People's Welfare Front in Tamil Nadu Politics: A Critical View

Shreela Manohar May 8, 2016

Photo from the campaign trail of the PWF.
Courtesy: dtNEXT


Of the year that has passed, a pair of unmistakable turn of events must have made Tamil Nadu stand out in the overall scheme of things, events which saw mass outpourings each of a very different kind. The chronological first of the two, which was the anti-TASMAC popular movement (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation or TASMAC is the state monopoly in alcohol retail) had led to a definitive convergence of political forces that will be the subject of this analysis. It is in the same context that the second of the events, the November/December 2015 Chennai - Cuddalore floods, arguably becomes a political time marker whose manifestations remain to be conclusively determined. The objective human tragedies overlapped so much in both events - imagine TASMAC sales targets standing in literally for flood relief and rehabilitation - that their significance for the upcoming State Assembly elections could be twinned politically as with several other crises of policy.

The Makkal Nala Koottani or People's Welfare Front that emerged officially 3 months back from the united agitations of 4 major political parties, has since been swelling in status as an electoral 'alternative'. The structural compulsions of first-past-the-post arithmetic have predictably motivated the People's Welfare Front to tread the image trap in electoral adventures. Linking up with the DMDK and the subsequent chief ministerial candidature are unsettling blind spots in political will. Such merits of party-specific historical contributions apart, the sum total cohesion of 4 of the constituent parties (MDMK, VCK, CPI and CPI(M)) in contemporary joint movements for liquor control, on farmers' issues, on the Kauvery River dispute and for the social justice agenda, have been much discussed aspects. This along with the emphatically iterated anti - corruption, pro-transparency priorities of the PWF's common minimum program, continues to in fact be the only discussed aspects guiding the electorate.The incompleteness of these discussions are for instance illustrated by how other non-electoral centrist organisations dedicated to abolishing corruption are winning the Lokayukta Bill prototyping race. The discounting of certain articulations is also stark, for instance with regard to anti-feudal feminist critique while rightly seeking to democratise and inclusivise the socio-economics of Jallikattu 'culture'. Such gaps are what I will attempt to explore.

As a student myself, I immensely appreciate the support extended by the PWF for campus democratic exercises in service of the entire campus community, vis a vis ensuring student council elections coupled with truly spirited equal opportunity and affirmative rights for disabled people, minorities and gender non-conforming individuals. In an atmosphere of relative openness to the far seeing ideals of All India Forum for Right to Education, Samacheer Kalvi and other platforms, I further look forward to the incorporation of the most 'radical' components of the ongoing student struggles that have bristled up the state's oppressive academic sphere.

Writing at a moment when Tamil Nadu has once again been jolted by a caste-fanatical execution in broad daylight witnessed by tens of bystanders, it is impossible to sidestep the demand for enactment of a special law to prevent "honour killings" and to protect couples in anti-caste relationships. This demand whose collective visibility peaks and eventually mellows after every such gruesome atrocity, seems to face the same trend in being a critical element of the PWF's program. It also appears inconsistent and misplaced that tremendous support for the Central amendment to the Prevention of Atrocities Act has somehow only translated into resurrecting a very narrow definition of manual scavenging in the PWF's manifesto, complicated by simplistic proposals to "employ conservancy workers in numbers proportionate to urban density". Read in tandem with the reports of manual scavenging related deaths and the struggles that these institutional casteist murders spurn every few weeks, the PWF's programmatic text is surprisingly inadequate. Sacralising talk of the "village economy" that is laminated weakly with modern agriculture and food processing based productivity will hopefully not be an inadvertent co-optation of feudal structures that are after all fit to be jettisoned. Similarly, crucial reforms that can actually disadvantage Capital and prop up labour, stand the risk of being overshadowed by what appears at best ambiguous and at worst regressive. Amendments including those for mandatory recognition of trade unions, committed crackdown on the Sumangali scheme enslaving girls in textile mills, shielding wage labourers and "self-employed" workers from being criminalised, enforcement of 8 hour workdays in hi-tech sectors including IT, and a vision for decentralised progressive industrialisation indeed inspire confidence. A clear endorsement of the (historically unfulfilled) implementation of rural and urban land ceiling reforms, of Panchami land notifications and of the Central Forest Rights Act, fortifies industrial labour reforms with a social justice base of posing a direct challenge to Brahminical hegemony in all its current morphisms. Complemented by measures against forced displacement and migration pressures, the Front positions itself to uphold social democratic principles of redistributing means of production to tenant cultivators, landless labourers, the dispossessed and previously enslaved. The stated intent of contending with the Center for an Urban Employment Guarantee scheme is even novelly promising. However, internally conflicting promises on acquisition of land for industrial/infrastructural purposes that on one hand aspire to wholly end such acquisition while on the other hand negotiating the land owners' and dependent workers' rights beyond one-time compensation, fail to project any distinction between long term and interim goals. Small and medium scale industries that are the largest employers and hence already form the targeted beneficiaries of the NDA labour-reform model, take precedence over labour in the PWF's assurances. Any gesture of revisiting the Special Economic Zones Act to enable the labouring majority, without a concrete extension of policy from the 2014 Nokia fiasco of Capital flight, and without a studied prognosis of the deep slump in IT recruitment, cannot be enlivening with regard to the "job market". It is more than mildly frustrating that the "Stand Up India, Start-up India" smokescreen should have covertly found replication in the "self-actuated entrepreneurial business promotion" schemes of the PWF. This disappointment has carried over in real terms to the practically absent labour upsurge in Tamil Nadu during last year's All India General Strike and most recently for the All India Day of Protest against BJP led neoliberalism.

