Why BJP keeps harping on Periyar legacy in Dravidian TN

The contemporary problem with the BJP in Tamil Nadu is that it has been trying hard to package the DMK especially as anti-god and anti-Hinduism, and seeking it to link to Periyar and M Karunanidhi, and by extension to Stalin, the latter’s son and successor to the party mantle. Their hope was to consolidate the perceived ‘pro-god, pro-religion votes’, which they saw returning to the fold post-MGR, post-Jayalalithaa.

But no such substantial vote-bank existed even in Periyar’s time, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Now that the dust is sort of settling on the hotly-contested assembly polls, in which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre was an unequal ally of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam counterpart in the state, it may be time to discuss and dissect the phase, pace and fate of the former’s controversial ‘Hindutva’ agenda, which had not worked in Dravidian Tamil Nadu even in the recent past.

The immediate provocation for this, pending the vote count on May 2, comes in the form of an overnight change of name for the arterial ‘Periyar EVR Salai’ on the Chennai-Bengaluru national highway.

The DMK’s M K Stalin, oozing confidence over the poll results despite ground reports putting it either way, declared that his government would restore the Periyar Salai name ‘when we come to power’, if AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) did not do so earlier.

Both he and Marumalarchi DMK’s Vaiko wanted to know who took the decision on name-change, alluding to the BJP hand from the Centre and declaring that the ruling AIADMK leadership was too week to assert itself.

The DMK’s R S Bharathi has since written to chief secretary Rajeev Ranjan, calling for reverting to the Periyar name for the road. In his letter, Bharathi also ‘mentioned reports’ that efforts were also on to rename the arterial Anna Salai and Kamaraj Salai, renamed as such by the then Karunanidhi government from Mount Road and South Beach Road, respectively.  Meanwhile, some Periyariites have tarred the rechristened ‘Grand Western Trunk Road’ on name-boards with the earlier ‘Periyar E VR Salai’.

If the BJP were to win more than a couple of seats, if at all, independent of the AIADMK combine’s fate in the assembly elections, it would owe to the strength of the alliance. EPS too has managed to earn in the last one year of his four-year, post-Jayalalithaa chief ministerial career. It was not about his being a ‘doer’, but as someone who’s seen as attempting to do something good, someone who was trying to fit in the shoe that was not his, without having to cut either the shoe or the feet.

But should the BJP fail to win as many seats as it had hoped for, seats that it had obtained from the AIADMK alliance leader through months of hard bargaining, it would owe near-exclusively to the party’s post-Jaya electoral strategy that centred on political Hindutva. For this very reason, the AIADMK may more openly blame it all on BJP’s Hindutva combined with the Narendra Modi government’s economic performance, than it had done after the disastrous Lok Sabha polls of 2019.

The stoic silence of EPS over the highway renaming also contrasts with his condemnation of faceless Sangh Parivar elements that had thrown a saffron shawl over a Periyar statue at one place and splashed saffron paint on the statue elsewhere. When it came to similar saffronisation of AIADMK founder MGR’s statue he decried it as ‘blasphemous’.

It was the same term that the BJP-Hindutva brigade had used to condemn perceived verbal attacks on symbols of Hinduism over the previous two-plus years in particular.  Incidentally, MGR as chief minister had renamed what used to be known as the Poonamallee High Road after Periyar, as his memorial is located at the head of the road inside Chennai. It was just a coincidence that both leaders died on December 24 — Periyar in 1973, and MGR, 14 years later, in 1987.

The contemporary problem with the BJP in Tamil Nadu is that it has been trying hard to package the DMK especially (and at least for the moment) as anti-god and anti-Hinduism, and seeking it to link to Periyar and DMK’s Karunanidhi, and by extension to Stalin, the latter’s son and successor to the party mantle. Their hope was to consolidate the perceived ‘pro-god, pro-religion votes’, which they saw returning to the fold, post-MGR, post-Jaya.

No such substantial vote-bank existed even in Periyar’s time, or when he and his cadres berated Hindu gods at his DK’s Salem rally, a month or so ahead of the 1971 general elections. The ruling Congress-DMK combine of Indira Gandhi-Karunanidhi combo swept the polls, as never before.

Despite his great charisma and popularity, MGR remained a closet believer, not wanting to take on Periyar. Long after Periyar’s time, Jayalalithaa practised her religion openly and performed rituals that were against Periyar’s ‘rationalist’ principles. She could do it, not because she was stubborn but because religion and gods had ceased to become a political and poll issue in Periyar’s Tamil Nadu.

