Lessons for parties

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam. Photo: PTI

V.K. Sasikala, AIADMK general secretary. Photo: V. GANESAN

M.K. Stalin, DMK working president, at a demonstration at Alanganallur village in Madurai on January 3. Photo: S. James

The jallikattu protests exposed how the political parties of Tamil Nadu gravely miscalculated the people’s anger and sense of alienation.

POLITICAL parties seemed to be clueless when the first wave of protests for conducting jallikattu hit the streets of Chennai and some 70 towns in Tamil Nadu. Caught unawares, and in the rush to gain political mileage, the ruling and opposition parties vied with one another to reach out to the youth. The students turned them down firmly. Top leaders were asked not to come to the venue; those who did were asked to leave. That did not stop the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) from blaming the main opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), for the “fiasco”. The DMK was working to create an illusion that this was a struggle against the AIADMK. On several days, both parties separately attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance for not doing enough to ensure that jallikattu was held during Pongal. The BJP leaders, in turn, blamed the DMK and the AIADMK for the “mess”.

The stage was set in November for the political slugfest when the BJP’s only Minister from Tamil Nadu, Pon. Radhakrishnan, repeatedly assured the people that jallikattu would be held. In fact, the BJP raised the issue consistently and sought to make the sport a symbol of Tamil culture. Not to be left out, the DMK issued a series of statements that culminated in its working president, M.K. Stalin, holding a demonstration in the heart of jallikattu territory, Alanganallur.

Charges and countercharges

Stalin faulted everyone else but his own party, which was immediately contested by the AIADMK and the BJP. In fact, it was during the second United Progressive Alliance regime at the Centre that the bull was included, in 2011, in the list of animals not to be exhibited or trained as performing animals, which ultimately led to the ban on the sport.

In January, a virtual war of statements broke out among the political parties in their bid to paint the others as mischief-makers.

The BJP’s stated objective was to become a force to reckon with in the post-Jayalalithaa phase. M. Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP leader who has watched Tamil Nadu closely for over three decades, told the media on January 2 that Jayalalithaa’s absence presented a political opportunity for the BJP. Naidu was back in Chennai on January 10, this time stating that the Centre was examining all options to enact an ordinance on jallikattu.

As for the AIADMK, after party general secretary and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa passed away on December 5, 2016, without naming a successor or having a clear second in command, the party had to come up with an asymmetric solution to hold itself and the government together.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam wasted no time in catering to the AIADMK’s core constituency, the Thevar community. “The State will not take one step back,” he declared on January 11, and added that the government would ensure the sport was conducted. He did not fail to mention that the two representations he had sent to the Centre in under a month had not elicited a response from the Narendra Modi government. Not to be left out, AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala also wrote to the Prime Minister seeking an ordinance. AIADMK members of Parliament, who were unsuccessful in meeting Modi, finally met Anil Madhav Dave, Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, to press the demand.

As mass protests began enveloping the State, on January 18, the Chief Minister hurried to New Delhi to meet the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, while pointing to the fact that the case was sub judice, told the Chief Minister that he would support the Tamil Nadu government in any move it might make. This was the last straw for the agitating youth. Even as Panneerselvam promised a “good outcome” soon, the youth began creating an array of memes against him and Modi. For the first time since he took over as Prime Minister in 2014, a non-partisan crowd of youth was vociferously making its displeasure clear to him. Every day, slogans were raised against politicians by the crowds gathered in the State. Topping the list were Panneerselvam, Modi and V.K. Sasikala.

The DMK pointed out on January 3 that it was the non-adherence to the Supreme Court guidelines that led to the ban on jallikattu in 2014, when the AIADMK was in power. It was the AIADMK’s lack of interest that led to the current situation, the party said. The DMK claimed that it had given up an announced hunger strike last year after Pon. Radhakrishnan promised that the ban would be lifted. Stalin even went to the extent of accusing the Chief Minister of favouring PETA, the animal welfare group that was in the forefront of the ban. On January 13, Stalin led party members in a protest in front of the Chennai Collectorate demanding the conduct of jallikattu. On January 16, he demanded that PETA be banned. In all, the DMK had made the right noises, echoing the demands of the protesters.

Other political parties, too, either issued statements or organised protests. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party restricted to northern Tamil Nadu and which has its support base among the Vanniyar community, said on January 6 that although the review petition against the Supreme Court order banning jallikattu was filed within 12 days, on May 19, 2014, the government did not do anything for the next 18 months. On January 11, with just two working days left ahead for Pongal, the party said only a miracle could make jallikattu happen. A resolution adopted at the Communist Party of India (Marxist) State committee meet on January 11 asked the Centre to enact an ordinance.

The first protest

Amid all this, the political parties failed to realise that the ground was shifting beneath their feet. The first indication of this came on January 8 when more than 5,000 people turned up at the Marina beach for a protest. There were no press releases or media publicity to bring them there: they marched from Gandhi statue to the MGR memorial, a distance of 2 kilometres.

The event was organised completely through social media. No political party took note of it or was at the Marina to express solidarity with the protesters. On January 12, soon after the Supreme Court refused to be hurried into pronouncing a judgment in the case, several youth from Chennai’s business hub, T. Nagar, converged on the road leading to the BJP’s State headquarters. They raised slogans against the BJP and the Central government. They were chased away, and the BJP blamed the “Dravidian parties” for the protests and the ban on jallikattu.

Although the protest was gaining momentum across the State, opposition political parties still saw it only as an opportunity to score points as they had done in the past in several contentious issues such as the Cauvery row. The DMK called for a rail roko on January 20, unmindful of the fact that this had drawn derisive comments from the protesters and other youth not affiliated to political parties. The next day, the party thought fit to hold a hunger strike. The DMK seemed to continue with the template of modern-day protests of political parties, though no one, barring some sections of the media either owned by or affiliated to the party, took note.

