An Anachronism called Karunanidhi

The Supreme Court of India in an extraordinary sitting called on a Sunday, stayed the October 1st 2007 ‘bandh’ or strike called by ruling parties in Tamil Nadu – to pressure the Central Government to implement the Sethu Samudhram Project. In a landmark ruling, the apex Court clearly let it be known that bandhs by governments / political parties would be a thing of the past. A visibly unnerved Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, said he would go on a day’s fast. But again on Monday, October 1st 2007, when the Supreme Court threatened to recommend dismissal of his government, Karunanidhi quickly ended the fast and went back to work. The court’s ruling itself has wide implications for the country. Political parties will have to think again about using bandhs as a political weapon. However, the rapidly changing fortunes of this octogenarian politician are a pointer to a fast changing political environment in India, and particularly in Tamil Nadu.

The DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) is part of the government at Delhi and consequently enjoys a national visibility. The Chief Minister’s slander against Lord Ram had created an upsurge of anger across the country and subsequent remarks only amplified the resentment against him. In fact his political allies in the Delhi – at least the Congress – now want to distance themselves from the remarks.

A seasoned politician, Karunanidhi has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons. His tasteless remarks on Lord Ram have ruffled feathers all over the country. He wanted to know which engineering college Lord Rama got his engineering degree from. Going a step further he called Lord Rama a drunkard. In the process he quickly lowered the language to what some national newspapers have called “bazaar language”. The violence that was subsequently unleashed by his party cadres all over Tamil Nadu as a show of muscle power has only aggravated his problems. Being part of the Central government in Delhi only helped in quickly transmitting his acerbic comments to a national audience.

In the end, Karunanidhi’s image had taken a severe beating. He got his daughter Kanimozhi, Member of Parliament to say that it was his “sense of humor” that made him call Lord Rama a drunkard. An avowed anti-Hindi politician, he even tried some rambling in Hindi to soothe the ruffled feathers. But the damage control came too little too late. Karunanidhi’s Rama-speak turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

Shock & outrage as a political strategy is old hat. Over the years politicians have used it to retain the spotlight and steal a march over rivals in political battles. Say something extremely outrageous and follow this with calibrated sporadic violence – physical as well as mental / emotional – and you have a great recipe to stay in public mind in India. Or so the political pundits in India have postulated. The Congress and communists have used this very profitably in electoral battles. But the lion’s share goes to the Dravidian parties. Of course, as a grand practitioner of this strategy, Karunanidhi gets the cake. Anti-Hindu campaigns, anti-Hindi agitation, separate Tamil homeland – are recorded implementations of this strategy.

But what has come as a surprise is how a seasoned and clever politician like Karunanidhi can misjudge the sway of Lord Rama over the Indian psyche. He has been more provocative in the past with his acidic anti-Brahmin (read anti-Hindu) speeches. But that was confined to electoral politics of Tamil Nadu. Of course, like all Dravidian leaders who professed atheism, he was careful not to offend the Muslim and Christian faiths. For this brand of politicians, and there aplenty in India’s diverse political mosaic, insulting Hindu beliefs is tantamount to atheism while simultaneously respecting every other non-Hindu religion means being secular.

Personally, I am convinced it has more to do with the demographic changes that Tamil Nadu, like the rest of India, is undergoing. The electorate has far more younger people in their early twenties and thirties who have remained outside the traditional influence of these parties. Anti-Hindi agitation and “self-respect” movement – read anti-Hindu movement – are largely history to the younger generations. The Dravidian parties’ Tamil oratory apparently has little charm on these younger generations.

In the Tamil Nadu of the sixties and seventies Karunanidhi’s theatrics would have been a sure hit – not because people lacked faith, but lacked a cohesive structure to protest this monstrosity But today’s Tamil Nadu has come a long way. If the innumerable people thronging its countless temples are any indication, Hindu religious faith only appears to have deepened. TV and the internet have provided the inputs and means for ordinary citizens to participate and express their thoughts.

Further it is likely that Karunanidhi has misread the Indian middle classes. What worked in Tamil Nadu of yesteryears is not necessarily smart for the rest of today’s India. The degree of affection for Lord Ram varies across the country. Even computer models cannot guess how India’s diverse millions would react to a slur on Lord Ram. Also years of secular hypocrisy has helped catalyze the awakening of India’s middle classes who have kept themselves away from politics.

It must be acknowledged here that Ms Jayalalithaa has read the demographic change correctly and wasted no time in making political capital.. Her swift legal masterstroke has paved the way for the Supreme Court to put an end to the extortionist politics called ‘bandh’ that masqueraded as civil protest movement that had caused incalculable harm to the economy and untold hardship to India’s innocent billion plus. The proposed shipway in the Palk Straits is now a lost case.

Every leader has his or her share of the spot light. But there comes a time when he / she has to exit the stage. Karunanidhi’s Rama-speak has paved the way for his unceremonious exit. In today’s India, Karunanidhi stands out as an anachronism.

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