The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Almost sixty years back at Villupuram, a small town in the heartland of the Vanniyar belt in Tamil Nadu, the current Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, had acted in a “rationalist” Tamil play, Pazhaniappan. Donning the role of Sivaguru in the play set against the backdrop of the Thirties’ self-respect movement of Periyar, Karunanidhi held forth on the virtues of “social reform” and “nationalism”. If he has to remind his party cadre about this long-forgotten role at Villupuram, he should try to recall how both reform and nationalism have been paid short shrift to by the DMK since 1999, first to “save” the Vajpayee regime when J. Jayalalithaa pulled out of the alliance, and afterwards when the DMK became part of the National Democratic Alliance later that year.

The “Tamil consciousness” that the self-respect movement had sought to consolidate had taken a beating when the fortunes of the Congress began to soar in the erstwhile Madras presidency during the nationalist struggle. After independence, C.N. Annadurai himself gave up the demand for a separate Dravida Naadu in the wake of the Chinese aggression and fears that the Centre would ban regional parties advocating sub-nationalism or secessionism. Yet for several decades, the DMK retained its cultural moorings. It was this bonding, going beyond caste and religion, which at its peak in 1967, even saw left parties and the Muslim League share a platform with the DMK. Political scientists were forced to acknowledge the DMK’s contribution to the growth of democracy and secularism in post-independent India.

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aggressive Hindutva, which since the Nineties has threatened to engulf all regional parties, has not left the DMK alone. The DMK has had to take the BJP’s side at a critical juncture. The party’s ideologue and now Union minister, Murasoli Maran, saw it as a pragmatic strategy. In fact, Maran had even once said that “we are only in the NDA as one of the constituents, based on the national agenda of governance”. He even likened the strategy to the New Labour’s experiment in the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, the DMK’s secular image has taken a drubbing in the last few years despite its strong condemnation and consistent stand against the demolition of the Babri Masjid and opposition to the Ram temple. “Continuing our alliance with the BJP in the 2001 assembly elections was one of the reasons we lost. The minorities turned against us,” admits a party general council member, while arguing his case for the DMK’s “imperative” now to go with the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls.

In the backdrop of this larger political setting, the DMK’s just concluded Villupuram conference clearly signalled that the party president, Karunanidhi, was about to initiate a “definitive ideological correction course”. In a sense, the DMK had no option. For over a year now, Karunanidhi has been maintaining that the DMK has no ties with the BJP at the state level and that it is only part of the NDA at the Centre. Actually, the oppressive measures of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — the use of the Essential Services Maintenance Act to summarily dismiss nearly two lakh government staff, the forced economic reforms in the state, including the revoking of free power supply to farmers — are phasing out the DMK from the NDA.

The 16 resolutions adopted at Villupuram demanded, among other things, immediate revocation of Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Tamil Nadu ESMA, declaration of Tamil as a “classical language” by the Centre. They also made clear that the party will not compromise on the building of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.

In fact, despite being part of the Central government, Karunanidhi has announced that the DMK will “fill the jails” by picketing both state and Central government offices throughout Tamil Nadu on December 1 to press the demands. The announcement has immediately prompted political circles to speculate whether the DMK had decided to pull out its two ministers from the Union cabinet — T.R. Baalu and A. Raja.

The BJP president, M. Venkaiah Naidu, has already ruled out the Centre rescinding POTA and expressed serious concern over the DMK announcing an agitation against the Central government despite being a part of it. But there is no doubt that its increasing ideological incompatibility with the saffron party has virtually enforced this correction. Politically, the BJP has a very small presence in Tamil Nadu. But what has intensified the DMK’s apprehension is Jayalalithaa’s growing proximity to the BJP. This has emboldened Brahminical Hinduism in Tamil Nadu.

At Villupuram, speaker after speaker attacked the Kanchi Sankaracharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi. The DMK disapproves of his increasing role in the affairs of the state. The DMK sees in this, “a return of the Brahmin hegemony”. Its resolution condemning the ban on animal sacrifices in temples specifically points out that the “Vedic/Agamic culture was sought to be imposed on the ancient indigenous religious practices of the Dalits, the backward and most backward classes.”

As social analysts point out, these three segments of the electorate comprise an important social base for the DMK, notwithstanding the “Sanskritization” process that has struck root among several of the OBCs. The conference organizer in Villupuram and former DMK minister, K. Ponmudi, accused Jayalalithaa of leading a “counter Dravidian movement”.

The DMK’s deputy leader in the assembly, Durai Murugan, bemoaned the “return of Santana Dharma” and even added a theatrical edge to it by pleading on stage to Brahma, “Why this caste discrimination — between the Mayavatis (symbolizing Dalit power) and the Jayalalithaas'”

“Despite we (DMK) being part of the Central government, if the prime minister,A.B. Vajpayee is unable to rein in Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, should we say the British raj has gone and the Brahmin raj has come'” lamented the former DMK Rajya Sabha member and former law minister, Aladi Aruna.

Undoubtedly, the conference at Villupuram was also aimed at consolidating the position of M.K. Stalin, the youth wing leader and Karunanidhi’s son who was recently made the DMK’s deputy general secretary. Though almost all speakers at the conference hailed him as the “future of the party” and declared that they will accept his leadership in future, the veteran general secretary of the party, K. Anbazhagan, sounded a note of caution, “We may not be in a position of having to necessarily oppose Brahmanism tooth and nail today, but unless Stalin can take forward the social and political relevance of the Tamil consciousness as a unique humanizing consciousness, as embodied in the visions of great Dravidian saints like Vallalar and leaders like Periyar and Anna, he may not be able to survive”. These words, coming from such a senior leader, meant that the DMK was serious about its “ideological correction course” in the days to come.

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