While the appropriation of the ancient Tamil symbol of governance is impressive, it is by no means a silver bullet that will win over the Tamils.
Despite its defeat in the Karnataka State Assembly elections this month, the BJP has not slackened its campaign to seize the Southern States which have so far rejected its mono-religious and communally divisive agenda.
In the run up to the Karnataka elections, the BJP tried to whip up Hindu communal sentiments by portraying the Congress party’s proposal to ban the Bajrang Dal as a proposal to ban Lord Hanuman himself. But this move failed miserably.
Undeterred by this rebuff, the BJP is now using the ancient Tamil tradition of giving a new ruler a sanctified and ornate scepter called ‘Sengol’ to show that it respects the Tamils’ traditions, “unlike the Westernized Congress which has no regard for ancient traditions, whether Tamil or non-Tamil.”
The Sengol is to be placed near the Speaker’s seat in the new parliament building that is to be ceremonially opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on May 28. The scepter is to symbolize the transfer of power (presumably to a new order presided over by Narendra Modi).
But the proposed installation has become controversial for many reasons and is an arena for a slanging match between the government and its adversaries, especially the Congress party.
Home Minister Amit Shah asked: “Why does the Congress party hate Indian traditions and culture so much? A sacred Sengol was given to Pandit Nehru by a holy Saivite Mutt from Tamil Nadu to symbolize India’s freedom, but it was banished to a museum as a walking stick.”
Shah also asked the DMK, the Congress’ ally in Tamil Nadu, if it respected Tamil traditions.
The Tamil Nadu Governor R.N.Ravi, who acts as the de facto State President of the BJP, told an audience at the Agriculture University recently, that Jawaharlal Nehru “was not conversant with ancient Indian traditions having received a Western education.” It was because of this lack of knowledge that Nehru asked C.Rajapagopalachari (Rajaji) to sduggest a traditional way of transferring power and Rajaji arranged for a Sengol to be made and sent to Delhi as per a design specified by the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, a Hindu religious institution in Tamil Nadu, Ravi said.
There is a reason for the BJP to invoke the memory of Rajaji. Rajaji was a freedom fighter but he turned virulently anti-Nehru and anti-Congress in the 1950s. Rajaji’s great grandson, C.R.Kesavan, who was in the Congress defected to the BJP in April this year. He has praised the BJP for resurrecting the Sengol and recognizing the role of Rajaji in its making.
The BJP’s playing up the installation of the Sengol in the new Indian parliament is the latest in its efforts to get a foothold in Tamil Nadu. It was preceded by the month-long project of running a ‘Kashi Tamil Sangamam pilgrims’ train” between Tamil Nadu and Varanasi in 2022. The idea was to enable the Tamils to “rediscover the centuries-old bond of knowledge and ancient civilizational linkage between Kashi and Tamil Nadu.”.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Governor R.N.Ravi has been pushing the envelop for the BJP in the State. In a bid to demolish the DMK’s stock-in-trade, the “Dravidian model of Governance” Ravi publicly stated that there is nothing like a “Dravidian model”. He publicly questioned the DMK’s decision to rename Madras State as “Tamil Nadu” and said that “Tamilaham” would have been better because “Tamil Nadu” denoted a separate Tamil country, according to him.
Ravi followed this up by sitting on bills sent to him by the Tamil Nadu State Assembly and by not reading out portions of his speech at the State Assembly written by the State government. His plea was that he did not approve of the contents. It was a challenge to the DMK’s campaign for federalism and States’ rights.
Will the BJP’s multifarious efforts to wean the Tamils away from a tradition of secularism, communal harmony, and the Dravidian model based on social justice and caste equality bear fruit?
While the Sengol’s association with the Chola kings will evoke Tamil pride, its association with Rajaji will not, because he was an inveterate opponent of the Dravidian movement and its ethos. He was not only extremely rightwing in his economic thought as the founder of the Swatantra Party, but was also against caste mobility.
As Chief Minister of Madras, he had proposed a “Family-based education system” (the Kula Kalvi Thittam) where the education of a child will be based on the child’s family profession which is dictated by caste. The Dravidian movement had condemned this as the denial of a caste-free education system for all kids and a ruse to perpetuate Brahmin domination.
Rajaji is quintessentially an icon for the Brahmins rather than Tamils of all castes. Therefore, evoking his name will impress only the Brahmins who are anyway mostly pro-BJP.
Likewise, the Tamil Nadu-Kashi train project will also not impress the Tamils at large because pilgrimage to Kashi is essentially a Brahminical dream or tradition. Non-Brahmin Tamils typically head for the Murugan shrine at Palani in Tamil Nadu itself, as Murugan is recognized as a “Tamil God”.
Again, Governor Ravi’s tirade against the Dravidian model of governance and his non-cooperation with the DMK government will only further alienate the Tamils across parties, because the philosophy of Dravidianism is accepted by most parties in Tamil Nadu. And it is the Dravidian parties (the DMK and AIADMK) that have ruled Tamil Nadu without a break since 1967.
So long as the BJP is entangled in Hindutva, communal politics, and the promotion of Brahminical ethos and concerns, it has little or no chance of making headway in Tamil Nadu.