Cadres of the PWF staging a demonstration in Dindigul. Photo by G. Karthikeyan. Courtesy: The Hindu

The lack of social mobilisation mentioned above was previously the source of another major setback - PWF leaders' engagement in flood relief work that was so well received, curiously did not materialise into Front led rallies expressing popular discontent and rage. In that context, proposals to reassess urban sprawl issues including solid waste management, to develop inland waterways transport or to restrict land use change under a broadened prohibition on encroachments and asset capitalisation, sound detached from mass democratic processes. As evident in the conflict between shutting down persistent big polluters while boosting textile parks in the same region, a willingness to cede law making powers to bodies like the TNPCB still doesn't speak to the resolution of inherent contradictions between pollution, industrial growth and employment. This despite the level of grassroots engagement that the environment-focused section of the manifesto holds forth- including resisting Tamil Nadu's conversion into a prime site for global hazardous/e-waste dumping. In the same breath, even if for the noblest of purposes, ecologically shallow claims of "preventing fresh water from irrecoverably draining into the sea", would need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Budgeting aims for social housing in line with hard won global best practices of welfare States, do not explain the reversal of approach to highly criticised outsourcing-ready projects like multi-city expansion of Metrol Rail services. Where social security demands such as subsidised transport services have rubbed off on the incumbent government's pre-election announcements, conversely, establishment project fetishes seem to be ailing the alternative political camps. Perhaps, ceaselessly ridiculed "Smart Cities" that will soon be embracing their chosen ones, don't get any rapping from the PWF for the same reasons. Likewise, banning foreign direct investment in retail, farming and education in addition to vocal denouncement of WTO-GATS style agreements, may not compensate for a fundamentally loan and insurance driven status-quo. Thus, enforcing Tamil Nadu G.O 92 that guarantees full scholarships to SC/ST students, securing agricultural subsidies in farming inputs and State purchase of agricultural produce, or de-privatisation of health care with compulsory rural service at the helm of affairs, could all get reduced to an eclectic use of ink on paper.

Meeting expectations on questions of increasing state autonomy, of federal sharing of power in key services and State functions, of education in the mother tongue and explosively contested linguistic democracy in Court proceedings, the PWF transcends toward explicit duties of sensitising all arms of State machinery to gender, caste and communal discrimination. This facet of much needed anti-fascist consolidation (that on one occasion in Coimbatore in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula's suicide, very nearly upset Narendra Modi and Bandaru Dattatreya's visit) will serve extraordinarily well the cause of a mass oriented resistance to the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan package.

As evident in the conflict between shutting down persistent big polluters while boosting textile parks in the same region, a willingness to cede law making powers to bodies like the TNPCB still doesn't speak to the resolution of inherent contradictions between pollution, industrial growth and employment. This despite the level of grassroots engagement that the environment-focused section of the manifesto holds forth- including resisting Tamil Nadu's conversion into a prime site for global hazardous/e-waste dumping.

As a student myself, I immensely appreciate the support extended by the PWF for campus democratic exercises in service of the entire campus community, vis a vis ensuring student council elections coupled with truly spirited equal opportunity and affirmative rights for disabled people, minorities and gender non-conforming individuals. In an atmosphere of relative openness to the far seeing ideals of All India Forum for Right to Education, Samacheer Kalvi and other platforms, I further look forward to the incorporation of the most 'radical' components of the ongoing student struggles that have bristled up the state's oppressive academic sphere.

Notable omissions with regard to migrant Tamil wood-cutters massacred frequently in Andhra and on the fiery issue of the 7 prisoners on death row, does leave one with questions. If a validated though half-hearted consensus can be arrived at by PWF members on the issue of the genocidal occupation against Eelam Tamils, then it becomes harder to validate the careful silence on the ongoing Kudankulam struggle and on overall nuclear policy. Trimming the politico-economic complexities around the agrarian-ecological crisis, sovereign planned management of resource systems or even around anti-TASMAC prohibitionism, into neatly identifiable 'foreign hand', ethno inter-state and criminal cartel politicking respectively, does betray tensions on the ideological plane. Vague aversions to speculative financialisation alone could establish dangerously limiting benchmarks of rationalism; in the same way that any moves devoid of extra-parliamentary mobilisation are bound to deflate.

When a menacing rival like the DMK races to address itself as “a proletarian movement and not a party”, for the People’s Welfare Front the grounds to prove itself as not merely an electoral adversary but as a self-professed steadfast movement, is as fertile, as it is contested. The most honest, diligent contestations unaccustomed to hypocrisy may yet emerge outside of the ballot box.

Essay, Makkal Nala Koottani, People's Welfare Front, Politics, Tamil Nadu Elections, India, Struggles Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

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