Tamil Nadu has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It has its own unique identity and cultural history quite separate from that of the rest of India. The Tamil language has a recorded history spanning over two millenia, and belongs to the Dravidian language group whose characteristics are quite distinct from those of the Indo-European Sanskrit-descended languages spoken by North Indians. The Dravidian people also have their own classical music (karnatak sangeet) and classical dance tradition (bharatnatyam). In the same way, politics in Tamil Nadu has its own unique and (to an outsider like me) bewildering history, resulting in regional Tamil parties having held power in the state since 1967. Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars promises to describe and explain the world of Tamil politics, including the stories of its larger-than-life leaders.

The story of modern Tamil politics starts in 1879 with the birth of E. V. Ramaswami Naicker. EVR, better known as Periyar, vowed to overturn the dominance of the brahmins, who despite forming only 3% of the population had come to dominate "government, educational institutions, law courts and the media" (p2). In 1919 he joined the brahmin-dominated Indian National Congress - but he soon left, convinced they could not deliver social justice. The story goes that he discovered a school partly funded by donations to Congress had separate dining areas for brahmins and non-brahmins, and that the brahmins received better quality food. Despite bringing this to the attention of senior and liberal-minded Congress leaders, nothing was done. This practice still persists today. For example in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country's most prestigious teaching hospital and a hotbed of protest against the recent law providing for reservations in higher education, "Dalit [untouchable] students cannot live in savarna (upper-caste)-dominated hostels or eat at the same table" (Frontline, December 29, 2006, p104).

Periyar formed his own Self-Respect Movement in 1925 and joined the Justice Party. He was elected leader of the party in 1939, and in 1944 changed its name to the Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Party). What differentiated this movement from other anti-caste movements was Periyar's avowed and outspoken athiesm. Quite literally an iconoclast, Periyar went about the streets breaking clay images of Hindu gods and advocating a total boycott of brahmin-provided goods and services. He also spoke out against Hindi, which in the 1930s was made a compulsory subject in provincial schools by the Congress government. Periyar saw the imposition of Hindi as symbolic of North Indian (and hence brahminical) cultural dominance, and agitations against Hindi caught the popular imagination. In 1939 the local Congress government quit and Periyar's Justice Party was offered power. He turned it down, believing that political power would not further his goals. In 1949 the central government made Hindi the sole official language, in which all government business was to be conducted. However aware of the effect this would have in the South, Nehru added a provision for English to be used in addition to Hindi for a transition period of 15 years. This period was due to lapse on 26 January 1965 - Republic Day.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political party which broke away from the Dravida Kazhagam in 1949, was at the centre of the anti-Hindi protests. They proposed to celebrate Republic Day, 1965 as 'Mourning Day'. All hell broke loose on the 26 January - but the most terrible incident of all was the self-immolation of 34-year old V Ranganathan, an activist and father of three, who died in a ball of flame crying 'long live Tamil'. Although the protests led to a government U-turn (English is used in parallel to Hindi to this day as the language of administration of the central government), it was too late for the Congress Party. In the 1967 state elections, they lost power for the first time since independence. Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu. The DMK and its offshoot, the AIADMK, have been in power there ever since.

For the next twenty years, two personalities were to dominate Tamil politics: Karunanidhi and MGR. Karunanidhi had originally been a follower of Periyar, and helped C. N. Annadurai set up the DMK. When Annadurai died in 1969, two years after he became Chief Minister, Karunanidhi became the leader of the DMK. M. G. Ramachandran (MGR), a film actor who had joined the DMK in 1953, became its treasurer. However MGR was more popular than Karunanidhi due to his fame as a film star, and Karunanidhi began to undermine his position. MGR was expelled from the DMK in 1972, and formed his own party - the AIADMK. After Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975, MGR pushed for the DMK to be dismissed on corruption charges. Gandhi obliged, the AIADMK was returned to power in state elections in 1977, and Karunanidhi and his DMK were not to regain power until after MGR's death in 1987.

Following the death of MGR, which sparked a month of unrest and looting across Tamil Nadu, a brief power struggle ensued for the leadership of the AIADMK between MGR's wife and Jayalalithaa, a brahmin from Karnataka who had played the heroine in many films opposite MGR. Jayalalithaa won. Since 1987 the Chief Ministership of Tamil Nadu has been held either by her or by Karunanidhi.

