The political churning

Print edition : January 31, 2003

An Assembly byelection causes political temperatures to rise in Tamil Nadu, where the debate centres round Hindutva and the two main Dravidian parties' respective positions on it.

in Chennai

Chief Minister and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa with party chairperson Pulamaippithan at the party's general council meeting in Chennai on December 17.-VINO JOHN

COME an Assembly byelection and politics in Tamil Nadu hots up. This time around, with the byelection in the Sathankulam constituency slated to be held in some weeks, what has electrified the political atmosphere is the battles that have broken out on Hindutva between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Paty on the one hand, and between the DMK and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on the other. Verbal grapeshots are being exchanged about "Dravidathuva" and on questions like whether the DMK is truly secular, why it continues in the BJP-led alliance at the Centre despite the BJP leaders' provocative statements in favour of Hindutva, and why it keeps silent on the privatisation of public sector enterprises. The CPI(M) said that the DMK's talk about secularism and religious harmony would remain meaningless as it remained in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). (Ironically, while the DMK is part of the NDA government at the Centre, it has snapped its ties with the Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP.)

Thus Hindutva has been the main theme of political discourse in Tamil Nadu for the past few months. According to C. Mahendran, State assistant secretary, Communist Party of India (CPI), this was exactly what the BJP planned for, because it wanted the debate to go on. Mahendran said that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had long-term plans for Tamil Nadu. They had succeeded in bringing Hindutva on top of the political agenda in the State. "They are in collusion with the mutts. They have money too," he said.

Relishing the battle between the DMK and the BJP is the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is moving ideologically closer to the BJP. The AIADMK and the BJP are trying to portray DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi as anti-Hindu. The AIADMK general council, which met in Chennai on December 17 and 18, adopted a resolution recommending the State government to proceed against Karunanidhi under Section 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code for continuing to hurt "the feelings of the majority Hindus". Moving the resolution, Labour Minister A. Anwar Raja accused Karunanidhi of continuing to ridicule "the Hindu religious pratices" such as the sporting of kumkum and ceremonial fire-walking and wounding Hindus' feelings with utterances such as "a Hindu means a thief" and "Hinduism is not a religion at all". The State BJP latched on to the pro-Hindu posture of the AIADMK. It did so because it was worried that the AIADMK was out to steal its Hindu vote-bank through its scheme for annadaanam (free food) in temples, the Bill on religious conversions, and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's presence at the swearing in of Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister.

What nettled Karunanidhi was the backing of State BJP general secretary and legislator H. Raja to the AIADMK resolution. Karunanidhi called Raja an AIADMK "stooge". Replying to Karunanidhi, Raja asked whether Karunanidhi had ever ridiculed any religious practice of the minorities just as he criticised a DMK leader for sporting kumkum. Raja asked: "People want to know from Karunanidhi whether his participation in the breaking of Ramzan fast (iftaar) was in accordance with Periyar's anti-God beliefs... Why did not Karunanidhi condemn Kashmiri militants beheading three girls for not wearing purdah? Will people not ask why he is not adhering to Periyar's beliefs on equal rights for women?" Raja pointed to BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu's observation that Hindutva was the fundamental tenet of the BJP and that party workers need not feel reluctant to discuss it. Raja said: "This would have dispelled the doubts of all. Hindutva is not the BJP's programme or policy. It is the BJP's lifeblood."

BJP national general secretary L. Ganesan joined the debate by saying that there was nothing new in what Karunanidhi said about Hindutva. Ganesan claimed that Hindutva reflected cultural nationalism. He said: "The BJP has fundamental plans. It has not given them up." Ganesan, however, conceded that the NDA would strictly follow the National Agenda for Governance. Karunanidhi, on the other hand, was quick to point out that the BJP leaders' statements were not on the NDA government's agenda. CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan said that the party firmly believed that it was a "patriotic duty to vanquish the BJP and its parivar, which spread religious hatred". The DMK had not opposed the anti-people policies of the NDA government such as the privatisation of public sector oil companies and the steel plant at Salem. The AIADMK had also been pursuing the same anti-people policies. The DMK had opposed the AIADMK government on the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act. Varadarajan asked: "So how can the DMK continue in the government at the Centre when the BJP says that it will bring a similar piece of legislation at the all-India level? Does this not amount to implementing the Hindutva philosophy?"

