Sunday, August 25, 2013

Vishwaroopam, Thalaivaa, Madras Cafe, ...

(Or) Trends in Tamland....

The behavior of every political party on matters pertaining to Tamil identity (whatever that means) has been/is predictable to a large degree. What varies across party-lines are the nuances and fine-prints. This has been the case since competitive multi-party electoral reality with a reasonable representativeness became the norm in Tamland (circa early 40s). Any party that defies this natural dictum gets banished by the electorate, either slowly over time as happened with the Communist/socialist parties from the late-40s through the 60s, or in a jiffy as was the case with the Congress party in the 1957-67 phase. In this sense, Tamland is not unique, with similar trends identified and witnessed across India.

Given this background, what does one make of the Tamland pressure groups' clamor to ban the movie "Madras Cafe?" What does one make of the trends in Tamland, in general? Here is my take based on my understanding of history. There are four lines of thought that come to my mind from watching the trends in Tamland over the years.

1) Weakening hold of ADMK and DMK: Both ADMK and DMK have been around in Tamland for a long time to systematically master the full-circle art of propaganda and populism, short-term vs. long-term electoral strategizing trade-offs, victory followed by shoring up the support-cast, and resilience following defeat in electoral battles. In terms of leadership, both parties follow the classical Indian model of a tree hierarchy in contrast to the hub-and-spokes model that is common among the Communist outfits. While the tree hierarchy with an asymmetrical leader is advantageous in making quick business decisions (an obvious need for a well-oiled democracy), the hub-and-spokes hierarchy can be constrained by the ideological differences between the first-among-equals. On the other hand, the former hierarchy is more susceptible to a decapitating strike than the latter.

While Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi have been de facto bosses of Tamland (in turn), neither can boss around the boss of them all: time (the theists might prefer to substitute time with god, but Mr. Karunanidhi will prefer the irreverent rationalist idea called time to the reverent "venghaayam" of an idea called god, one might hope). It is amply clear that the hold of Karunanidhi, even on his own family, is not steady over the last decade, let alone on his party and the state. With two sons, a daughter and a couple of nephew's sons seeking to control the party, and a large clique from the families of the fellow travelers in the DMK saga seeking to align themselves with the most likely victor, DMK is passing through a stage where the post-Karunanidhi phase is assured to be a civil war. On the other hand, the multiple anti-corruption cases and the copious amounts of biriyani have had a lasting impact on the hold and health of Jayalalitha. With no second-rung in her party to pass the baton to, Jayalalitha is still confronting the ghosts of confessions from her partner-in-crime that seems endless. A capricious nature, that has resulted in a large number of sharks hurt by her past actions baying for her blood (as and when the opportunity may strike), means that the leader of the ADMK is a leader alright, but one who has to watch her back all the time.

2) Hedging the bets: In addition to the weakening hold of the ADMK and DMK on power politics, their hold on Tamil identity matters is also vanishing slowly, but steadily. Decades of brushing aside (see Footnote 1) the casteist-religious dynamic of Tamil society by the supposedly-unifying theme of a mythical Tamil identity is dying a slow and visible death. I personally do not find hiding behind the mythical Tamil identity a good or a stable long-term solution provided the real differences between different sets of peoples is held at the personal and family level, rather than induce a noxious circle of calumny and abuse at the societal level. But, I digress.

Overtly caste and religion-driven political outfits such as PMK, DMDK, KMK/KMP, MMK/TMMK have flowered aplenty in Tamland over the last three decades. While one could empathize with the Live and Let Live dictum that seems to twine through India, certain outfits present a good case for being banned outright or asap. Except for the common theme of "munnettram" (progress/progressive), "makkal" (people) and "kazhagam" (organization/group), none of these organizations have an ideology or a vision that is beyond the narrow and tunnel-visioned. As a result, these outfits have not burst across the seams except past their own unique support base. A case in point is PMK (the successor of the Commonweal and Toilers parties of the 50s) whose vote bank and vote share has stabilized at 5% and is primarily in the reckoning only in the Vanniyar-dominated North Tamil Nadu belt surrounding Madras city.

Being survivalists, they have forged ties with the DMK and ADMK in turn and then, going alone with bridges burned on both sides. The ADMK and DMK have found these petty parties to be "useful idiots" in hedging their bets on their loosening hold on different segments of Tamland society. But more importantly, when in union with either ADMK or DMK, these petty parties have punched above their weight by acts of connivance using the weight of the two dominant political parties. When on their own, they have acted as a nuisance to the common man with the opposition party remaining silent on their tantrums while the ruling party tries to put down the fire using its resources. As much as one would like to see the negative side of these outfits, I would see the positive in how they expose the self-contradictory nature of Tamil society, especially as championed by the DMK and ADMK (in turn) and also by these petty outfits.

