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Stalin's Religion Reality Check

Last updated on: August 18, 2021 17:26 IST

The Tamil Nadu chief minister may have opened a Pandora's Box on the religion front with the appointment of qualified non-Brahmin temple priests, observes N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin at the ordaining of 58 non-Brahmin priests in Chennai, August 14, 2021. Photograph: Arivalayam/Twitter

Even as he completes 100 days in office, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin has put his government through multiple reality checks, signalling the end of the traditional honeymoon with the voter, for the new ruler.

As political realism dawns, these checkpoints matter the most in electoral terms. At the end, elections, electoral victory and political administration matter to parties and leaders. And for an ideology-driven historic outfit like the Dravidian movement, they have also been the tools for ensuring 'social justice', the heart and soul of their very existence and continued relevance through the past hundred years.

In this, Stalin's challenges come from three specific areas -- fiscal and economic management, political corruption and lawlessness, and 'social justice'. They are all inter-linked up to a point and have a life of their own afterwards.

The Tamil Nadu voter is often criticised as 'living for the day', yes, but he is too matured for others' understanding to know what is personal and what is not.

To him, thus, religion and gods are personal. Thus, even when the late 'Periyar' E V Ramaswamy, the eternal high priest of the Dravidian movement, launched a socio-political campaign against Hindu religious practices, temples and their Brahmin priests, they were unmoved.

They weighed Periyar's self-confessed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam disciple M Karunanidhi, not on his views on religion and Brahminism, but on his kind of political administration and those of his competitors -- breakaway AIADMK chief ministers M G Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa Jayaram.

Just now, Stalin may have opened a Pandora's Box on the religion front, with the appointment of qualified non-Brahmin temple priests, coinciding with the nation's 75th Independence Day. He has since told the state assembly that 'vested interests' through social media posts have tried to destroy his government's agenda on furthering 'social justice' from where his father Karunanidhi had left.

The 'forced removal' of some ageing (Brahmin) priests from their posts to accommodate the newly appointed non-Brahmin priests is the bone of contention. But Stalin pointed out that those replaced were over-serving in their positions, at times more than a decade after superannuation.

They had been employed on 'daily wages' and have now been allocated to smaller temples, as a matter of humanitarian consideration. He also challenged his detractors to prove otherwise, and he was ready to rectify the situation, Stalin told the House.

However, the more important issues on this count lie elsewhere.

One, already some affected priests have moved the Madras high court, which has stayed the operation of the government order.

Two, BJP parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy has announced his decision to co-join the pending petitions, on the side of the affected priests.

Three, and more importantly, with Stalin informing the assembly that five of the 24 non-Brahmin priests are from the Dalit community, it remains to be seen how the non-Brahmin upper castes will view those appointments, if and when Dalit priests are posted to temples in their neighbourhoods.

Periyar's social justice agenda did not penetrate to that level, and the DMK's administrative initiatives, too, have stopped short, in the past.

An additional concern, independent of the priests issue, is the ongoing court case on handing back temple administration to the Hindu community, taken over by the then Madras Presidency government under the British Raj, close to a century ago. One argument is about the non-application of similar laws and rules to places of worship of Christian and Muslim denominations.

Independent of the pending court proceedings, it needs to be pointed out that the temples taken over across the Madras Presidency, comprising parts of present-day Andhra-Telangana, Kerala and Karnataka, had been built by kings. Even the property endowed for the deities for temple maintenance was also done by those kings and their successors.

In a modern-day democratic State structure, elected governments have taken the place of the erstwhile rulers, hence ownership and possession of the temples and their properties should devolve on them.

It is not the case with church and mosque-held properties, though in the case of the latter, there are Wakf Boards under the law, though with much limited powers for the government than in the case of temple administrations.

Whatever it be, god and religion can prove electorally disastrous for the DMK, possibly for the first time ever -- not because of the replacement of Brahmin priests but mainly because of the appointment of Dalit priests.

Otherwise considered god-fearing and religious, Jayalalithaa suffered in elections 2004 to the Lok Sabha after mockingly modifying some of the traditional offerings in rural temples, starting with animal sacrifice, through government orders.

Likewise, both pan-Tamil nationalism attributed to the DMK up to a point and also political corruption are passe for the Tamil voter. He voted against the DMK months after the Karunanidhi government had been dismissed in elections 1991, in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

It was not a vote for or against the LTTE, but against proven perception that the Sri Lankan terror outfit had a free run of Tamil Nadu through his two years in office.

