With DMK leader A Raja receiving backlash over his recent comments on Hinduism, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin has cautioned party leaders about their rivals’ propaganda apparatus that, he claimed, could twist any comment and take it out of its context.
For the DMK, speeches, literature, and language have always been integral tools of propaganda and an orator like Raja, according to some, plays a crucial role in the scheme of things. As a DMK leader put it, the party needs “free birds” like him. However, not everyone agrees with that view.
Referring to rivals as “venomous political forces”, Stalin urged DMK leaders in an open letter on Monday to “work for the people” instead of “fighting with mud-dipped enemies”. Quoting social reformer Periyar, the CM said it was impossible to fight with people “who lack basic dignity”. He went on to say, “Let us move forward responsibly. When we represent the people, they will respond to these hateful organisations on their own.”
The appeal followed recent controversies involving the DMK’s Dharmapuri MP S Senthil Kumar, higher education minister K Ponmudy, minister KKSSR Ramachandran, and Raja. Ponmudy in one of his recent speeches was heard using an inappropriate colloquialism to remind the audience about the “free bus ride” while Ramachandran and Senthil Kumar found themselves in hot water over viral videos of their public behaviour. They were seen acting disrespectfully and ranting at people and officials in the videos.
But what led Stalin to issue the public caution to DMK leaders seems to be Raja’s comments last week that not only sparked a debate on social media but also led to protests.
“As long as you are a Hindu, you are a shudra,” Raja said at a gathering commemorating Dravida Kazhagam (DK) leader K Veeramani’s 60 years as editor of Viduthalai and the 88th anniversary of the DK mouthpiece. “As long as you are a shudra, you are the son of a prostitute. As long as you are a Hindu, you are a panchaman (Dalit). As long as you are a Hindu, you will be untouchable. How many want to be a prostitute’s son? How many want to be untouchable? If only these questions were asked aloud, the roots of Sanatana dharma can be destroyed.”
With only a few seconds of the 15-minute speech going viral on social media, the BJP and Hindutva outfits lashed out at Raja who later clarified he was quoting from the Manusmriti. But this did not stop the BJP from criticising the former Union minister. Several BJP members, including a senior leader from Coimbatore, were arrested for making threats against Raja. A Hindutva group called the Hindu Munnani called a bandh in the Nilgiris, Raja’s home territory. Other regions of the state saw protests as well as incidents of vandalism, including one on Monday in which a statue of DMK founder C N Annadurai was among the statues of Dravidian leaders that were defaced.
Asked about Stalin’s statement and Raja’s speech, a senior DMK leader told The Indian Express, “Raja is one of the few who fits into the party’s historical legacy. In the DMK, speeches have always been a vital form of communication and a means of explaining the party’s philosophy to the cadre. The implicit duty of well-known DMK platform speakers was to keep the party’s spirit alive in the minds of the cadre. Platform speakers and serious speakers were always present at parties because of the important role that speakers play. Platform speakers may use vulgarity and derogatory terminology to attack enemies. No serious person can model them. They are also entertainers. Furthermore, they never dealt through intermediaries but with the top leader himself. The late M Karunanidhi was an example of having personal relationships with many platform speakers. In that tradition of speakers, singers and lyricists, like Nagoor Haneefa, who used to sing all of the DMK songs, Raja is one of the last.”
He claimed that even though Raja and Stalin may not currently be close friends, the former Union minister is tasked with speaking all that Stalin cannot for being the CM. “Both Raja and the financial minister Palanivel Thiagarajan are such individuals who keep the fire burning even if the content of their speeches differs. The party needs such free birds.”
Another senior DMK leader said Stalin was forced to issue the warning amid the increasing number of controversies involving party leaders. “It will be advantageous for the party if we stir up controversy. What if every controversy you create hurts the party? There may not be many leaders like Raja who excel at politics and ideology as well as speeches. Raja and Ponmudy are also political figures who attended the Karunanidhi School, where propaganda relied heavily on language. Why did Ponmudy give a speech that indirectly discredits some of the most celebrated government schemes? Why did Raja make a controversial remark about Edappadi K Palaniswami’s mother during the last Assembly elections? Why allow Hindu organisations to disrupt public order by quoting sensational lines from an ancient text without establishing a context? Why did MP Kumar publicly flaunt the video of his inappropriate behaviour, yelling at a government official etc? As some of these well-liked leaders appeared to have forgotten the fundamentals of politics, Stalin was forced to make an appeal,” said the party functionary.