3) Calculus of power vacuum: While the power vacuum in ADMK and DMK and their constant self-doubts has given space to petty outfits, this vacuum has not been filled by the more than life presence of the Congress or the BJP, both entrenched in their own tales of self-pity and paranoia. Gone are the days when a tall leader like Kamaraj walked the length and breadth of the state. Even a poor shadow of Kamaraj like G. K. Mooppanaar could induce more life into the Tamland Congress party than the stale breath that emanates from Sathyamurthi Bhavan these days. That said, even the very name Sathyamurthi Bhavan is emblematic of the disconnect the Congress party has with the demographic of Tamland. A Brahmin and the political guru of Kamaraj sure has good claims to having the TNCC headquarters named after him, but Kamaraj is "Guruvai minjina sishyan" by any yardstick. The Congress party would have bitten dust in the 1957 elections (instead of in 1967) had it not been for Kamaraj forcibly taking over the reins of the party from Rajaji, the support that move got from Periyar in the form of non-Brahminical camaraderie, and in turn, Kamaraj's decency in co-opting C. Subramaniam (Rajaji's nominee for the leader of the party) and M. Bhakthavatsalam in the Cabinet -- both Brahmins and tall leaders in their own mold. Like in Invictus, Kamaraj delayed the inevitable, only to be undone by the surge of father time and the impending demographic bulge against the fortunes of an anachronistic party whose shelf-life had long expired.

Beaten back by the language blues, one would have hoped that the Congress party would have learned its lessons in re-selling itself as the panacea to the hopelessness of the Tamland electorate oscillating between the vagaries of the two *MKs. Not to be, the constant family-centric policies of the Congress party has meant that tall leaders like Marshal Nesamoni Ponniah (who led the efforts in joining the southern Tamil-speaking districts of the Travancore province with Tamland in the state reorganization efforts of the mid-50s), P. Subbarayan (who started off by opposing the Panagal Raja faction of the Justice Party, but later moved closer to Rajaji, CS and Bhakthavatsalam), etc., have been shunted to the back pages of Tamland Congress history. Why, even the Congress (I) vs. Congress (O) split (following the takeover of the party by Indira Gandhi) has not healed in the party with the abuses meted out to Kamaraj by the Gandhi family loyalists still a constant reminder to the Kamaraj loyalists of what the party looks like and will look like. In contrast to being the refuge of the non-casteist with a national vision beyond the petty, TNCC has been at the forefront of inter-caste feuds like the Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar-Emmanuel Sekaran fight, Muthuralaminga Thevar-Shanmuga Rajeswara Sethupathi (deceased Raja of Ramnad and one of the champions of the Justice Party before shifting loyalties to the Congress) fight, Kula kalvithh thhittam and non-repeal of the Criminal Tribes Act during the Rajaji regime, and so on. While these are old stories, the scars remain as constant reminders, especially in rural Tamland where blood flows more eloquently than Cauvery.

In contrast to the Congress, the BJP and its unilateral focus on Hindutva in a state that needs no preaching on its Hindu credentials (with a deep sense of piety despite the enormous stresses induced on such a piety by the rationalist movement) has led to it being a non-starter everywhere except in polarized constituencies with a demographic shift. A constant stand-in-your-face assertion of the BJP will bring it not many new voters in Tamland till the demographic shifts visibly --- a good 40 to 50 years away, based on my biased estimates. In short, the BJP is hobbled by an inability to understand the linguistic ideals of the state, its moorings in Maharashtra and North India coupled with its hopelessness to tailor itself to the needs of a state that is as unique as can be, and a constant with-us-or-against-us catcall that is decided by voters conveniently looking past it, and so on. Thus, for the Congress party to become a force to be reckoned with again, it needs to look past La Familia. For the BJP to become relevant, it needs to win Tamil orators, rhetoricians and cultural stalwarts who can connect with what drives the state and what matters to the state. Fat chance either of these trends are happening in the near future.