It was thus that the MDMK's Vaiko lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections by a huge margin, that too at the height of the final war in Sri Lanka. Vaiko at the time was the face and voice of the Sri Lankan Tamil community in India, yet the state's voter knew he was voting for a government at the Centre. He gave the Congress-led ruling coalition at the Centre, of which the DMK was a partner in the state, another term. Vaiko had to lose.

It is equally so on the issue of political corruption and lawlessness. In 1996, they voted out the all-powerful Jayalalithaa as chief minister, on issues of political corruption and lawlessness, evidenced in every nook and corner of the state through the previous five years in office.

Jayalalithaa became only the fourth chief minister post-Independence, including MGR's widow Janaki Ramachandran, to lose her own seat.

In previous decades, the ruling Congress first and the DMK under Karunanidhi lost likewise in their time. If MGR could stay on in power for a decade, it owed to his well-cultivated image as a 'Mr Clean' and a doer in addressing the common man's concerns, which began and ended with price and availability of rice, bus and power tariff and milk price. At least that was the situation in his time.

Today, the aspirations of the 21st century Tamil youth has undergone a sea-change, in tune and time with the global template.

Today, the Stalin government faces the thankless job of bringing out the corruption charges that he himself had documented against the predecessor AIADMK rulers in memoranda to Governor Banwarilal Purohit.

Thankless it is because corruption cases in the country have a knack of spreading out through years and decades, and the reigning government's political and legal energies would have been expended to no use -- electoral or administrative.

What is more, over the past years, there are suspicions that much of the siphoned-off public funds have been sent out of the country, thus simultaneously denying money in the hands of the locals, especially the labour class who stand to benefit from more of new constructions, for instance.

It's here that Stalin and his much-welcome Finance Minister P T R Palanivel Thiagarajan will continue to face their test(s), day in and day out. While academics and administrators alike praised Thiagarajan's White Paper on the state's finances for its candid admission of the past mistakes and future pitfalls, the same cannot be said of the common man's view of his budget, four days later.

In the post-pandemic period, when the state, like the rest of the country is reeling under the ill-effects of long-forgotten demonetisation and GST implementation, the common man wants money in his hand, money in his pocket. The budget does not have elements that could restore the voter's confidence in the matter, at least not on the face of it.

The situation resembles the 1996-2001 period under Karunanidhi. His was a relatively clean government compared to the previous ones, both under him and also rival MGR. But with the global bust emptying many a pocket in the state, the state government did not have plans to remedy the situation.

The DMK lost the 2001 assembly polls, despite being a partner in the BJP-NDA government at the Centre. The loss of minority votes owing to the BJP was a lesson that the DMK learnt at the time.

In voting out the DMK, the Tamil Nadu voter brought back Jayalalithaa, against whom many a corruption case was being processed in different courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, too.

With a technocrat with vast global experience in fiscal management, the expectation is that Thiagarajan would be able to breathe in fresh ideas, to address the problems on hand. The plans that he has rolled out since seem to be long-term cures, from which there is no escape, yes.

But for the present, he is said to be wanting to bite more than he can chew -- in terms of deliverables.

While legacy issues in fiscal management and revenue administration haunt the government, Thiagarajan may have to pick up only a handful of ideas for implementation at a time -- that too a combination of visible schemes and hidden structural changes.

Doing all the things all at once could leave him with no completed work to show at the end of five years. This is because, the labyrinthine working style of the government cannot be wished away overnight, digitalisation or not.

And in doing so, the minister is going to dig out a lot of muck, with which incumbent officials at all levels would have cause to hide, for themselves and for the sake of their erstwhile minister-patrons.

In the midst of Stalin's 10-year deadline for self and Thiagarajan's five-year deadline for the government, the party still has to face delayed civic elections in many rural areas and almost every urban locality, including 14 municipal corporations.

Then there will be the Lok Sabha polls in 2024, before the Stalin government can face the assembly elections two years later, in 2026.

Stalin's vision document, released at the DMK's Tiruchi conference ahead of the assembly polls in April, has a 10-year span to fulfil the commitments made. Thiagarajan has been talking about setting things right all round by the time the party faces re-election five years hence.

But the results of the civic polls and the Lok Sabha elections set out a politico-administrative dynamics of their own, and the time and opportunity that are now available to the DMK, Stalin and Thiagarajan may have passed them by then...

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.