The 2021 Tamil Nadu state election results did not surprise many, with the expected victory of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and partners.
In this article, we look at the representational outcome of this election, and place data on variables such as caste, gender, religion and other socio-demographic variables into a historical and geographical perspective. This exercise helps us identify some of the deep long-term trends that make Tamil Nadu so specific and yet, not entirely different from the rest of the country.
This article was made possible by the contributions of many students, researchers and field data collectors who worked hard in a very difficult time.
The enduring domination of backward castes
The Tamil Nadu State Assembly has been completely dominated by Other Backward Classes ever since the Dravidian parties started winning elections. In five decades, the overall share of OBCs in the assembly hasn’t changed much, at an average of 72% of all seats. Their share decreased a little bit from the early 2000s, when other groups, such as the Naidus, gained a bit of representation, mostly in cities like Chennai, Vellore, Tiruvallur or Viridhunagar. But otherwise, there is an overall domination of OBCs, who also make for 76.1% of the total population.
Obviously, Other Backward Classes is way too aggregative a category to be useful for this analysis. What we do here is grouping the data we have collected about major parties’ candidates’ jati into broad categories of OBCs, such as Thevars, Gounders, Mudaliyars, Vanniyars, etc.
It is understood that each of these group is divided into many sub-groups. But to make this exercise readable, we have clubbed jatis into the caste categories they are usually associated with, both socially and politically.
This exercise helps see a few distinct trends in the representation of various OBC groups. From 1971 to 2006, Vanniyars held the lion’s share of seats in the Tamil Nadu Vidhan Sabha. Thevars took the lead in 2011, when more than one OBC MLA out of four belonged to that category. Thevars have been on a gradual trajectory of political empowerment through time via political representation. The key to caste empowerment in Tamil Nadu is to find representation across major parties, rather than align behind a particular party.
After a period of decline, Gounders have regained the percentage of seats they used to occupy. Until this year, the Vellalars, an intermediate caste, had been continuously strengthening their presence in the assembly since 1996. In 2021, their representation dips brutally and they are now barely represented.
In 2016, the residual category of ‘Other OBCs’ – a collection of small backward groups – suddenly rose, from 6% to 13% of all OBC seats. They declined again in 2021.
What we thus see is that the backward political landscape in Tamil Nadu is dominated by three major groups – Vanniyars, Thevars and Gounders – and that over the past twenty years, the balance of power between those groups has profoundly altered.
To explore this further, one can compared the representation trajectory of various castes within the DMK and the AIADMK.
Vanniyars and Thevars dominate in the DMK
Of the 372 MLAs elected on a DMK ticket since 2001, 50 belonged to the Vanniyar community, followed by the Thevar (41), the Vellalar (33) and the Gounders (28). The DMK also provides representation to the Naidus (31), an intermediary caste.
Fifty-nine Dalits have also been elected on a DMK ticket, 14 Muslims and only seven upper castes. The rest of the DMK’s MLAs are distributed across a wide range of smaller backward castes.
The AIADMK got 543 MLAs elected since 2001. The largest group represented among them are the Dalits (108), the Thevars (88), the Gounders (83), the Vanniyars (77), the Nadars (22) and the Naidus (18). The rest of the representation is distributed across a large range of groups, including Muslims (8), Vellalars (15), Chettiyars (11), and nine upper castes MLAs, among others.
Thus, the AIADMK through time caters to a larger array of dominant groups than the DMK, and tends to do better in Scheduled Caste seats. The DMK brings SCs in through alliance partners. Both parties, without surprise, cater to dominant groups. They compensate for it by inducting members of other castes through their alliances. Diversity is ultimately outsourced to their junior partners.
A diverse assembly
To go back to the 2021 Assembly, see that no group in particular dominate. Vanniyars, Thevars and Gounders still occupy 43% of all the seats. But the rest of the representation is fairly distributed between groups.
If we compare the two alliances, we see some variations. Within the AIADMK alliance, the five PMK MLAs all belong to the Vanniyar community. The four BJP MLAs belong to the Gounder (2), Nadar (1) and Thevar (1) communities. Forty-six AIADMK MLAs out of 66 belong to three groups (SCs, Gounders and Thevars). The AIADMK only count eight Vanniyar legislators.