The protesters made it clear that they were united in their distrust of politicians. They also made it clear that they did not want film stars to prop up their cause. This was new in a State where political parties have traditionally exploited the charisma of film personalities to boost their popularity.

In the initial days of the agitation, the youth wanted Panneerselvam to address them, a request that went unheeded. It was a historic opportunity lost to take the youth on board. “He could have come and explained to the students what the government was doing. He chose not to and lost a huge deal of mileage for his party and the government,” said a bureaucrat. Panneerselvam’s reluctance was the reason the students turned on him and the AIADMK with a vengeance.

A set of new leaders tried to squeeze into the space that the politicians were forced to vacate. There were many: a radio jockey, an actor, a rap singer and a jallikattu activist, among others. One tried to tell a crowd of youth in the textile city of Coimbatore that the youth should negotiate with no one but Modi. He was not given another chance to speak at any protest in the city. Communally sensitive Coimbatore was witnessing a protest cutting across all divides after a long time and the protesters did not want politicians or divisive figures in the equation.

All the self-styled “new age” leaders agreed with the youth when they refused to give up their agitation even after the ordinance was promulgated. After the police action of January 23, they claimed that they had advised the students against continuing the agitation.

When the police began the crackdown on the Marina, the “new age” leaders suddenly changed tack and began appealing to the youth to give up their agitation. They proclaimed victory and wanted the students to do so too. But the students were quick to call their bluff and sought to know the reason for their change of heart.

Leaders of almost all political parties appreciated the students for what they had managed to achieve—the coming together of students, the fact that there was no untoward incident, the orderly nature of the protest, and their steadfast resolve, even though most of them had not even witnessed a jallikattu. “The protest brought out the fact that the people of the State will fight for their rights,” DMK’s parliamentary party leader Kanimozhi told Frontline. “It’s a wake-up call that no political party can afford to ignore,” she added.

The CPI(M) organ, Theekathir, said the entire Tamil society had joined the cause because of the zeal exhibited by the youth.

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) president Thol. Thirumavalavan welcomed the fact that the students had come together for a cause.

In another instance, which spoke of State Congress chief Thirunavukkarasar’s clout with the party high command, senior lawyer and Rajya Sabha member Abhishek Singhvi withdrew from the petition challenging the new Tamil Nadu legislation legalising jallikattu. Thirunavukkarasar said the Congress would stand with Tamil Nadu to regain its rights.

A movement & its problems

The fact that a youth movement had gathered steam in Tamil Nadu despite several handicaps is noteworthy. In other States, political parties treat student, youth, women and trade union movements as fertile ground to locate new political talent. Not so in Tamil Nadu. The State has seen very few student/youth movements. The first was during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. It was a pan-Tamil Nadu movement cutting across all sections, and youth were a critical part of it. The second big student-youth protest came in 1972 after the ouster of M.G. Ramachandran from the DMK. The third, but short-lived, agitation was in 1983 following the massacre of Tamil prisoners in Sri Lanka’s Welikada prison.

The Dravidian parties were founded on the basis, among other things, of fighting an overarching Central government at various levels. While rebelling against the establishment applied to the Dravidian parties, the student union wings of both the AIADMK and the DMK did not encourage deviation from the established norms. In fact, for the most part, both the student and youth wings of these parties have been headed by leaders not so young.

The AIADMK, over time, had two different wings that were strange in their very conception itself: a MGR Peravai and a Jayalalithaa Peravai. Both had cadre who dressed up in uniform and took part in parades and marches. It is almost as if the only reason for these wings to exist was to put up a synchronised show ahead of a party conference and to march to a beat.

Personalities are central to both the DMK and the AIADMK; the philosophies that guide the parties ceased to be relevant at the turn of the 1980s. The reason to ally with the party in power at the Centre for both the Dravidian parties was the same: a share of the pie of political power. The DMK justified its decision to ally or break ties with the BJP or the Congress at different times, but the explanations reeked of political expediency.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK is considered to have an ideological base slightly more sophisticated than the AIADMK has, but with its leader, M. Karunanidhi, blatantly justifying the son-replacing-the-father syndrome at all levels of the party, and the repeated jump from the BJP to the Congress, the party has lost a lot of its ideological high ground. Also, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK was fundamentally different from MGR’s AIADMK in many ways, to the extent that but for the name, it appeared completely different in its approach to issues and in its style of functioning.

Although both the Left parties have a presence in Tamil Nadu, the fact remains that they are weak and confined to small pockets in the State. Their student and youth wings (Students’ Federation of India [SFI] and Democratic Youth Federation of India [DYFI]), which have been fighting for students’ democratic rights and against privatisation, commercialisation of education and demonetisation, could have provided an alternative to the situation prevailing in the State, but they were not able to exploit the vacuum.

This dearth of political space for a large section of the population and the refusal of political parties to even acknowledge the existence of the problem of zero representation for this large section proved a heady combination.

It is in this context that the agitation has to be viewed. Most of the agitators spoke of the “betrayal” of the political parties. They were even more infuriated by the comments of some BJP leaders. Subramanian Swamy described the agitators as “porukkis” (rogues), while another leader, H. Raja, tried to add a communal angle to the struggle in his tweets. If there was any political capital that the BJP could have derived from the struggle it was undone by Swamy and Raja, apart from Modi, who said his government was not in a position to promulgate an ordinance.

The long conversations with politicians of various hues make it clear that the political parties gravely miscalculated the anger and sense of alienation of the people of the State. The movement was leaderless, and some political party leaders heaved a sigh of relief at this: since there was no leader, their turf was safe.

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