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With Them / Against Them

The DMK's bitter battles with the state BJP continue, so how long can they hang on at the Centre?

With Them / Against Them
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With Them / Against Them
Is the DMK a friend or foe of the BJP? It's a question that intrigues both party leaders as well as workers. In Tamil Nadu, the two parties are at each other's throats, while in Delhi the DMK is part of the NDA and a friend of the BJP. Trapped in between the two positions it has taken, the party is in a state of confusion from which old faithfuls say it will soon surface. But for now, the war of words has certainly hotted up. The statements and counter-statements issued by DMK chief M. Karunanidhi and BJP all-India secretary L. Ganesan over the last few weeks is testimony to the clash of ideological interests. Many DMK insiders say this will take its political toll, eventually leading to the DMK's exit from the NDA with its 12 MPs.

In Chennai, the inherent contradictions between the two parties is already coming to the fore. The DMK no longer sees any wisdom in economic reforms and Karunanidhi sees red every time there's a mention of the BJP's Hindutva drive. A few months ago, addressing a rally against the state's anti-conversion bill, Karunanidhi had said that a "Hindu means a thief". The state BJP threatened legal action for his "anti-Hindu" remarks. Subsequently, the Chennai police registered an FIR against the DMK chief for offences under Section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 298 ipc (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings). Ganesan even warned Karunanidhi: "Remember, these are not the 1970s."

But despite all the strong words, Karunanidhi has till now stopped short of severing ties with the NDA. Which is why the war rages on only in Tamil Nadu. The byelection to the assembly seat in Sattankulam, Tirunelveli district, on February 26, might seem inconsequential. But the stakes are high for both the BJP and the DMK. The former is extending tacit support to the AIADMK, while the latter wants to back the Congress-Left candidate. By indicating his willingness to do business with the Congress, Karunanidhi is clearly sending a message to the BJP leadership in Delhi.

In fact, when a state Congress leader criticised the DMK for continuing in the "communal NDA", Karunanidhi preferred to downplay it: "I would not like to make any comment that could weaken the fight against the AIADMK government. To fight this anarchic regime, we need put up a strong, united front." Towards this end, the DMK has also been warming to the MDMK with Karunanidhi initiating a signature campaign for the release of the latter's party chief Vaiko, arrested under POTA.

Though the Left and the Congress are insisting that the DMK formally quit the NDA to be part of a "secular front", this is unlikely to happen immediately. Karunanidhi is unsure of aggressively pursuing an anti-BJP line at the central level. That the party has not nurtured a serious second-rung leadership to bridge the gap between the old guard of Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maran, K. Anbazhagan, Arcot Veerasamy and the younger lot led by heir apparent M.K. Stalin, Parithi Ilamvazhuthi, K. Ponmudi, P.N. Siva and others is reflected in the lack of clarity over what to do with the BJP. The result: the DMK knows it is walking the wrong road, but is afraid to stop walking.

The party's estrangement from the state BJP dates back to March 2002 when Karunanidhi disbanded the NDA at the state level. Since then the two parties have been at each other's throats, even as the DMK insists it has a cordial relationship with the BJP's central leadership. The latter, on its part, has made little effort to reassure Karunanidhi. As a senior DMK leader admitted after the party general council meet last week, "A formal parting of ways is more a question of time, but it will definitely happen before the next parliamentary polls.Maybe, after the next round of assembly elections."

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam itself has come a long way as has its chief, from being Muthuvel Dakshinamurthy (his original name) to Muthuvel Karunanidhi—the Tamil name he assumed after being indoctrinated into Dravidian ideology (rejecting the "Sanskritic-brahmanical" name his parents had given him). In 1949, along with mentor C.N. Annadurai, he pioneered a break from the Periyar E.V. Ramasamy-led parent party, Dravidar Kazhagam, and formed the DMK. The DMK rode to power in 1967 with the anti-Hindi agitation and promoting the Tamil and non-Brahmin cause. The party's raison d'etre was its opposition to anything and everything Hindi and thus successive DMK regimes cocked a snook at Union governments down the years.

But since the late 1990s, it has been a totally different story. In 1999, the DMK forced upon itself an "unnatural alliance" with Hindutva proponent BJP and has since been tormented by a conflict of political emotions. Today, when the DMK president lets off occasional steam against Hindutva, the BJP, and sometimes even Hinduism, it's as if the Dakshinamurthy that lies repressed suddenly stirs and exercises caution. The split personality of the DMK chief epitomises the party's ambivalence towards the BJP.

Truth be told, BJP-DMK relations in the state had never been smooth, more so due to CM and AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha's open pursuit of her own brand of Hindutva. Last March, it began with the Annadaanam scheme (free lunches in temples), followed by her raising the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins, and culminated in October with the bill to prevent forcible religious conversions (now a law). Jayalalitha, pursuing an agenda that even BJP-ruled states have fought shy of, found an ardent admirer in the BJP and its Hindutva affiliates—VHP, RSS and the Hindu Munnani.

In the last few months, the DMK has reiterated its faith in the symbols of Dravidianism. The writings of Periyar and Annadurai have begun to find regular place in party mouthpiece Murasoli. Karunanidhi has also come out strongly for Tamil archanas in temples (instead of Sanskrit) and even said that only Tamil Hindu deities should remain in the state.

But at the same time Karunanidhi is reluctant to hurt Brahmin sentiments beyond a point. This is why the DMK leadership has softened its position on the Kanchi Shankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswati. DMK leaders are also seeking blessings from Hindu temples nowadays. Says political analyst Ravi Kumar: "The DMK is mirroring the BJP, which manages both hardliners like Togadia and so-called softliners like Vajpayee. Earlier, any national party that did business in TN had to mimic the Dravidian parties in style and functioning. The Congress did this and so did the BJP. Now after four years of allying with the BJP, the DMK has come to imitate the BJP's ways." In such a situation, "even if the DMK eventually parts ways with the BJP and the NDA, the 'BJP-fication' of the DMK may not be undone."

A formal realignment of political forces in TN is likely to happen only after the two-judge Supreme Court bench spells out its verdict in the tansi case. The judgement has been reserved for over four months now. The BJP central leadership, however enamoured it is of Amma's Hindutva inclinations, will steer clear if the SC hands down a conviction. Till then, Karunanidhi may be content to ride two horses. What remains to be seen is whether the rider dismounts gracefully or whether he'll fall nastily.
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