Udayanidhi has handed over to the BJP one real issue to draw the line between it and the INDIA alliance, predicts N Sathiya Moorthy.

In a way, Tamil Nadu’s youthful Sports Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin could not have asked for more.

By joining issues with him on his recent controversial observations on Sanatan Dharma, that too at a BJP rally in distant Rajasthan, the redoubtable Union Home Minister Amit A Shah may have taken Udhayanidhi’s name to the national political arena, where lesser mortals might have had to wait for a longer time.

But the kudos for the DMK youth wing leader should end there.

If anything, he had handed over to Shah and the BJP has got one real issue to draw the line between themselves and the 28-party Opposition INDIA alliance as never before since the latter’s inception a few weeks ago.

It might not hold until the Lok Sabha elections next year, but for the present, taken to its logical conclusion, Udayanidhi’s statement can put the rest of the INDIA alliance leaders on the defensive — and whenever the subject is broached, now or later.

Indications are that the BJP too will need more than Ayodhya and Hindutva to win Elections 2024. Nor is it likely to get more religion-centric votes than already in its kitty.

If at all, it may end up losing some, despite the possibility of the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple ahead of the polls.

How early can it be, and who will be the centrepiece, whether Prime Minister Narendra D Modi or UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, are all still matters for conjecture.

But quizzing the non-DMK allies in the Opposition combine, especially on their own turf, and putting them on the defensive, is a game that the BJP has played very successfully, especially during the IT era and under Modi’s leadership.

What more, with only the Congress rival at the national-level being the main alliance partner to be working with the DMK in Tamil Nadu politics and elections, it suits the BJP well to target the former as much as the latter elsewhere.

Already, no alliance leader, barring Tamil Nadu’s Congress MP Karthi Chidambaram, has rushed to Udhayanidhi’s defence.

It is true even of other DMK leaders in the state, who lately have seldom been seen defending fellow-leaders, including CM Stalin, as and when targeted by the Opposition.

It is more out of lethargy and their own advancing age that may be behind it all, but the fact that no senior DMK leader has been rushing to one another’s defence would not have gone unnoticed in rival camps — be it the AIADMK locally, or the party’s BJP ally, both in the state and at the national-level.

Trouble started for Udhayanidhi when he addressed a conference organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers-Artists Association in Chennai the other day.

Among the speakers were DK leader K Veeramani, claiming to be the ‘direct inheritor’ of Periyar E V Ramaswami Naicker’s ideological legacy.

The term Sanatan Dharma coming to mean Hinduism elsewhere, the presence of state Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Minister P K Sekarbabu by itself became a controversy — and was drowned out only in Udhayanidhi’s even more controversial observations.

In his speech, 46-year-old Udhayanidhi declared that Sanatan Dharma is against equality and social justice, and hence should be eradicated, like ‘dengue, mosquitoes, malaria and corona’.

In context, he congratulated the organisers, who included acclaimed yesteryear Tamil film-actor Rohini, for the conference title, ‘Eradicating Sanatan Dharma’, not stopping with ‘curbing’ or ‘opposing’ the same.

While condemnation of Udhayanidhi’s statement came instantly from the BJP and other pro-Hindu/pro-Hindutva leaders and groups from across the country, starting, of course, with Tamil Nadu itself, Amit A Shah’s add-on has given a new heft to the subject, making it to more prominent headlines than already.

‘They have insulted Sanatan Dharma, they have talked about Sanatan Dharma for vote-bank appeasement,’ Shah railed.

‘These people have talked about Sanatan Dharma for vote-bank appeasement. They have insulted (Sanatan Dharma). They say that if Modi wins, Sanatan rule will come. Modi has (only) said that the country will run on the basis of the Constitution,’ Shah said.

In the same vein, he added: ‘Sanatana is ruling the hearts of the people. The more they talk against Sanatan Dharma, the less they will be visible.’

Shah seemed to be putting words into the mouths of other leaders and parties in the Opposition combine.

However, it was BJP’s IT cell chief Amit Malviya who tweeted that the TN minister’s observations were ‘akin to calling for the genocide of 80 per cent of the nation’s population’ — meaning all Hindus in the country.

Such a construct, however, is far fetched as many of those opposed to the BJP’s brand of Hindutva politics, as different from Hinduism as a religious belief, are also Hindus by birth.

With singular exceptions, if at all like Udhayanidhi and his father Stalin, most DMK leaders in the present generation (including those from the past) are god-fearing, and temple-going Hindus.

In the midst of the Udhayanidhi controversy and even earlier, anti-DMK BJP/Hindutva leaders and social media activists have questioned the father-son duo about the former’s wife and the latter’s mother, Durga Stalin, making a beeline to temples across the state and elsewhere, too.

The list included Varanasi, as Durga Stalin was believed to have performed certain death-related rites for her father-in-law M Karunanidhi.