4) Aggressive manipulation: A visible power vacuum that is not filled by the national parties is ripe for being taken by the contender(s). Whatever drives the current cultural and political space of the Tamils will be used aggressively by the petty outfits to space themselves as the champions of Tamil identity. This is the precise space that has led to the constant attempts at hero-izing (see Footnote 2) Prabhakaran, Veerappan, and the murderers of Rajiv Gandhi. Not to mention inter-state water disputes like Cauvery and Mullaipperiyar. Of course, while the latter issues need two to tango, the former are primarily a power vacuum where the national parties have been hopelessly beaten at the propaganda game by the petty outfits and the regional parties are dancing to the tune of these outfits which enjoy the first-mover effect.

In this game, no-namers like Seeman and Pazha Nedumaran as well as spent-forces like Vai Ko are all only emulating the grandiose sound-and-fury of the early DMK propagandists with no significant effect in power politics or real power. Where the DMK propagandists succeeded in co-opting the newly educated student population of the 50s and 60s, the current propagandists will find it more difficult (in addition to the difficulties of displacing the incumbents) due to the presence of social media and constant in-your-face non-stop debating on TV. While the current student population (beyond a microscopic minority) are not vulnerable to becoming anti-national by these acts, the rebellious streak that led to the isolation of the Congress party from the state will see no abating, let alone rollback.

Overall, the Tamil identity supporters are wielding a double-edged sword (and would end up hurting their own cause) by picking an axe-to-grind at every eventuality. It is easy to ride the Tamil Tiger, but difficult to dis-mount as the DMK will be able to regale from its tales of woe that was the late 70s through the late 80s. Sooner than later, the petty forces will face a growing backlash from the sensible set of peoples in the state (a good majority) who will add the propagandists to the list of equally execrable parties in the state. No, Rajnikanth cannot help the state as his cigarette fight with Ramadoss was a stalemate because of financial issues beyond his control. And he is picking no fight for he has a better movie to be released any time soon.

Till that eventuality kicks in, the order of business in the state is going to be one of self-censoring. Any movie with a political bent and self-introspection on the course of the more recent Tamil history will have to be shelved if business is what matters. Even caste re-renderings of history like Ponnar Sankar will have to be shelved (as witnessed by the fate of Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaaru). For folks who had witnessed the plethora of Kattabomman Transport Corporation and Thevar Transport Corporation from the crazy days of 90s, this is de javu all over again. Course correction to be euphemistic, but clear in terms of what to do for those in the entertainment business. The coming years will see a long laundry list of masala madness that was commonplace in the 80s and 90s. The mythical villain will no longer be Pakistani or spouting political Islam, lest it hurt the sensibilities of Muslims. Every non-Hindu will be a good guy/girl, and all the bad guys/girls will be Hindus (as was the case in the secular Dasavatharam as against the non-secular Vishwaroopam). Nor will it be a woman (no matter how thin and fragile and Ramya Krishnan or Kanthimathi look-a-like), or a fluent Tamil spouting man with a coolers (no matter how cool he may be otherwise), or a man with a karakuli cap and a beaten down voice (no matter how stylistically he can whip a sattai).

He might speak Singhalese, Chinese, Malay, or English. For Indians, that is good too, as the Mount Road paramatmas will be challenged on their worldviews. Do not worry about what the villain utters, for it will be type-scripted into Tamil. That is the only predictable thing these days. That can be bested only if a Tamil dialogue is also type-scripted into Tamil. That could also happen...

Footnote 1: Tamil society was never a non-casteist non-religion driven society rife with rationalism and intellectual discourses. Just as every part of India witnessed backlashes against organized religion and societal order at different points in time, Tamil society saw a big backlash against the entrenched Brahmins in the civil society, education and governmental spheres from the early 20s through the 60s. When the dust settled down, one set of entrenched were replaced with another and things continued onwards until the left-behinds protested in the 80s demanding another cut in the reservation system that is now aped across India (putting the legislation behind judicial scrutiny and upping the ante all the way to affording reservation benefits to around 90% of the state's population). With essentially the entire state not wanting the cart brought down lest it hurt them, the fistfights spread to sectors that are the biggest money-spinners: engineering/medical colleges, entertainment business and support-cast, infrastructure business, real estate, etc.

Footnote 2: One should thank the stars that "Auto" Sankar is not valorized today and noone has dug up the Aalavandhar murder case to bat for Tamil heroes laid low by Kerala business-couple!! While the attempts at valorizing the LTTE have a pan-Tamland impact, the "rebellion" by PMANE at Idinthakarai cannot transcend from being petty developmental green-nik issues to being a Tamil issue.

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