The DMK present a much more diverse face. Its MLAs belong to 37 different castes and communities altogether, against 18 for the AIADMK. The three major OBC groups (Vanniyar, Gounder and Thevar) make 48 of its 133 legislators. The profile of Congress MLAs is also quite diverse, with 14 castes and communities represented out of 18 MLAs. The case of Communist parties and the VCK is also similar. They field a diverse set of candidates and do not cater to a single caste group.
A comparison of nomination data shows similar characteristics. The fact that three groups occupy most of the AIADMK seats in the assembly does not seem to come from the fact that these candidates performed better than others. They were already over-represented among the candidates to begin with.
Finally, the geography of castes shows that OBCs dominate across sub-regions. Alongside reserved seats, every other group that gets representation tends to be scattered on the map, sometime in small clusters.
Vanniyars dominate in the Salem and Dharmapuri districts as well as in the Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. They also won seats in the Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts. Gounders are clustered in the Western region, in and around Erode, Coimbatore, Krishnagiri, Tiruppur districts, and the Nilgiris. Thevars are more present across the Central and Southern regions, in Thanjavur district, around Madurai, Dindigul, Virudhunagar, and Tirunelveli districts. The Mudaliyars are concentrated in the Northern Region, which includes Chennai.
If we compare the 2021 caste geography of Tamil Nadu with 2016, we see that both map are quite similar, confirming that these clusters do correspond to not just party but also caste clusters.
As we have seen in other states, such as Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka, the social geography of state politics remains quite stable. The reason why dominant OBC groups remain so dominant is not only because they are geographically concentrated, but also because they are not really competing against one another.
Parties have adapted themselves to the social geography of the state, by maintaining a near proportional representation of all communities across castes and religions. The fact that they increase diversity through alliances with small parties, and notably Dalit parties, consolidates their hold over politics. The stability of caste representation pattern enables them to talk about something else, such as an encompassing Tamil or Dravidian identity.
Therefore, Dravidian politics does two things. First, it does not bypass caste fully. It reposes on the stability of patterns of local dominance, like in other states in India. And second, at the same time, it also contains the perpetuation of caste pride through a strong anti-caste (i.e. anti-upper castes) repertoire, unlike in the Hindi belt for instance.
The near proportional representation castes get within parties and therefore in the assembly enables a political discourse based recognition of identities, redistribution and representation of all communities across castes and religion. It is worth noting that except E Palaniswami and O Paneerselvam, who was a short-term substitute to Jayalalithaa when she was in prison, none of the chief ministers of Tamil Nadu belonged to a numerically dominant caste since 1967. M Karunanidhi, for instance, came from a low-end caste.
A declining participation of women in electoral politics
Caste inclusion in Tamil Nadu unfortunately does not extend to women. In 2021, the representation of women is the lowest it has been in twenty years, and one of the lowest ratio of women MLAs (5%) in the country at the moment.
Women representation in Tamil Nadu has not followed a linear progression, like in most states. Over time, the few women elected in the assembly have come and gone. Women representation peaked at 14% in 1991, with Jayalalithaa’s first term. Thirty-two women were then elected, 27 on an AIADMK ticket (out of 27 women candidates). At that time, having a woman at the helm made all the difference. In 1989, the AIADMK nominated only two women candidates. When Jayalalithaa took over, she distributed 27 tickets to women candidates.
But she did not sustain women inclusion afterwards. After a dip in 1996, when the DMK gained power, women representation has been on a downward trend. This year, there are only 12 women elected. Six on a DMK ticket, three on a AIADMK ticket, two on a BJP ticket and one affiliated to Congress. This is the lowest representation of women in Tamil Nadu since 1996, and one of the lowest rate in the country.
A comparison of party-wise nominations shows that the AIADMK in fact does better than its opponents in two elections, 1991 and 2001. Otherwise, it is ahead of its competitors but not by much. Between 2001 and 2011, women nominations in the AIADMK were cut by half.
The Congress follows the same trend as the AIADMK, though possibly for different reasons. As long as it remains a strong player in the state, women nominations slowly increase. But once the Congress is reduced to a minor coalition partner, the ratio of women candidates decreases brutally. The fewer seats that they have are meant to be shared by the men in the party.
Finally, the DMK does significantly worse than everyone else, even though the average number of candidates after 2001 goes from six (before 2001) to 13. These remain extremely low numbers.
This year, A Raja of the DMK tried to explain – quite unconvincingly so – that the DMK was determined to give at least 40 tickets to women candidates, but that alliance party compulsions came in the way of that lofty objective. The lesson being, if you bring a partner in, push the women aside to make space so that no men get sidelined.
