The Modi-fication of Tamil Nadu politics

The demise of both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, within two years of each other, has left a vacuum in the state famous for personality cults

Madhavan Narayanan March 11, 2019 18:11:20 IST
The Modi-fication of Tamil Nadu politics
  • The demise of both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, within two years of each other, has left a vacuum in the state famous for personality cults

  • Tamil Nadu sends 39 members to the Lok Sabha, the fifth highest among states

  • In the current Lok Sabha, 37 of the 39 Lok Sabha MPs are from the AIADMK. The DMK has none

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his desire to have in-flight announcements on Indian airlines connecting  Tamil Nadu in Tamil this week, it was a cognitive leap for the Sangh Parivar, to which he owes his political career. While the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)  was entertaining early fantasies of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” in the first half of the 20th century, the Justice Party founded by ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker was  ushering in the Dravida movement with an extreme form of rationalist atheism and anti-Brahminical, anti-Hindi assertion that also rested on Tamil sentiment. It challenged the quintessential worldview of the RSS.

C.N. Annadurai, the man who founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) by splitting Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam, and his successor Muthuvel Karunanidhi built a successful political edifice in Tamil Nadu mixing assertion of backward and lower castes, an anti-Hindi agitation and a generous dose of Tamil pride. M.G. Ramachandran acted in movies scripted by Karunanidhi before splitting the DMK further with his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The AIADMK has today become the beachhead for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to look beyond old-world RSS.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress Party who co-opted the Dravida aspirations within his “unity in diversity” ideology by promising that Hindi will not be imposed on Tamil Nadu.  His daughter Indira Gandhi later successfully used the Karunanidhi-MGR rivalry to turn the AIADMK into a party ally under a famous 67-33 seat-sharing formula under which the Dravida party offered support for her at the Centre in return for the same at the state level.

The Modification of Tamil Nadu politics

The AIADMK and the DMK are both in a flux. Illustration: Ashish Asthana

You could say Modi was having a value-added Nehru-Gandhi moment as he spoke for flight announcements in Tamil and the renaming of what used to be the Madras Central railway station as Chennai’s MGR station.  I recall BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani telling me in the early 1990s in response to a question on whether his party still supported Hindi as the sole national language that “we have accepted bilingualism.”  His implicit reference was probably to the use of English as a link language. From there to Modi pitching for Tamil is a further step. Things have certainly come a long way.

But the BJP is not the only one that has changed. Tamil Nadu has also changed a lot since 1967, when the DMK ushered in Dravida rule in the state. This provides both challenges and opportunities for the BJP. In  Parasakthi, a 1952 movie that fanned the Dravida movement, Karunanidhi’s cult lines included one in which Sivaji Ganesan spews anguish at the use of milk to worship stone idols while infants go without milk.  Earlier this week, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev was celebrating Mahashivaratri in Tamil Nadu’s foothills near Coimbatore near a towering Shivalinga, and the thousands celebrating with him included actors from Tamil Nadu’s show business that once spearheaded the Dravida movement.

Tamil Nadu is no longer that semi-starving land. Aavin, the state’s cooperative marketing rival to Modi-land’s Amul, now promotes the consumption of paneer. Tamil TV channels regularly advertise honey brands as well. Hinduism never really left the state, thanks to the rich heritage of Shaivaite as well as Vaishnava temples and traditions. Now that the state has become the land of milk and honey, it is ready for political course correction. Early signs were evident with the rise of the late J. Jayalalithaa, born a Brahmin Iyengar, as MGR’s successor and in her proximity to the Thevar community of Kshatriya warriors. Modi’s latest right-hand man in Tamil Nadu, AIADMK’s O. Panneerselvam, is a leading Thevar in the once milk-scarce land now advertising paneer.

Whatsapp humour in Tamil speaks of how today, more engineers are found than masons in every street in the state. Cognizant, Hyundai, Ford and Infosys have joined the corporate pantheon of employers wooing educated Tamilians with jobs.  At the same time,  showstopping protests against the ban on the traditional bullfight, Jallikkattu, in 2017 saw a sea of far less privileged youngsters crying out for Tamil culture.  Tamil Nadu has both an emerging middle class with modern values and an underclass that likes to wear religious beliefs and cultural pride on its sleeves. What the BJP is trying to find on its bounty-hunting election trail is a shifting mass of voters who would be happy to see its party symbol, the Lotus, emerging from between Two Leaves, the AIADMK’s symbol.

BJP’s new allies include the Pattali Makkal Katchi led by S. Ramadoss, who has ditched the DMK for Modi’s bandwagon.  His sizeable Vanniyar caste has always been an X factor in Tamil Nadu politics, and its algebraic thrust now favours Hindutva arithmetic.

The situation appears fluid because the demise of both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi, within two years of each other, has left a vacuum in the state famous for personality cults, which aids wannabes and expansionists alike. Actor Kamal Haasan has founded the Makkal Needhi Maiam that is attempting an urbanised centrism while Rajnikath’s iffy politics does not have a real shape yet. Some other small parties also represent various shades of caste and Tamil pride.  Last week also saw Panneerselvam call on the ailing Vijayakanth, leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (Nationalist Progressive Dravida Party).  The actor’s portrayal of a terrorist-bashing cop/soldier in many movies might just aid Modi’s post-Pulwama postures.

However, there is a lot more to Tamil Nadu politics.

For one,  handout populism and quotas in colleges and jobs still favour Dravida-style politics based on goodies and caste arithmetic. In a state where kitchen mixers, pressure cookers, and laptops are distributed to catch votes like rice once was, there is more to real-world votes than Tamil sentiment and the renaming of a railway station. Quota politics go against the BJP’s grain. Besides, DMK’s leader and Karunanidhi’s heir Stalin has been working double-hard in wooing farmers and raising local issues with an energy rarely seen in a long stretch.

Modi is betting on a cocktail of resurgent Hinduism, linguistic sentiment and his own supercop nation-builder image to offset the RSS-BJP’s traditional alienation from Tamil Nadu. If the AIADMK and PMK bring in their traditional vote banks, it makes for political plausibility.

There is no doubt that the BJP has grown up from its frog-in-the-well north-centrism. But, for a west-bred Gujarati who built his strengths in the north, the south is no pushover. The Game of Thrones now increasingly resembles a circus. Only a poll verdict will help us separate the ringmasters from trapeze artistes and jokers.

Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity

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