CPI State secretary R. Nallakannu said: "It is questionable why the AIADMK wants to establish ties with a fundamentalist government and the DMK, which claims to inherit the legacy of the self-respect movement, is reluctant to snap its ties with the BJP. Karunanidhi is hesitant about pulling out even after Ganesan's and Raja's denunciations."

Indications are that the aim of the CPI(M) and the CPI, to goad the DMK into pulling out of the NDA and to form a united front against the AIADMK in the Sathankulam byelection, might not fructify. (The byelection was caused by the death of rebel Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) leader S.S. Mani Nadar in November 2002. Mani Nadar had declined to join the Congress(I) when the TMC merged with it in August 2002.) As if to answer Varadarajan's and Nallakannu's appeals to him to leave the NDA and join the Left parties' fight against the AIADMK, Karunanidhi said: "I have faith that the NDA will not resile from its agenda. As long as this continues, the DMK will be in the NDA."

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee working president E.V.K.S. Ilangovan announced that the Congress(I) would contest from Sathankulam. Ilangovan said: "We will have no truck with the DMK as long as it remains part of the NDA." While Nallakannu has declared the CPI's support to the Congress(I) candidate, the CPI(M) will decide on its strategy soon. Karunanidhi said the party executive would decide the DMK's candidature.

The AIADMK will also be in the fray and will leave no stone unturned in its effort to add to its successes in the byelections in Andipatti, Vaniyambadi, Acharapakkam and Saidapet in 2002. Leaders of the BJP are also keen to field a candidate.

An outcome of the current battle over "Hindutva" is the accusation from Karunanidhi that the State BJP has forged a "secret relationship" with the AIADMK. In turn, Ganesan alleged that the DMK was preparing to leave the NDA. Karunanidhi's conclusion was based on Ganesan's admission that the BJP supported the AIADMK in the Vaniyambadi byelection because it had fielded a Hindu candidate. The DMK's candidate was E.M. Hanifa. According to Ganesan, the BJP wanted to contest from Vaniyambadi but backed the AIADMK when it fielded a Hindu. Karunanidhi then pointed out that the BJP had supported the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), an opponent of the DMK, in the Saidapet byelection.

BJP leaders said party workers were against the continuation of the alliance with the DMK. They alleged that DMK actvists had worked against BJP candidates in the Assembly elections in 2001 and later in the elections to the local bodies. Above all, Karunanidhi has targeted Hindutva. A BJP leader said: "The Hindutva platform itself is going through a process of churning. You cannot encourge a person like [Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader] Praveeen Togadia."

DMK president M. Karunandihi, flanked by former State Ministers K. Anbazhagan and Arcot N. Veeraswamy, at a party meeting in Chennai.-V. GANESAN

AIADMK leaders claimed that the party was not keen to join the NDA. They said the AIADMK brought in the legislation on conversions because Jayalalithaa was genuinely concerned about the large-scale conversions going on in Tamil Nadu.

According to B.S. Gnanadesikan, Congress(I) leader and Rajya Sabha member, there was "no urgency" for the Congress(I) to ask for the DMK's support because general elections were not near. The two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, were in the habit of allying themselves with the Congress(I) during general elections. After capturing power they turned against the Congress(I), he said. "This should end. So the primary aim of the Congress(I) is to strengthen the party organisation in Tamil Nadu. We already have a vote-bank of 18 per cent," Gnanadesikan said.

For its part, the BJP executive decided in Vellore in December 2002 that the party should strengthen itself in the State.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP have long-term plans. Right now, all eyes are on the DMK, and the question asked frequently is whether it will contest from Sathankulam.

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