Politics

Seeman Is The Rising Star Of Tamil Politics, Making The Campaign Colourful

Seeman, leader of the Naam Tamilar Katchi.
Snapshot
    • In the dull electoral landscape of Tamil Nadu, Naam Tamilar Katchi’s Seeman is running an inspired and sound campaign.
    • His formal foray into politics began in 2011 when he started the Naam Tamilar Katchi, and presently his high voltage campaigns openly advocates a government based on benevolent dictatorship.
    • In case if his party doesn’t make it to the Assembly, with his energetic campaign across the state, he will emerge as a major player in the 2021 Assembly elections.

Tamil Nadu has seen a rather lacklustre election campaign. Jayalaithaa has been completely listless and her haranguing style desperately needs a reinvention.  Wheelchair-bound Karunanidhi has been a pale shadow of his former self. His alliterative flourishes have been done to death now and repulse the audience. Stalin, despite his innate decency, lacks the rhetorical firepower. His attempts at an image makeover ended up with comical consequences as Tamil social media was flooded with hilarious memes mocking his ‘suited-booted’ avatar. The inebriated incoherence of ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth is an amusing spectacle and a constant challenge to anyone’s sanity. Firebrand Vaiko, who once promised much, has sadly reduced himself to a poor joke. Anbumani Ramadoss, with several bright ideas, comes across as an enlightened voice but his party, the PMK, continues to be viewed as a caste-centered outfit.

In this dull electoral landscape, one man has been running an inspired campaign and has received a tumultuous response as he criss-crosses the state. This person is Seeman, the controversial leader of the fledgling Naam Tamilar Katchi.  He has found huge resonance among a section of the Tamil youth that is frustrated by the stranglehold of the two main Dravidian parties.

It may be paradoxical but Seeman’s meteoric rise in Tamil Nadu politics will have little impact on the outcome of the current election. But it is certain that he will be a powerful player in the coming years.

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Before he burst on to the political scene, Seeman was a small-time Tamil film director and had made a few forgettable movies. However, his fiery oratorical skill was used well as a low level propagandist in the Dravidian machinery. He was among a bunch of strident fringe voices whom the DMK and others in the Dravidian ecosystem leveraged opportunistically to burnish Tamil nationalist credentials.

In his formative political days, Seeman was a textbook rabble-rouser, straight out of the Dravidian movement playbook. Spewing venom against Hinduism, and propagating vituperative anti-Brahminism often marked by violent imagery with calls to exterminate Brahmins, extolling the virtues of quasi-racist ideological demagogue Periyar, calling for a separate Tamil homeland, and hailing the slain LTTE chief Prabhakaran as the undisputed leader of the Tamil nation were part of his utterances.

The shameful hypocrisy of DMK provided Seeman an opportunity to break ranks with the mainstream Dravidian discourse and chart an independent ideological position. For long, Karunanidhi had positioned himself as the paramount protector of Tamil interests, both locally and globally. His sycophants reverentially refer to him as Tamil EnaThalaivar (Leader of the Tamil Race.) This make-believe construct came crashing down when Mahinda Rajapaksa unleashed the Sri Lankan army and obliterated the Tamil Tigers. In the process his army massacred thousands of innocent Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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A huge outcry erupted in Tamil Nadu demanding that the Central government (of which Karunanidhi was a key part) stop providing strategic support to the Sri Lankan army and DMK pull out of the UPA government. A deeply compromised DMK, involved in massive scams with the connivance with Congress party, was in no mood to give up power but cynically attempted to hunt with the hound and run with the hare.

In his typically theatrical manner, Karunanidhi, flanked by members of his huge family, staged a farcical ‘breakfast-to-lunch’ fast in protest against the killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This act earned him the ire of many Tamil nationalists who could see clearly how he had placed his family’s commercial interests over key ideological principles of the movement.

At this juncture, Seeman launched an energetic campaign against the UPA candidates in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. At least three Congress candidates suffered electoral defeats due to his high-voltage campaign.

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Meanwhile Jayalalithaa, who was then Leader of Opposition in Tamil Nadu, began recalibrating her position on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. With the LTTE decimated, Jaya cleverly calculated that it made no sense to take a hardline position on pro-LTTE Tamil activism within the state. She also clearly understood that Sri Lankan Tamil issue is an emotive one and not a potent electoral issue for Tamils. She escalated the rhetoric against the Sri Lankan establishment.

