The southern oddballs: Can BJP win Tamil Nadu and Kerala like WB?

The two South Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have always kept up a dubious (?) distinction as being atypical or non-conformist, especially when it comes to a common pan-India narrative or discourse. The admirers call it ‘whimsically free-spirited’ and of ‘rebellious nature’. Those who are not amused with this eccentric, bizarre characteristic, on the other hand, see them as being out of sync. It’s as though they are always paying tributes to each other in bucking the national trend that makes them swim against the mainstream flow. Even in the latest electoral Armageddon they have, somehow, managed to keep this ‘distinction’ intact.

When India that is Bharat overwhelmingly embraced Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party as its own, these two states behaved like the flightless Ostrich with its head sunk deep in the sand. Or, in a higher philosophical sense, like the prisoners in Plato’s infamous cave who are not allowed to go out and see the way the outside world lived and behaved. Otherwise notorious for flaunting their political hypertrophy, these two Dravidian states seemed to Cock a Snook at the rest of the country while expressing their preferences in the latest parliamentary elections. And this is anything but a one-off case with the ‘Madrasi’ cousins. They have always shown a palpable disdain for the rest of the country’s democratic and demographic behaviour and its popular inclinations, including its electoral choices. It’s as though they want to prove that they are not part of the ‘mainstream’ political discourse, but an alternative to the same.

The starkest example of this ‘contrariety’ or antipodal attitude first became evident during the Emergency in the mid-1970s. While Mrs Indira Gandhi’s short but deeply debilitating attempt at dictatorship evoked volatile but largely implosive, animosity across most of the country, these two southern states, far from being resentful, actually seemed to endorse the regime for all its make-believe ‘positivities’. Ever since, these people otherwise known for their fabled history of enlightenment and free democratic spirit, have been living in self-denial and lasting infamy, with little remorse or regret, ever expressed.

But even as I read out these charges to both the accused, I tend to be fair to the Tamils as against my own fellow-natives, the Malayalees, for what I consider to be valid reasons. Frankly, I think the former should be allowed to get away with a mild reprimand, or at the worst, a rap on the knuckles, while the latter should get neither levity nor leverage. Let me explain. While the Tamils have a fig leaf of an excuse to cover their collective shame, the Malayalees, alas, have no such facility. The Tamilian ‘excuse’ is that more than participating in a parliamentary election, like the rest of the country, they were actually making their informed choice between two schools of Dravidian identity; two interpretations of their idea of self-respect, later came to be recognized as Dravidian nationalism. If the pan-national alliance politics introduced two external factors such as the Congress and the BJP into what was an all Dravidian matrix, it’s not a Tamil problem, that is, they are not to blame.

It’s merely collateral or incidental baggage that the two Tamil parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, were being generous to carry for non-selfish reasons. It’s sheer happenstance that of the two outsiders one got to pick a better side than the other, and thus procured more seats in the electoral sweepstakes.

To wit, the Tamils’ overweening concern was not to look at the national geography and add colour and heft to the respective prospects of what they consider are two extraneous, almost outlandish, entities like the BJP and the Congress, neither of which, as they looked at it, had any bearing on their settled lives. The Tamil logic is, if the North Indians decided to tag along, they would have to bear the fruit or the brunt, depending on the throw of the dice. It just so happened that in the present case, the BJP, despite its stellar performance at the national level, got the wrong end of the stick from the Tamils while the Congress ended up basking in the borrowed glory of the DMK, the eventual winner. As for the Tamils themselves, their rejection of the AIADMK and the wholehearted acceptance of the DMK were anything but whimsical. In other words, theirs was a choice made not just on political expediency and ground reality, both of which are crucial as elections go.

But more than that, the average Tamilian voter was having to choose his representative on the strength of the comparative pedigree of the two contestants. It has always been the DMK’s claim (dubious, the rivals say) that they are the true inheritors of the idea of Tamil self-respect initiated by a Dravidian Savant called Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker. Periyar who was an uncompromising revivalist of classical Tamil culture launched the Dravidar Kazhakam (DK) a socio-political platform to promote his idea of ‘self-respect’ among the Tamils. That was his way of telling them that they were different from the rest of India, an idea which his critics interpreted later as a veiled supremacist identity. DK was the precursor of the DMK, while the AIADMK is the DMK’s breakaway group. If the DMK scooped up more seats as opposed to AIADMK’s dismal picking in the latest general elections, there is this identity factor behind it. The ‘pedigree’ that I mentioned earlier.

The DMK has always been known as a family concern of Kalaingar (scholar) Karunanidhi, a thoroughbred Tamil writer and poet of some standing. Karunanidhi began as a member of Naicker’s DK, but later walked out on his mentor and founded the DMK. The AIADMK, on the other hand, has always had an identity crisis that its critics never forget to stick in. The DMK’s breakaway group was founded by the Tamil Superstar MG Ramachandran or MGR, who was a Menon from Palghat. Like all hardworking migrant Malayalees, MGR made it big in a deeply xenophobic Tamil film industry and became an even bigger icon than his political mentor, Karunanidhi. After MGR’s death, the party was appropriated by his companion and favoured heroine, J. Jayalalitha, who was again not a thoroughbred Tamil but an Iyengar (Brahmin) from Karnataka. But she not only inherited the same aura that MGR left behind, she further burnished it with a carefully cultivated feminine divinity.

Jayalalithaa eventually became the Godmother, more or less transcending all political fault lines for the average Tamil makkal (people). So now you have two Dravidian parties of which one (the DMK) claims to be pure-bred, led by ‘true-blue’ Dravidians, while the other (AIADMK) is cross-bred. As the tipplers would prefer, one is single malt while the other is blended stuff. Over time, though, the average Tamil voter has come to accept this existentialist divide as part of life. And to be fair, he had been more or less even-handed while dispensing his political patronage, including his precious vote, alternating it between these two factions.

However, when it comes to the brass tacks, the choice between one and the other was not always as easy as it’s wished to be. As long as the two AIADMK mascots were alive, the average Tamil voter remained irresolute and vacillating between the two dispensations, especially at election times. Although both MGR and Jayalalitha were from outside the Dravidian core, their film persona had turned both of them into more than mere film icons. They were as much a part of the Tamil legacy and identity as were Karunanidhi and his family.

This time around, though, with both the AIADMK icons dead and gone, the Tamil voter found himself unburdened with divided loyalties, and could make his choice without any guilt pangs. He opted for what he considered the Single Malt. But at another level, it’s a matter of supreme irony that a winner like DMK ended up tagging Congress, a rank loser at the national level, while BJP, who is going to form the next Indian government ended up with a laggard like the AIADMK, who despite being the party in power in the state, has come a cropper at the hustings. Whoever said politics was the art of the possible knew what he was talking about.

Now, how are the Malayalees, the quintessential contrarians, going to ride their star-crossed destiny after overwhelmingly electing a disaster like Rahul Gandhi? How will they explain an almost self-destructing gambler’s instinct to put all the money on a three-legged horse and a ragtag army of losers? More on that later.

P.P. Bala Chandran

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