How Tamil Nadu's regional nationalism, habitual secularism of a plural society in Kerala halted BJP's march in the South

Close on the heels of the routing of the BJP and its allies in Tamil Nadu, opposition to alleged Hindi imposition in the state suddenly trended on social media with multiple hashtags. Curiously, there was no new policy announcement on the issue from the Centre or any political provocation from the loose cannons of the BJP still, the situation reached a near boiling point.

This is the essence of how regional nationalism defeats Hindu nationalism in Tamil Nadu, or how the DMK defeated the BJP and its allies in the recent elections. Last week’s anti-Hindi noise that followed the DMK victory appeared to have been engineered as a loud follow-up warning to the BJP at the Centre that as long as the state is proud of its socio-cultural identity, the party better be careful. The rhetoric that many upcountry observers, freelance bigots, and the BJP-supporters read as Tamil versus Hindi was, in fact, a simple Tamil Nadu style regional versus national pitch.

 How Tamil Nadus regional nationalism, habitual secularism of a plural society in Kerala halted BJPs march in the South

File image of DMK leader MK Stalin.

It was also probably a message to other southern states, as well as West Bengal, on how to take on nationalist politics.

In neighbouring Kerala too, the BJP was decimated with about 85 percent of the voters rejecting the party, but there was no such anti-Hindi sentiment. Neither was there a regional versus national debate. It was a different story of pushback against the BJP.

Historically, the insurmountability that the BJP faces in south India arises mainly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but their stories of resistance — the politics, the underlying ideologies, and the circumstances — are completely different from each other. One is strongly based on self-respect and counter-nationalism while the other is based on the habitual secularism of a plural society and age-old Centre-Left politics.

Despite their fundamental differences, both are effective in blocking the rise of the BJP and they are unlikely to change for a long time. What makes them interesting is that they offer the key to a potentially successful strategy against the BJP when the Opposition parties across the rest of India are clueless. In fact, West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee's opposition against the BJP has elements of both.

Tamil Nadu's regional nationalism stems from its self-respect movement anchored in rationalism and the ideals of the Dravidian leader EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar. Broadly, Periyar's socio-political philosophy had two characteristics. One was the belief that faith and faith-based discrimination was fundamental to all forms of inequality. He was against Hinduism as he believed that it inherently fostered social discrimination and hence he asked people to reject God, respect themselves and believe only in humanity.

Periyar also asked people to be rational and believe in science. He burned the Manusmriti and Periyapuranam — a sacred text of Saivites breaking Hindu idols and fighting for rights that conflicted with religious beliefs. This is exactly opposite to the idea of political Hinduism and hence Periyar's ideology is still the state’s bulwark against the BJP.

As long as Periyar and the Dravidian politics are on their mind, people won’t easily fall for the BJP. Not that they are non-believers, but they are educated on how to separate one's religious faith from one's political one and never to mix both. Whenever this principle is under threat, all it takes is a reminder to defend their self-respect. Tamil, their language, is a symbol of this self-respect and saying no to Hindi is its assertion.

The resistance to Hindi as a socio-political ideology has stood the test of time. The anti-Hindi agitations which began way back in the 1930s continued through the 1940s and the 1960s and they get revived whenever there's a threat to their regional pride. The same sense of regional identify united them on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, Cauvery, Mullapperiyar water disputes, Jallikkattu, NEET, GST and against the comment by BJP leader H Raja when he said all statues of Periyar should be brought down when Lenin's statues were destroyed in Tripura.

This ideological wall is almost impregnable. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the BJP did try to gain a backdoor entry by taking control of the AIADMK and sugarcoat itself with Dravidianism, but it further helped the DMK because people detected the trick and gravitated towards the latter to demonstrate their Dravidian affirmation.

In Kerala, it was a textbook resistance by a plural society and Centre-Left politics. The first wall of protection is the state’s demography. Statewide, only 55 percent of its population is Hindu and the rest are minorities — mostly Muslims and Christians — and hence it's hard to polarise them because the numbers will not be good enough.

There are regional variations from this average composition that make the situation a little conducive for the BJP, but even in such circumstances, the second wall of protection, the Centre-Left politics, automatically takes precedence over everything else. For instance, constituencies such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Palakkad, and Thrissur have an above-average composition of Hindus, but even at these places, the BJP couldn’t force a victory because when the state’s secular credentials appeared to have been under threat, people instinctively backed Centre-Left politics.

Finding an effective alternative to the BJP is important for the survival of democracy in India, but it may not be through another national party, but through regional politics similar to that in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These two are longest running pilots that other states can learn from. Andhra Pradesh, although not as openly defiant as these two states, is also a highly successful regional example.

The ongoing battle between Mamata, who has deployed both regional pride and secular politics, and the BJP would be an interesting case-in-point to learn from.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 12:20:47 IST