Seeman jumped on to the Jayalalithaa bandwagon and travelled across the state soliciting support for her in the 2011 elections. He also made his formal foray into politics by starting the Naam Tamilar Katchi. However, he chose not to contest the 2011 election, sensing the political tsunami that wiped out Karunanidhi’s DMK and helped Jayalaithaa regain power.

Unlike her previous tenures, when Jayalalithaa’s police was unrelenting on fringe ultra-nationalist Tamil groups, she adopted a rather indulgent position this time. With no LTTE in the picture, she often took a hawkish position on Sri Lankan Tamil issues. This effectively undercut the Tamil ultra-nationalist groups.

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It perhaps dawned on Seeman that an ideological position rooted in conventional rhetoric will hardly provide any differentiation for his party in the crowded Dravidian scene. He began nuancing his position. He smartly identified himself with the growing disquiet among the Tamil nationalists who felt that Dravidian discourse was a ploy to marginalise native Tamil interests.

They pointed to how the leadership was usurped mostly by non-Tamil speakers. There was certainly an element of truth in this. Ever since Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu has not been ruled by a native Tamil speaker. OP Paneerselvam was an exception but no one in their right mind will count him as a serious player. 

The incident where 20 alleged red sanders smugglers from Tamil Nadu were killed in encounter in Chittoor by the Andhra Police provided a handle to this emerging strand of Tamil nationalism. Seeman also upped the ante on the Tamil-Telugu issue by launching a blistering attack on Madurai’s 17th century Thirumalai Nayak palace, built by the Telugu speaking Nayak dynasty. He called it a symbol of slavery that insulted Tamils and suggested that it should be razed.

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Noted commentator Badri Seshadri summed up the worldview of Tamil nationalists thus: “Outsiders (vantheri) can live peacefully in Tamil Nadu but cannot and should not rule over the Tamils. That is why, they have started attacking the word ‘Dravidian’, which encompasses Telugus, Kannadigas and Malayalis as well.” 

Seeman has also been intelligent enough to nuance several strident positions that he took earlier. Realising that Tamil society is deeply pious and rooted in folksy Hindu tradition, Seeman began overtly identifying with the powerful Murugan Bhakti movement. Unlike mainstream Dravidian rationality that abuses Hindu faith-based rituals while celebrating regressive Abrahamic practices, Seeman also criticised the lack of Tamil localisation in other religions too.

His most dramatic departure from the mainstream Dravidian narrative was his refusal to recognise Periyar as the “Father” of the Tamil nation. Though he appreciated Periyar’s progressive position on issues like woman’s empowerment, in Seeman’s view Periyar’s non-Tamil antecedents makes him unfit to be counted as a Tamil leader.

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At Seeman’s party conventions, the portraits of Marx along with mass murders like Mao and Pol Pot are proudly displayed. LTTE chief Prabhakaran in military uniform gets the most prominent presence. Hence it came as no surprise when his recently released party manifesto openly advocated a government based on benevolent dictatorship.

Seeman has also been a relentless campaigner against the Dravidian party welfare model of cradle to grave freebies, targeted at various segments of the electorate. But his party’s alternative ideas on economics are quite scary and simply outrageous. A sample of the bizarre ideas that dominate his manifesto are that the farmers and shepherds will be made government employees and toddy will be declared the national drink.

It will be interesting to see how Seeman sustains the political momentum. While his party candidates are likely to lose their deposits in most of the seats Namm Tamilar Katchi is contesting, ground reports indicate that Seeman is in with a fighting chance in Cuddalore constituency. His entry into the Tamil Nadu Assembly could be a game changing event for both his party and the politics of Tamil Nadu.  In case he does not make it to the Assembly, Seeman as an indefatigable campaigner can continue to build his cadre base across the state and emerge as a major player in the 2021 Assembly elections.

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It will also be fascinating to observe how Seeman manages to move towards the mainstream. The anti-Telugu pitch will run out of steam once the novelty value wears off. Telugu-speaking castes are socially and culturally well integrated within the Tamil society to the extent that most of them regard themselves essentially as Tamils. For instance, Chennai which used to be a distinctly bilingual city at least two decades back (with 30-35% Tamil speakers) is now largely a Tamil only city. Tamil soft power ensured that.

Seeman also needs to learn from the example of Vaiko on the dangers of being a one-trick pony. Vaiko, despite his abundant political talent, failed to make headway because he refused to grow beyond his focus on emotive Tamil issues. Seeman needs to fashion a holistic narrative.

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