It is this that critics say, the Hindutva forces are seeking to revive, but only to try and revive a dormant socio-political force, and hope to take on the same through their time-tested politics and practices elsewhere in the country, especially during the past two decades, and more so after  BJP’s Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. They have succeeded, even if to a limited extent, as the eighties and nineties kids in the state have reacted the way the Hindutva had wanted.

These youth have been rediscovering their ‘Tamil identity’, which goes beyond language, culture and practices. To their 21st century generation, the ‘Jallikattu protests’ of 2017 and pro-environment agitations of the past couple of years, tantamount to their Tamil identity taking a larger ‘humanitarian’ face.

Hindutva may have its limited ‘answers’ to the former, but not the latter. Going beyond god and religion, the present-day youth in the state are questioning the Indian State on issues such as the eight-lane Salem-Chennai highway, the Narimanam hydro-carbon project and the like. Unlike the previous generation, these youth are looking away from the DMK, and more at actor-politician Seeman’s Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK).

This has rendered the Hindutva job that much more difficult and unfocussed, forcing Seeman too to declare that his was not a ‘B-Team’ of the AIADMK or the BJP. The Hindutva social media groups are finding it even more difficult to handle Seeman. They used to claim that was he was born a Christian, Simon, and was funded by international proselytisation groups. Seeman has since turned their campaign on its head by claiming ad nauseum that ‘Tamil god Murugan’ was his ancestor, or ‘moop-pattan’ — and that the Hindutva forces from a previous era had Sanskritised and ‘Aryanised’ him.

What then is ‘wrong’, if any, with the Hindutva/BJP approach to post-Jaya, post-Karunanidhi in politics? While the post-MGR Congress party, then under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, had tried all tricks in the book and outside to come back to power after a gap of 20 years, and failed, the BJP too is following in the same footsteps, by assuming that there was a political vacuum when none existed.

In doing so, the BJP has taken a ‘negative route’, or what some Dravidian political ideologues say is a ‘destructive route’, to political supremacy. In contrast, the competitive Dravidian political climb-up derives from a ‘constructive approach’ to politics, in the form of contemporising their ‘social justice’ base and basis.

As they point out, the late Congress chief minister Kamaraj in the fifties had to ‘hijack’ their agenda by introducing free schooling and free meals, as a step forward from the Justice Party’s reservations scheme. And the Justice Party is the progenitor of the 21st century Dravidian polity.

Kamaraj’s backward class, non-elite, rural background helped, but that by itself did not help beyond a point. The Congress’s political philosophy was at variance with the Dravidian polity’s very own identity politics. The ‘Dravidian identity’ has been more focussed than the former’s ‘nationalist agenda’, but broader than the ‘caste and religion’ agendas of our times — both at the national and state-level.

Fit the BJP into the Congress philosophy and programmes from a failed past, and the party would know where it is going patently and blatantly wrong in the Tamil Nadu context. It has a very small core constituency, which is still centred on the Brahminical upper castes and select communities like the backward class Nadar community in the southern districts.

Over the past two decades-plus, the BJP has been seeking to broad-base the community-support by seeking to co-opt the dominant Vellalar Gounder community in the western belt, after the ‘Coimbatore serial blasts’ of 1998. It did not go a long way, and the party has now sought to rope in the numerically substantial Arundathiyar sub-sect of the Dalit community, also in the western districts.

The induction of otherwise faceless L Murugan from the community as the state party chief last year was a message in that direction. From a purely caste calculation this should help over the long run, but then the voting pattern in the assembly polls in the western belt would show if the BJP has been able to blunt deep-seated caste animosity between the Gounders and Arundathiyars.

In the midst of such experiments, the BJP still seems wanting to keep the Periyar imagery alive, if only to promote itself as an antithesis of all that he had stood for. It is too early to jump to conclusions. For his part, Murugan too as state party chief took up only the BJP’s traditional Hindutva agenda, by launching a ‘Vel Yatra’ series to identity the party more with ‘Tamil god’ Murugan than ‘Sanskritised’ gods like Rama and Krishna.

It did help Murugan gain reluctant acceptance from entrenched sections of the state party leadership, who invariably belonged to higher castes than his — and also the traditional voters of the party. But he too stuck to that, not being able to promote the contemporary Modi leadership, by citing the Centre’s socio-economic contributions, which could be touched and felt by the ordinary villager in ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.

Thereby hangs a tale, whose contours would become clearer, both for the party and/or its Dravidian adversaries and allies alike, come the poll results and the shape and colour of the next government in what is still ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.

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

  • Tamil Nadu Polls
  • Elections 2021

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