Politics in Tamil Nadu is a paradox. On one hand, it is essentially characterised by the cult of personality - Karunanidhi versus Jayalalithaa - and the absence of political debate. The cult of personality is exemplified in the cut-outs of these two politicians which cover the entire state at election times, and to which the title of the book refers. The absence of political debate can be seen clearly in the election campaign of 2006, which was dominated by a fight to see who could bribe the voters of Tamil Nadu more outrageously. Karunanidhi won, with his promise of colour televisions for all households without them and "quality rice" at Rs 2 per kilo. Jayalalithaa is openly religious, and although Karunanidhi professes athiesm, he gets help from some unlikely sources to help pay for his policies. On the other hand, the Justice Party and its descendents, the DMK and AIADMK, have been responsible for some of the most revolutionary policies to come out of modern Indian politics.

Probably the best-known and least controversial of these is the introduction of the mid-day meal scheme. Although a limited version was introduced by the Congress Chief Minister K. Kamaraj in what was then Madras Province in 1960, it was universalised by MGR in 1982 such that all primary school children in government schools would receive free mid-day meals. In 2001 the Supreme Court directed that all states provide free mid-day meals to all school children. You can follow the progress of the scheme here.

However the most far-reaching are the policies on reservation. Although reservations are new to North India and have been the subject of a great deal of controversy recently (on which the best discussion I have seen is this article in the Newindpress by Yogendra Yadav), they have been in place for nearly a century in South India. Following its victory in elections in 1921, the Justice Party introduced reservations for government jobs based on community. These reservations had been proposed in 1854 by the British government but never implemented. The law stated that "44 per cent jobs were reserved for non-Brahmins, 16 per cent for Brahmins, 16 per cent for Muslims, 16 per cent for Anglo-Indians and Christians and eight per cent for the Scheduled Castes" (dalits, or untouchables). Schools were required to admit students from scheduled castes or face having their funding cut; doctors were no longer required to know Sanskrit. In modern Tamil Nadu, reservations for government jobs are allocated as follows: open competition, 31 per cent; backward classes, 30 per cent; most backward classes/denotified tribes, 20 per cent; scheduled castes, 18 per cent; scheduled tribes, one per cent.

Reservations have certainly led to more representation and power for members of the lower castes, notwithstanding the problem of the "creamy layer" (in fact, MGR tried to address the "creamy layer" issue in 1979 by announcing that only those earning under Rs 9000 would be eligible for quotas, but his party was thrown out in the next elections and he recanted - p190). Furthermore, they have not had a noticeably adverse effect on the economic growth of Tamil Nadu, nor of any of the other states that implemented them subsequently such as Karnataka and Maharashtra. Quite the opposite in fact. However, they have had little effect on the lot of the most backward communities in India: the scheduled castes (SCs, or untouchables) and scheduled tribes (STs, or tribals).

The last part of the book provides an interesting discussion of the status of SCs, who - despite Periyar's vision of a casteless society - are still discriminated against. For example "in most Tamil villages it is still common to see the 'two glass' system in roadside teashops and restaurants, where the Dalits are served tea in separate glasses. A few years ago in Salem, an eight-year-old girl, Danam, lost her vision because her teacher beat her black and blue after she dared to drink water from the tumbler meant for upper-caste students. In another instance, the municipal president and five of his supporters at Melavalavu were killed in broad daylight because he had dared to stand for the municipal elections, defying the orders of the upper-caste men" (p198). The Respect Party and its descendents, which represented the OBCs, have not provided any uplift for the SCs. Even in UP, one of India's most "backward" states, the post of Chief Minister has been held by a Dalit woman.

Vaasanthi's style is conversational and engaging. Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars is a real page-turner - no mean feat for a book on politics. She has also marshalled an encyclopaedic array of references to back up her discussions. Her position as editor of the Tamil edition of India Today has given her access to the people she describes, and the book is worth reading simply for the revealing portraits she paints of controversial figures such as Jayalalithaa. I have only two minor criticisms. Firstly, the story tends to skip back and forth in time and between subjects, which requires the reader to concentrate quite hard to put the story together. A chronology of events would have helped. Secondly, the book assumes a good grasp of Indian politics. A glossary would have helped less informed readers like me. Nevertheless Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars is an excellent guide to Tamil politics from colonial to modern times - probably the best in English - and hence also a great introduction to many of the events that have shaped the politics of India as a whole.