In terms of representation, we see that of the 162 women elected in Tamil Nadu, 95 have been elected on an AIADMK ticket (75%), 29 on a DMK ticket (18%), 20 on a Congress ticket (12%) and the 20 remaining on various party tickets (11%). We then see that other parties do not fare better and that major parties remain the best bet for women who aspire to become MLAs.
In 2021, the AIADMK alliance did better than the DMK alliance, with 9% of women candidates against 5.6%. The ratio among elected candidates is also favourable to the AIADMK, but remains at the very low level.
But overall, the picture is quite grim, as the following chart shows. Some small parties do comparatively better. But they nominate very few candidates so higher percentages do not, in fact, amount to more than a handful of women candidates.
In 2019, one party, the NTK, gave 50% of its tickets to women candidates. It did it again in 2021, although none of them got elected.
Two out of four MLAs of the BJP are women. In Modakuruchi, the BJP candidate Saraswathi defeated a complacent DMK deputy general secretary Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan. On the other hand, the BJP’s state president, L Murugan, lost to DMK’s Kayalvizhi Selvaraj, a first-time contesting woman candidate, in the Dharampuram constituency, a seat where PM Modi came and held a massive rally.
Women are however barely visible on the map. Four of them were elected in the western Region, three in the northern Region, and only one is each eastern and southern regions.
A feeble Muslim presence
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims make up 5.9% of the population in Tamil Nadu. They make more than 20% of the electorate in a handful of seats, including Ramanathapuram, Gudalur (in the Nilgiris), Vellore, Arantangi, or Kadayanallur. It is not surprising then to find that they always have had a low representation in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly. Through time, their share of the seats have oscillated between three and four percent. It came down to two percent in the 2000 and increased again by two percent under the last AIADMK regime.
There has never been more than five percent of Muslim MLAs in Tamil Nadu, even though many Muslim candidates contest in every election.
The following chart shows that the bulk of Muslim candidates run as independent or on small party tickets, which do not lead to representation. They find more space in the DMK than in the AIADMK. The DMK also has an alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League, which goes on since the 1950s.
The Congress used to give a few tickets to Muslim candidates in the past and occasionally distribute one in recent elections. In 2006, the DMDK gave nine tickets to Muslim candidates (out of 232). None of them won.
The AIADMK’s formation in the 1970s and the weakening of the IUML saw the DMK and AIADMK both build Muslim cadres and file candidates. It is worth noting also that both Dravidian parties have been at some point an ally of the BJP, which explains why Hindutva politics sometimes erupts in Tamil Nadu even though the BJP as a party remains irrelevant there. Jayalalithaa in particular provided support to kar sevaks for the Ayodhya movement. She supported legislation banning conversions and cow slaughter.
A quick look at the map seems to indicate that Muslim legislators do not necessarily get elected where Muslims make a large share of the electorate. This could be linked to inclusion in party organisations as a prelude to nomination, as often happens in Tamil Nadu.
The high turnover of Tamil Nadu’s political class
Do the two Dravidian parties cultivate their elected representatives or do they organise a high turnover of MLAs, as we see in many other states in India? Data on individual incumbency coded by Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows that over time, only a minority of sitting MLAs get to re-run for a consecutive term. In 2021, only 113 sitting MLAs re-contested to keep their seat. Slightly more than half of them (62) succeeded to retain their seat.
The combination of a low re-running ratio and a low incumbent strike rate means that the political class in Tamil Nadu keeps renewing itself. Most politicians do not make long careers, in fact not longer than a single term.
In 2021, 63% of the newly elected MLAs have been elected for the first time, which is consistent with previous election’s ratio. In 2001, 77.4% of all MLAs were elected for the first time.
As a consequence, one finds very little cumulative experience in the State Assembly. Of 234 MLAs, only 46 legislators have been elected more than twice. The veteran is Duraimurugan, the 10-time DMK MLA from Katpadi. He won his first term in 1971. The AIADMK veteran in the Assembly is KA Sengottaiyan, who has been re-elected in Gobichettipalayam for the ninth time.
The low strike rate of re-running incumbents can be explained by the strong variations in party performance from one election to the other. But why do we see such a high party-induced turnover?
One explanation is that both the DMK and the AIADMK are cadre-based parties with an extensive local organisation. This means that they have a lot of members who need or wish to be promoted with a party position or a candidature, to keep their morale – and that of their supporters – up.
