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BJP Barking Up The Wrong Tree In Tamil Nadu

By N SATHIYA MOORTHY
November 14, 2022 14:25 IST
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The BJP continuing to look at the Dravidian polity through the religious prism has not worked in Tamil Nadu whereas it has yielded political and electoral results across much of the rest of the country, observes N Sathiya Moorthy..

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party leader and India's Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah is welcomed by Tamil Nadu BJP chief Kuppusamy Annamalai and other party leaders on his arrival at the BJP office in Chennai, November 12, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

Recently, Tamil Nadu BJP President Kuppusamy Annamalai said that Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi party leader Thol Thirumavalavan was so 'jobless' that he was distributing copies of Manusmriti free as part of the VCK's socio-political campaign against Hindutva.

But like the VCK confusing the party's original cause of Dalit upliftment with the late Dravidian ideologue 'Periyar' E V Ramaswami Naicker's programmes, the BJP-Hindutva brigade too has been barking up the wrong tree, and causing electoral distress to self and allies in the state.

The reasons are not far to see.

Caste-based reservations, the successful 'social justice' tool of the government headed by the Justice Party progenitor of the present-day DMK and AIADMK a hundred years ago, has since remained the Tamil voter's reference point for judging the poll promises of other parties.

Over time, 'Hindi imposition' and other perceived restrictions on educational and social uplift of the downtrodden, including the more recent NEET and NET, fitted into the format.

So did real and perceived hurt to 'Tamil pride', given the antiquity and richness of the language, literature and culture, when purportedly expected to prove itself against Sanskrit and 'Sanskritised culture'.

 

Against this background, the BJP continuing to look at the Dravidian polity through the religious prism has not worked in Tamil Nadu whereas it has yielded political and electoral results across much of the rest of the country.

This was because, unlike often misunderstood, social justice overshadowed even Periyar's talking points on god and religion, Brahmins and Sanskrit, the latter politically transmuting as Hindi.

Today, for instance, the 'black attire' that Periyar gave his cadres in the 1930s is identified with lakhs and lakhs of pilgrims who worship at Kerala's Sabarimala hill shrine after observing the ritualistic 41-day vows, and not otherwise.

To the Tamil voter, religion is a deeper experience, but confined to the self, family and community, not to be confused with politics and elections.

The BJP strategists have not been able to make out this distinction -- thus indicating how distanced they may be from the people.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin presents Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with a chess set as state Governor Ravindra Narayana Ravi, left, looks on, July 29, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo/CMO Tamil Nadu/Twitter

In a sense, the ruling DMK's current war of words, culminating in a letter to President Droupadi Murmu to recall state Governor R N Ravi, flows from such a construct.

The state government kept its reservations over the governor sitting on 20 or so legislative bills, resolutions and government papers, at the official and legislative level.

Its reaction to Ravi as chancellor, like his predecessor Banwarilal Purohit, now Punjab governor, 'interfering' in university appointments and administration in the state, was also measured.

It was only when Ravi started talking religion and culture in public fora that the DMK upped its ante and sent out the recall memorandum, signed by party MPs and those of its allies.

Apart from hurting the 'Tamil pride' that he was supposed to protect as governor, his utterances, according to critics, are political and 'divisive' in nature -- the kind of which Chennai Raj Bhavan has not witnessed even during the worse days of the Congress-appointed governors in the past.

Critics of the governor have since begun quoting the Supreme Court's observations in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Ordering freedom for all six detained convicts in the case, a division bench has observed that the governor has to act on the cabinet resolution in the matter, and cannot sit on it.

The implication is that the governor has no independent powers, other than specifically mentioned in the Constitution. In doing so, the court was only reiterating its observation in the matter, while freeing a seventh convict, A G Perarivalan, earlier this year.

The question is if the DMK or any of its allies would revive their own campaign, based on the court's ruling, to argue that the governor cannot likewise sit on bills passed by the state assembly and other matters.

As they point out, the governor can either give his assent, or 'return' the bill, or forward it to the President, meaning the Centre, if provided for in the Constitution.

