As the country gears up for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the political discourse in Tamil Nadu is highly polarised. An opinion on any issue in the news is expected to be in favour of either the Hindutva ideology or the Dravidian ideology; a middle path is viewed with suspicion from those on both sides of the divide.
Personal attacks have been taking place frequently. Leaders long gone have been dragged into debates to prove a point. People keep attempting to find out whether the narrative of their rivals is shaped by caste and/or religion.
Leaders who remain silent and organisations which refuse to take any stand on an issue are branded as the ‘B team’ or ‘sleeper cell’ of their political rivals.
When an issue triggers a debate, leaders and their supporters form teams and launch a no-holds-barred attack on those holding a different point of view.
The debate over Sanatana Dharma is a case in point. The subject continues to dominate political talk. On the one side are Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, his son Udhayanidhi Stalin, and party ideologues, and on the other side is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has every reason to worry about another victory for the BJP at the national level in the Lok Sabha elections even if the INDIA bloc, led by it, manages to sweep the polls in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK leadership knows that the only way to prevent such an outcome is to indulge in an ideological war against the BJP. This may gain some acceptance in the State, but it will not be adequate to win elections at the national level. The DMK wants to project that the BJP, for all its posturing, represents the interests of upper-caste Hindus and that its core ideology stems from Sanatana Dharma and the Manu Smriti.
The latest leader to be pulled into this war of words is C. Rajagopalachari or Rajaji, a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and his daughter Lakshmi, who was married to Devdas Gandhi, the son of Mahatma Gandhi. A social media post accused Rajaji of “shaving his daughter’s head and keeping her in a corner of the house after her husband died” till Dravidar Kazhagam founder Periyar E.V. Ramasamy intervened.
In fact, it was his elder daughter Namagiri who lost her husband at a young age, not Lakshmi. The story was spread on social media to prove the point that Rajaji, a follower of Sanatana Dharma, refused to arrange for his daughter to remarry, while Periyar advocated widow remarriage. As expected, critics of the Dravidian movement used the opportunity to recall Periyar’s marriage with Maniammal, a woman younger to him by many years. Both these examples are evidence of personal hatred, which always assumes centre stage when an argument fails.
Faith as a personal issue is also not respected in Tamil Nadu. Whenever DMK and its leaders attack Hinduism, their rivals immediately question the faith of Mr. Stalin’s wife, Durga Stalin, who regularly visits temples.
Communist leader Mythili Sivaraman wrote in her book, Haunted by Fire: Essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation, about how DMK founder C.N. Annadurai had also ridiculed “the God-fearing, passive capitalist of the South.” She recalls him saying, “When the Dravidian industrialists and business magnates are visiting the pilgrim centres of Thirumalai, Puri Jagannath, Kasi, Gaya, Kandi, Kadir Kamam asking for favours from the gods, the Northern capitalists are touring the ‘pilgrim centres’ of the business world, London, Washington, Paris, Brussels, meeting industrialists and gaining expertise in business methods and technology. Southern capitalism had to shape up in order to survive.”
Caste, too, is another aspect of this deep divide. A Brahmin, however progressive, is viewed with suspicion. A political party that bore the brunt of this attitude is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as senior leaders of the party happened to be Brahmins.
It is not just Brahmins. The caste of any individual who offers a counter-narrative is dragged into an argument. Any overtones are interpreted as support for a particular community, religion, and party. The fear of personal attacks prevents a proper debate in Tamil Nadu’s political scene. Sadly, cacophony and personal denigration prevail.