In Tamil Nadu, All Politics is Local

By the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies

Political poster of Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Source: CSIS Wadhwani Chair staff photograph, all rights reserved.

When Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa died in December, she was eulogized by then-U.S. ambassador Richard Verma “for her service to Tamil Nadu and as a supporter of closer ties between the United States and India.”

Put that second part down to diplomatic or literary license. Jayalalithaa certainly served Tamil Nadu over her many years of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and government leadership. But, focused as she was on her political base at home, she had little time for or interest in foreign affairs or foreign travels.

As political turmoil dominates the news in Tamil Nadu, that tradition looks likely to continue. Jayalalithaa’s long-time confidante V.K. Sasikala, intent on becoming the next chief minister, is an enigma. Her political and economic views and interests are virtually unknown. She may never have traveled outside India and thus would have no global experience from which to draw. The people she surrounds herself with (known as the “Mannargudi mafia,” after her family’s home town) are similarly focused domestically. And, if and when the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) comes to power, little would change. DMK party head M. Karunanidhi, now 92 years old, and his son and successor M.K. Stalin could not be termed globalists.

Do Tamil Nadu’s leaders need to have an international outlook?

Jayalalithaa was happy to meet U.S. investors–and to attend India’s Global Investor Summit. She famously met with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Madras in 2011, when they were reported to have discussed Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, US visa issues, and the automobile industry. But in her many years in office, she rarely met the U.S. Consuls General posted just down Mount Road from her office.  And, unlike some of her more globally-minded counterparts – Chandrababu Naidu of neighboring Andhra Pradesh and Narendra Modi, when he ran Gujarat – she never traveled to the United States or other global financial centers to promote Tamil Nadu as an investment or tourism destination.

Perhaps Jayalalithaa did not feel she needed to travel to promote Tamil Nadu. The state has always had a reputation for relatively good economic management, a strong civil service cadre, and a high level of education. There is also a tradition of local entrepreneurship which created a font of local expertise and joint venture material on which foreign investors could draw. U.S. and other foreign investment boomed after since she first became chief minister in 1991, and Chennai became the center of India’s auto industry. Only recently, IT firm HCL Technologies announced a $1 billion allocation for investment in the state and Yamaha chose Tamil Nadu to set up its third manufacturing facility in India.

Yet the extent to which Jayalalithaa can take credit for increased foreign investment is debatable. Corporate leaders – and even the Union Power Minister – complained about her inaccessibility. And, disturbingly, the Times of India reported last year that Tamil Nadu ranked last among the 10 largest states in attracting investment over the past two years, despite ambitious claims after the 2015 Global Investors Meeting in Chennai.

It is quite possible that Tamil Nadu’s advantages have developed in spite of the political leadership, rather than because of it. Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, who alternated power for the past 25 years, had a similar approach to governance–concentrate on the base, promise better times ahead, and compete in providing generous giveaways at election time.

That has proved a dependable recipe for political success. Their two personality-based Dravidian parties have dominated the political landscape in Tamil Nadu. Neither of the two national parties has been able to make inroads into the identity politics practiced by the DMK and the AIDMK. In the last national elections in 2014, the BJP took one Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu; Congress took none. Is that likely to change in the post-Jayalalithaa era? Both parties are hopeful they can make inroads but unless the second generation of either party falters badly, expect Dravidian leadership to continue for the next election cycle and beyond. It will be laser-focused on domestic issues.

In fact, this may be just what the state needs. Continued high levels of education and social services will be as much a lure for multi-nationals as a chief minister glad-handing them in New York or at a “Vibrant Tamil Nadu” summit.

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