Yet, they also point out how Ravi did not apply the earlier court directive as binding on him in the case of the six remaining convicts in the Rajiv case or in independent matters like replacing the governor with chief minister as the chancellor of state-run universities in Tamil Nadu.

IMAGE: Stalin is felicitated at the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's 15th general council meeting in Chennai, October 9, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

In issues pertaining to the governor, Stalin seems to have stuck to the traditional DMK line, from the days of party founder C N Annadurai's short term as chief minister (1967-1969).

Both Annadurai and his successor, M Karunanidhi, Stalin's late father, declared that the 'governor's post is as redundant as a billy goat's beard', would demand its abolition but continue to respect the chair as long as it existed under the Constitution.

Stalin was known to have instructed ministers and partymen not to comment on the governor's conduct, leave it to the party headquarters or the government to decide and execute at their levels. This he had followed even during the short stint of inherited governor Banwarilal Purohit, who was transferred to Punjab.

Against this, Jayalalithaa as AIADMK chief minister declared openly in the state assembly that then governor Mari Chenna Reddy tried to 'misbehave' with her when she called on him at Raj Bhavan -- but the public did not take her charge seriously.

During her eventful first term (1991-1996), her party cadres gheraoed vthen governor Reddy's motorcade in a narrow yet busy part of the National Highway in Tindivanam town, and lifted it only hours later when the Raj Bhavan cautioned that it would then have to take it up with the President.

It is thus that on yet another issue linked to social justice, the ruling DMK has decided to stop with moving a 'review petition' in the Supreme Court against the recent 3-2 verdict upholding the BJP-led Narendra Modi government's reservations for the economically weaker sections.

To keep public attention in focus, Stalin has called an all-party meeting, especially after the party's non-Dravidian Congress and Communist allies have declined to toe the line.

Any possible recasting of the alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls may also depend on the outcome of the review petition, though that may not be the only issue.

The Opposition AIADMK's position at the all-party meeting needs to be watched, as EWS quota was not as big an issue when the party voted for the law in Parliament.

IMAGE: Udhayanidhi Stalin, the DMK's youth wing secretary, at a protest in Chennai against the parliamentary committee's recommendation to make Hindi the medium of instruction in central educational institutes. Photograph: ANI Photo

It is against this background the state BJP's successive attempts to impress the Tamil Nadu voter through personal and ideological attacks on the likes of Periyar, Karunanidhi and now Stalin, have failed to gather electoral muster.

As peripheral social media discourses on historicity of Mani Ratnam's mega-hit Ponniyin Selvan-I and more demonstrative issues of the kind have shown through the past months, to many Tamils, Saivism is different from contemporary Hinduism, and they prioritise their village deities over higher gods in the Hindu pantheon, whom they worship all the same.

They keep their sentiments to themselves, though.

By frequently flagging issues that cause the revival of such sentiments in individual voters, the BJP is unable to or unwilling to provide a long cool-off period for possible mainstreaming of those communities -- which is how Hinduism came to be seen as an 'inclusive' religion in its own way.

Instead, constant provocation of the Hindutva kind has only revived avoidable 'Saivism versus Hinduism' kind of debates, like the 'Saivism versus Jainism' debates a millennium ago.

With the result, pitting 'Tamil pride' -- identified with Saivite and Vaishnavite literature, art and architecture, science and culture -- against the promotion of what is offered as the 'Sanskritised original' purportedly with greater antiquity and acceptance.

For the average Tamil, a lot of sentiment is attached to it all.

It's like what the BJP's one-time strongman L K Advani said about the Ayodhya issue, that it was not even about law, but about sentiments and civilisational values.

Draw a parallel between the two, and one will know why the BJP has not succeeded in the Hindu majority state, unlike elsewhere.

Just as Tamils see religion as a private affair, they also see Islamic terrorism, which has been raising its ugly head periodically in the state over the past decades, only as a law and order problem.

They punish the ruler or the political leader that they identify such governmental failures with.

Hence, they handed down an unprecedented electoral rout to the DMK after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination (1991) and a consummate defeat after the Coimbatore serial blasts (1998). Nothing more, nothing less.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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