Symbolism has been a key element of the politics of the Sangh Parivar, which has recruited icons from mythology and history to support its ideology. From Lord Rama to Swami Vivekananda, they have been made to contribute to the Parivar’s idea of Indian nationhood, now and in the past. The latest target is the 11th century Chola emperor, Rajendra I, who expanded his empire beyond the shores of the Indian subcontinent to Sri Lanka and the Malay archipelago, establishing a Tamil presence that persists to this day. A senior RSS functionary has said that the Sangh would join the celebration marking the millennium of his coronation.
Celebrating Rajendra would help the Parivar on two counts. First, with his empire-building, Rajendra offers a counter-narrative to the claim that the Hindus were a weak race and constantly subdued by non-Hindu armies. Second, it offers the Parivar a toehold in the Tamil cultural sphere, which is shaped exclusively by Dravidian historiography and has been inaccessible to the likes of the RSS. Rajendra was certainly a great builder of not just an empire but also grand temples, trade links and irrigation projects. However, the Dravidian historiography celebrates the Cholas as Tamil kings, not as Hindu rulers; the marker is language and culture, not religion. Tamil identity politics is overtly secular and refuses to be part of any Hindu nationalist project. It has been a major stumbling block to Hindutva politics gaining influence in Tamil Nadu.
The Parivar recognises that it needs a larger pantheon to expand its base, especially in south India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been smartly leaning on Mahatma Gandhi and Congress icons like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel to establish his credentials as an administrator and acquire the stature of a statesman. He has also engaged with radical religious movements and reform traditions, for instance invoking the contributions of Sri Narayana Guru and Mahatma Ayyankali in Kerala, with the intent to broadbase the BJP’s social character. However, heroes from ancient or immediate history can’t be appropriated in piecemeal fashion for limited political goals: their political or historical tradition should be acknowledged and due respect paid to their life-work.