INFLUENTIAL POLITICAL commentator and satirist Cho Ramaswamy, 82, passed away early Wednesday morning at a private hospital in Chennai. Cho, as Srinivasa Iyer Ramaswamy was popularly known, was a much sought-after political analyst, who successfully donned the roles of a playwright, scriptwriter, actor and editor with great elan and success. He also served a term in the Rajya Sabha between 1999 and 2005.
In his tweet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Cho as a multi-dimensional personality, towering intellectual and a great nationalist. “Cho Ramaswamy was insightful, frank and brilliant,” he said. The Prime Minister added that “Cho Ramaswamy was a dear friend” and recalled his visit to one of the annual readers’ meeting Cho used to hold in Chennai.
Thuglak, the popular magazine he edited, was founded on January 14, 1970. Cho had invited Modi to one of Thuglak readers’ meet, one of Modi’s earliest public functions in Tamil Nadu.
The Prime Minister posted on his Twitter handle two videos of the function where Cho, in a satirist tone, describes the then third-time Gujarat chief minister as “the merchant of death”, apparently to take a dig at Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had used the term for Modi during her election campaign in Gujarat. “Yes, here I invite to address you, the merchant of death, the merchant of death to terrorism, the merchant of death to corruption, the merchant of death to nepotism, the merchant of death to official inefficiency, the merchant of death to bureaucratic negligence, the merchant of death to poverty and ignorance, the merchant of death to darkness,” Cho says in the video.
DMK president M Karunanidhi, in a statement, said despite political differences, Cho had great love and affection for him. He was a friend and a political critic, who could convey his message with humour, he said.
Cho was a severe critic of the Dravidian Movement, especially the DMK. He was one of the few people who had access to J Jayalalithaa, having known her from film days, and she looked to him for advice. But he had friends in all political parties.
Vaasanthi, Tamil writer and a long-time friend, says Cho was honest and fearless in his assessment of politicians. “His humour, sparkling wit and quick repartee made him a great conversationalist,” Vaasanthi adds. She recalls how he, as an actor and scriptwriter, would improvise on the stage to refer to current news and political developments to contemporarise his comedies.
In Mohammed Bin Thuglak, his hugely popular play of 1971, he resurrected Sultan Thuglak to comment on contemporary politics. The spoof, which was also made into a film with Cho in the title role, was seen as a biting criticism of the government of the day. In all, Cho wrote over 20 plays, acted in nearly 200 films, directed four and scripted another 14.
Cho’s involvement in politics extended beyond his profile as a journalist. In the 1990s, when the Jayalalithaa administration became notorious for corruption and nepotism, Cho worked to build a political alliance against her. He is said to have influenced the Congress leader G K Moopanar to tie up with the DMK. The alliance defeated the AIADMK in the 1996 assembly election. In his later years, he became closer to the BJP. In fact, the Vajpayee government nominated him to the Rajya Sabha. Cho also buried his differences with Jayalalithaa and remained close to her until her death on Monday.
Social historian and professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, A R Venkatachalapathy, considers Cho an unabashed defender of Jayalalithaa and the BJP. “He was the voice of disgruntled Tamil Brahmins, who refused to accept the rise of the Dravidian Movement and progressive ideas. He was anti-labour, anti-reservation. His publication was a reaction to the rise of the Dravidian Movement, especially the DMK,” argues Venkatachalapathy.
Thuglak, he feels, had a great amount of purchase in the beginning, but fell into a rut later. “He just filled it up with what he thought were jokes. In fact, he reduced everything to jokes and never offered a serious analysis about anything,” says Venkatachalapathy.
The high-point of Cho’s career, according to Venkatachalapathy, was during the Emergency, which he vehemently criticised. He was a part of PUCL (People’s Union of Civil Liberties), but left the organisation following his reluctance to differentiate between the violence of the state and others.