Tamil film actor Rajinikanth. 
Snapshot
  • With the prospects of ‘spiritual politics’ making headway in Tamil Nadu, courtesy Rajinikanth, and the bizarre edifice of ‘Dravidian rationalism’ quickly crumbling, the Tamilian is beginning to question age-old political beliefs in his search for his true identity. Will this return-to-roots venture result in a brand new polity? Only time will tell.

The political scene in Tamil Nadu has lit up after actor Rajinikanth’s arrival (Schrodinger’s cat-like arrival rather). He has made a couple of statements over the last month, one on ‘Periyar’ and the other on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

These were enough to make the vibrant Tamil media organize debates revisiting Hinduism, “Dravidianism” and everything in between.

It is said that a great negotiator actually makes you negotiate with yourself. Similarly, Rajinikanth has sent political actors (and Tamil society in general) on navel-gazing trips. Whether stiff adherence to ideologies and non-opportunistic strategies are part of realpolitik is a different question altogether.

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The Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are slated to happen in over a year from now. It will be the DMK’s election to lose. It led the sweep of the parliamentary elections in 2019, winning 38 out of the 39 seats for the UPA.

The AIADMK has pulled back a bit from the drubbing and has performed creditably in the recently concluded local body elections.

The coalition forged during the Lok Sabha elections are fraying. The major NDA allies of AIADMK, PMK and BJP are making statements against each other. The Congress and VCK, allies of the victorious UPA led by DMK, also appear to be willing to look for greener pastures.

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The parties such as AMMK, NT, MNM that have won sizeable single-digit vote shares also are keen on exploring alliances. Everything is up for grabs and it would be interesting to see how the pieces move in the chess game over the next year.

Almost all political combinations are in the realms of possibility, though it may seem ironical for a state that comes across as rigid in ideological politics. Tamil Nadu parties have been quick to dump principles for power at the drop of a hat. Both the DMK and AIADMK have aligned with Congress and BJP at different points.

Currently, the biggest driving force in public debate seems to be the question of Tamil identity. This has come as a shocker for Dravidian ideologues. They felt that over the last 50 years, they have been successful in brainwashing Tamils into believing that they belong to what they call “rationalists”.

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The grand old faith is just proving to be indefatigable. Rajinikanth set the cat among the pigeons when he spoke about “spiritual politics”. Tamil people, who are deeply spiritual in their personal lives, are suddenly waking up to their Hindu identity as a society.

Tamil Nadu is home to the grandest temples in India and the most pious literature. Irreverent young Tamilians are digging deeper into the past to ask the fundamental question, “Who are we?”.

In an uncertain political scene, parties anchor to the known facts and start weaving strategies. One such certainty is the consolidating power by the Congress of the Christian and Muslim minority votes. The Congress acts as a magnet for minorities and as a force multiplier for its allies.

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The minorities trust Sonia Gandhi and feel that she can better guard their interests against the “Hindutva forces” that they consider their archenemies.

Congress is now with the DMK as part of the UPA. But there are constant fissures in the alliances. The DMK cadres have still not digested the fact that in 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections, the Congress managed to bargain for more seats to contest but performed poorly, thereby allowing Jayalalithaa to win both elections.

The Congress won 5 out of 63 and 8 out of 41 in 2011 and 2016 respectively. But in 2019 parliamentary elections, DMK chief MK Stalin guided by strategist Sunil Kanagolu did not risk losing the Congress.

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Stalin had to assent to the manoeuvres of the then state Congress President leader Thirunavukkarasar, and offer 9 seats (of which it won 8).

Some analysts feel that Rajinikanth too is trying to woo the Congress so that the minority votes would add ballast to his overall acceptability in Tamil Nadu. It is also said that the leaders of the Congress at the national level are worried that if Rajinikanth ends up aligning with the BJP, it can have a ripple effect in all South Indian states.

So the Congress, the minority magnet, is in a happy place, being wooed by the DMK and the Rajinikanth factions, perhaps, the top two contenders for the upcoming polls. So that rules out Congress’ alliance with the AIADMK. Hence, AIADMK has positioned itself as a party amenable to Tamil Hindus.

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The reason for such detailing on the Congress is to show that how a party with a small firm vote base can not only sway poll outcomes but also direct public debate. Usually, the public debate in Tamil Nadu is led by the vocal minority population through friendly media channels and the influence of educational and religious institutions.

But today, there is a counter to that entrenched voice.

The DMK too is feeling the heat with the Opposition taking it to the cleaners for being “anti-Hindu”. Pitting himself against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, MK Stalin went about discrediting Hindu practices in the lead up to the Lok Sabha polls. He is now pushed to the corner. Perhaps guided by his virulent “Periyarist” advisers, he has been unwilling to respond decisively to the accusations against the DMK.

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The debate is a much-needed course correction in the politics of Tamil Nadu. Inherently spiritual Tamil people did not mind the domination of the overweening “Dravidian ideology”, because of three reasons.

First, “Dravidian ideology” was something amorphous, meaning different things to different people. For some, it was the love of Tamil language. For some, it was anti-upper caste and so on.

Secondly, the governance both under DMK and AIADMK in the last three decades was mostly pragmatic.

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Thirdly, people were just focussed on getting ahead in the economic front that they, perhaps, did not feel compelled to ponder on identity issues deeply.

The DMK is desperate after being out of power for close to a decade. After the success in 2019 and being in the fringes for a long time, Stalin feels that his place in the “rising sun” is around the corner.

DMK is considering 2021 as the mother of battles. If it wins, it feels it can stay in power for long, without a strong Opposition. If it loses, it would let its ideological adversaries run amok over the castles of ideas that they have built.

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If Stalin stumbles in his position as DMK chief, his primacy in the party will be up for the challenge by his half-sister and MP Kanimozhi.

So where does it leave the state unit of the BJP? With new claimants for Hindutva politics in Rajinikanth and AIADMK, it, perhaps, feels like that poor child, whose only toy has been snatched. But BJP in Tamil Nadu should take heart from the fact that its ideology is given a lift, albeit through other political forces, for it to work on later.

The choice of the state unit president might offer some clues on the near term strategy. If they go for H Raja, it would indicate that state unit might double down on rhetoric. If the choice is Nainar Nagendran, it would mean that the party is preparing for an exodus from AIADMK post-2021.

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If it is Vanathi Srinivasan, an old hand dealing with various factions, it would mean that the central BJP unit is willing to wait and watch longer (It can also be guided by the idea of having a woman as president for a state unit)

Let me conclude the column by offering a thought experiment for the readers. If you are the president of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit, what would be the best possible outcome for you in the 2021 elections? Will there be a conflict between what BJP has to be seen doing before the elections and what it expects as results of this election? I will leave that to the reader with a wicked smile.

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