Centre politics as a desperate last measure, one senses the absence of a creative style. Yet the anti-Delhi feeling is more clearly articulated among voters in this southern state than in the acts of their politicians. What we see being enacted now is the politics of survival rather than the creative ideological battles of an earlier era.

Sadly we do not sense the trademark Tamil Nadu style, which tried to show the rest of India that it was different both in film and politics. This double language was distinctive because it was hybridised and reciprocal. We sensed it in the scripts of Annadurai and Karunanidhi, we felt it in the political style of Jayalalithaa and MG Ramachandran.

As larger than life performances, these politicians kept Delhi at bay and gave Chennai its distinctive style. Not even Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav could match the unique populism of Jayalalithaa or the dole models of welfare she created. Sadly this script has become empty, the logic desiccated.

Today, as we watch the decline of Tamil Nadu politics, what haunts us is the emptiness of script. The old shrewdness of electoral politics, the creativity of a linguistic and regional politics that made this state so distinctive, is missing.

Film stars as aspiring politicians

We sense this in the current moment where two film stars, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan promise to be political contenders. For once, we see film as separate from politics. Worse, we see Rajinikanth nibbling at the BJP pie, even considering outside support. It almost gives us a sense that while Rajinikanth does social work, he is not quite political. He is attracted by the drama of power, even its sense of authenticity and responsibility but his grasp of politics seems to remain uncertain.

MG Ramachandran dominated Tamil Nadu through charisma and ideology. Rajinikanth has oodles of charisma but his sense of ideology, his idea of everyday politics is not clear. He sits like a film star waiting to approve a script because he lacks one of his own. It might seem as if he wants to become a statesman rather than a politician dirtying his hands in the hurly burly of power. There is no doubt about his magic, his concern, his presence, but his politics, style and strategy seem less clear. It is almost as if he wants to come to power by acclamation like a modern demagogue without the mundane rituals of electoralism.

Rajinikanth, waiting in the wings?

Kamal Haasan sounds more politically promising. He senses the danger of the BJP infiltrating Tamil Nadu and claims to have leftist sympathies. He now looks closer to an Aam Aadmi Party in style, even cavorting with Arvind Kejriwal. Yet what Haasan seems to indicate is not so much a style of politics but a critique of the idea of politics. He wants to reform politics itself rather than society. It is his urgency for a new kind of politics that comes through, yet it is once again a politics of intentionality rather than vision, a need to see politics as an alternative career to film, without combining the two, as the AIADMK and DMK did in the earlier years. What will survive, however, is the role of the fan club playing the substitute cadres of electoral politics. Beyond that there seems little sense of policy and governance.

Opportunity for the BJP?

The emptiness of these two stars, the dullness of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and AIADMK, and the decay of the Congress contrasts with the wellness of the BJP almost sensing that its chance has come.

One hopes the voter in Tamil Nadu will instinctively stop this possibility. But Tamil politics is facing a crisis where the Dalit struggle has to come back to prominence. What we have today is an Other Backward Classes dominance, which is no longer reformist.

The battle Tamil Nadu’s farmers fought over drought showed both the emptiness of the Centre’s stance and the slowness of party politics. Both parties – DMK and AIADMK – played the anti-Centre card but neither offered a political solution to the crisis of agriculture. It is an emptiness which is troubling. It can be temporarily filled by the enthusiasm of civil society crusaders or the rhetoric of extremism but an everyday creativity which Periyar, Annadurai and Karunanidhi brought into politics has to be restored.

Tamil Nadu stands as a bulwark of difference – a claim to a different kind of political being from Delhi. Will it find the creativity to sustain the politics of diversity and equality? Indian democracy desperately needs alternative imaginations, alternative styles. Tamil Nadu has always been one of the states that provided this.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University.