As a result, Tamil Nadu has a small stable or professional political class – people elected more than twice in the current assembly. The larger number belongs to the DMK, by virtue of having won more seats but also from a practice of cultivation of local stalwarts. When times are hard, they tend to retain their seats.
Both parties in fact count a chunk of senior leaders, who retain their seat across all elections, owing to their popularity and their role in mobilising voters. Some of these enduring politicians in the DMK include, I Periyasamy, KN Nehru, and EV Velu. In the AIADMK, SP Velumani, former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and KA Sengottaiyan play the role of party sages.
The following chart shows that most AIADMK first-time contestant did quite poorly, while the success rate of DMK first-timers was much higher. This of course is contingent to overall party performance.
Turncoats don’t matter
Since candidates are recruited mostly from within party organisations, party affiliation is strong. Typically, the AIADMK would give a number of tickets to individuals who spent the past twenty years working for the party at the local or at the district level. In consequence, party affiliation sentiments are strong.
In 2021, the DMK fielded only ten turncoat candidates, including two from the AIADMK. The eight other candidates came from small parties and could even be explained through local arrangements between the DMK and small parties’ leaders, as we saw earlier. The AIADMK fielded only three turncoat candidates and the three of them lost (including the former DMK candidate).
Figures from 2016 show that this year was no different than five years ago. Voters’ loyalty in Tamil Nadu usually lies more with the party symbol and leaders than with their candidates. Therefore, for a turncoat to succeed, he or she must be extremely popular and capable to retain their party’s local organisation, which is rare.
Selecting MLAs in their prime
Given the mode of recruitment of parties, an outcome of a cadre based party system and a streamlined career path for experienced party members, one does not find many youthful legislators. Only 43 of the recently elected MLAs are below 45. The bulk of candidates are recruited in their prime, between 50 to 60 years old.
The elevation to candidature is always backed by a combination of work done for the party, proven public service, and time served in the party. This does not leave a lot of space for green candidates. The few instances of parachuting of younglings in a district or constituency usually backfires, as the local cadre is likely to revolt. For these reasons, the age profile of both AIADMK and DMK does not differ much.
A diversly educated assembly
Three-fourths of the 2021 MLAs are highly educated, holding a graduate degree or above. However, the number of MLAs with low qualifications is also significant, across parties. Coupled with the subaltern social profiles of MLAs, this is indicative of a political culture, or ethos, that foregrounds socio-economic and educational mobility, and also reward grassroot social and political work. Since its first election, the DMK has followed the practice of mentioning the educational qualifications of their candidates, after their names.
Here again, the differences between the two parties are not very significant. The AIADMK has a higher proportion of graduates amongst its MLAs. The DMK has a higher share of post-graduates. Both of them have 22-23% of their MLAs with low qualitifications.
What do we learn from this exercise? We learn first that Dravidian politics remains deeply grounded in representation of all communities across castes and religions. A few dominant groups have sustained their dominance in state politics through their ability to find representation across major parties. From these parties’ point of view, local demographics still dictate in large part candidates nominations.
This does not prevent Tamil Nadu from having one of India’s most diverse political class, in terms of caste representation. Moreover, the game of alliances with both Dravidian parties create many opportunities for small groups to acquire representation.
However, we see that the inclusive mindset of parties does not extend to women, who barely get represented. The data on women nomination and representation shows that pro-women governance does not necessarily translate into political empowerment through representation. The DMK bears a historic responsibility as one of India’s most male-dominated parties, but the AIADMK has not performed well either recently, and is also responsible for the decline of women representation.
These variables and the dynamics that sustain their interaction make for a quite unique political stage in India, self-contained, coherent, shaped by a particular history and sustained by a robust competitive party system. If anything, and despite its weaknesses and limitations, the Tamil model shows the virtue of having a strong opposition. Parties in power are on their toes, under greater compulsion to deliver and provide service to their constituents and to the people at large. Something many other parts of the country should aspire to.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, Co-Director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London.
Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal are Research Engineers at TCPD.
Ayaan Sagar, Jenish Raj Bajracharya, Mayank Sharma, Niharika Mehrotra, Paravi Sapra, Prashasti Agarwal, Priavi Joshi, Pulari M. Baskar, Rashmi Guha Ray, Shreya, and Shreyashree Nayak have contributed to the data, with the TCPD team.
We also thank all our state level contacts for their valuable time and Shoaib Rashid Mirza for all his assistance with the coordination.