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When Myths Compete

When Myths Compete

Author: Amrith Lal
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 3, 2007

Introduction: DMK's anti-Ram rhetoric is shorn of ideology

It is tempting to read Karunanidhi's remarks on Ram and the Ramayana as a return to DMK's rationalist origins. In the heyday of the Dravidian movement, Periyar E V Ramasami Naicker, ideologue and mentor of the movement, singled out Ram for special treatment. He read the Ram katha as a political allegory that sought to preserve the social and political hegemony of Brahmanism.

This critique of Ramayana, in itself a new mythology, was polemics at its best. It sought to undermine the sacredness of the text. Periyar was not merely criticising a sacred text, but he was attacking the cultural space of the ruling elite, the Brahmins. It was caste war as culture war. The battering of the Ram legend and worship was a small, but crucial, part of a larger political battle for radical social transformation.

The politics that informed Periyar's critique of Ram is absent in today's Tamil Nadu politics. However, the rhetoric used by the likes of Periyar continues to shape the political discourse in the state. The form has been preserved, but at the cost of content. Karunanidhi, and most politicians in Tamil Nadu, are guilty of practising such politics.

What explains Karunanidhi's attempts to join issue with the sangh parivar on the Ram issue? It is difficult to read the response purely in ideological terms because of DMK's record in dealing with the sangh parivar. The party had an alliance with BJP in the state and the Centre from 1999 to 2003. The Vajpayee cabinet included Murasoli Maran, a close relative of Karunanidhi who was also a key strategist. DMK ministers did not resign from NDA government even when the Gujarat pogroms took place. The alliance with BJP was explained as suiting DMK's interests.

Self-interest could well have played a role this time as well. As M S S Pandian wrote in these columns, Ram does not arouse passions in Tamil Nadu. He is not central to the imagination of most practising Hindus in the state. Targeting Ram may not lead to a consolidation of Hindu votes against DMK and allies in the state. But Ram is central to the politics of BJP even in Tamil Nadu. Predictably, BJP is upset with DMK. As leaders fight a war of words, the Sethusamudram project has become the talking point. BJP stands accused of stalling a project that is beneficial to Tamil Nadu.

The Sethusamudram project has been billed as the miracle solution for the economic development of southern Tamil Nadu. Can AIADMK, the main opposition to DMK in the state, share the platform with BJP on this issue of Tamil pride? Can it risk an electoral alliance with BJP in the event of a snap poll to Lok Sabha? Karunanidhi, with his calculated gambit, has set the agenda.

Others are only reacting to DMK's moves.

DMK's rhetoric is instructive about the nature of contemporary political discourse in Tamil Nadu. In some ways, it is derived from the practices set by the Dravidian movement, like the use of mass media and entertainment to get the message across. In the 1930s and '40s, street processions would be taken out to lampoon Brahmins and their gods. These were essentially political mobilisations and high on emotive content. So were the anti-Hindi protests during the 1960s when self-immolation seemed a legitimate form of dissent.

These protests were ideological in nature - anti-Brahmanism and pro-regional nationalism - but they were essentially spectacles, not mere protests. The pattern of mobilisation has continued, but ideology has given way to irrational admiration for the leader.

The dilution of ideology in Tamil Nadu politics began in the 1970s after DMK split. MGR as chief minister sought to live his screen image of the benevolent hero. He believed in populist gestures to shore up the base of AIADMK, the party he formed after parting ways with DMK. Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have also endorsed the brand of patronage politics initiated by MGR.

The inheritors of the Dravidian movement find it a convenient option because the non-Brahmin social alliance that emerged from the Dravidian movement has disintegrated. Backward castes are emerging as the new social and economic elite.Under the non-Brahmin umbrella, new caste-based parties pose a challenge to DMK and AIADMK. Dalits are organising themselves outside the dominant political set-up as they see the backward castes as oppressors in rural Tamil Nadu.

DMK and AIADMK have failed to resolve these contradictions because they did not complete the political project initiated by Periyar. His self-respect agenda was not only about capturing political power, but also the creation of a rational and egalitarian society. The project was abandoned once DMK and AIADMK won office.

The two parties have sought to contain the new divides in the polity, first, by building electoral alliances with castebased outfits, and, two, by keeping alive the issue of Tamil pride. The latter, a form of identity politics with the stress on language and ethnicity, is championed by these parties because it can subsume caste and class contradictions. It helps subvert debates on social and economic issues.

The big two of Tamil Nadu, especially while holding office, are always searching for agendas that can neutralise social and economic divides. The Sethusamudram controversy is pitched as an issue of Tamil pride. Genuine concerns about the project's economic viability and impact on environment and livelihood have been purposefully ignored. Rhetoric has already got the better of rational inquiry. Two mythologies, one of the sangh parivar and the other of Karunanidhi, are currently dictating the agenda.


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