Durga Stalin’s elaborate puja room has also made it to YouTube, with her proudly giving a running commentary of her daily puja routine and also temple visits.

While sympathisers wanted the rest to see Durga Stalin coming out on her gods and pujas from during their days together in the Karunanidhi household, the critics are unrelenting.

They see it as a part of DMK’s self-contradiction and Stalin’s duality, like his father before him.

In the aftermath of the Udhayanidhi controversy, some critics have asked him to find out why then his mother was a practising Hindu and was going to Hindu temples more often than most Hindu women in the state.

Yet, if the Udhayanidhi kind of controversy has not triggered massive opposition to him in Tamil Nadu, otherwise a state full of believers against a few non-believers (even if running into hundreds or a few thousands), the reasons are not far to seek — but reasons that BJP strategists especially at the national-level have to understand first with an open mind, and then acknowledge the same.

It may be for them to make the choice(s) but one reason why they have not succeeded in Tamil Nadu the same way as Ayodhya and Hindutva did it for them elsewhere is because they use the very same metric and matrix in a socio-economic context that is far different and possibly improved than elsewhere.

First and foremost, the term Sanatan Dharma made an entry into the socio-political lexicon in the state only in recent years, not decades.

Coming as it did at the time anti-Brahminism of the Periyar-Karunanidhi kind was making a slow exit, Sanatan Dharma came to replace the same as a terminology but after re-infusing it with an ideology that had otherwise become either redundant or irrelevant or both.

Today, when the self-styled followers of Periyar’s ideology talk about Sanatan Dharma in contemptuous terms, as Udhayanidhi did, they are referring to ‘anti-Brahminism’ of the forgotten and forgettable kind.

What more, it is understood only as such by most people in the state, even when they do not share the old animosity, if at all any, towards the uppermost caste, Brahmin community.

Because it is relatively a new terminology, and could have been avoided in the state’s transformative political discourse otherwise, it has fitted into a meaning that was not desired by the proponents.

For the very same reason, these proponents and propagators do not understand the distinction the phrase has made to the current social discourse with its political fallout, if any.

This, in turn, should explain how in a state where Periyar’s ‘Black Shirt’ has been replaced by those wearing the same during their 41-day annual penance to the Sabarimala temple in neighbouring Kerala, does not care to decipher the social messaging behind the BJP-RSS’s political propaganda.

For them all, religion and politics are apart and the miniscule minority that tries to mix both had been increasingly confined to the sidelines of the Dravidian polity, through the past years and decades.

Otherwise, there is an emerging school of thought — not either developed, nor contested effectively — that the rural village communities in the state, and those elsewhere across the country, especially have had their own family and village deities, with which (alone) they identified than the larger Hindu pantheon, where Rama and Krishna, Siva and Murugan, adored the centre-stage.

Whether Hinduism earlier or Sanatan Dharma, as being promoted now in the state, they are still seen only in the larger context, but in daily affairs of living, families, clans, castes and villages continue to matter the most, even in this IT era and the 21st century.

On more than one occasion in the past couple of years, Tamil Nadu has witnessed an inconclusive debate — thank the good god for it — if Saivism and Hinduism are one and the same, or at least Saiviism was (only) a constituent of Hinduism.

The most recent occasion was when Modi installed a Sengol, or sceptre, supposedly identified with the Tamil kings of yore, in the new Parliament complex in Delhi, with the ruling BJP and the national media identifying the same with Saivism, without any foundation to the idea.

It is thus that Stalin took immediate exception to some Hindutva forces renaming Kerala’s Onam festival as Vamana Jayanthi as it related to the dwarf-like fifth of the ten avatars of Lord Maha Vishnu.

In the same vein, and more relevant to the Sanatan discourse in Tamil Nadu, the ruling DMK and its allies, including the Congress, CPI-M, MDMK and VCK, condemned the proposed Vishwakarma Yogana scheme, proposed by Modi in his Independence Day speech.

For them, it revived memories of Rajaji’s Kula Kalvi Thittam, as Periyar dubbed the Modified Primary Education Scheme, introduced by the former as chief minister in 1952-1954.

After Periyar and his estranged lieutenant C N Annadurai with their DK and DMK respectively, convinced the people that the nation’s first skills-based education scheme was all about imposing ‘hereditary learning’ on young minds and force them out of the regular school system, there were no takers for Rajaji’s arrogant assertion that it was only about increasing school attendance in the years after Independence, when the state did not have either the funds or the time to build new class rooms or school buildings as the case may be.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And now it remains to be seen if the police in any of the BJP-ruled states, if not courts, initiate criminal action against the first-time Tamil Nadu legislator and minister, for inciting tensions under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code.

After all, some Hindutva groups and individuals have moved the respective police in the matter, and the ruling BJP in these states too are unable to ‘live with’ what they see as an ‘affront’ on their religion and political being.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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