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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Not DMK, not ADMK, Naam Tamilar Katchi: Seeman as ‘Thackeray of Tamil Nadu’

Like it has done for several elections now, the NTK has announced candidates for all the 234 seats in Tamil Nadu, half of them women. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party, that has never tied up with any other outfit, got 4% of the votes (more than the Left, Dalit parties).

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
Updated: March 15, 2021 8:11:18 am
Not DMK, not ADMK, Naam Tamilar Katchi: Seeman as ‘Thackeray of Tamil Nadu’“When I lead Tamils, I need to engage with their culture. It is not about my belief or the existence of God.” (Express photo by Arun Janardhanan)

AMONG the many small political outfits in the Tamil Nadu electoral race, with a support base that can swing results, is the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), led by a former film director who also has roots in the Dravidian movement: Seeman.

Like it has done for several elections now, the NTK has announced candidates for all the 234 seats in Tamil Nadu, half of them women. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party, that has never tied up with any other outfit, got 4% of the votes (more than the Left, Dalit parties).

A passionate orator, Seeman, who formed his party in the wake of the 2009 final assault on the LTTE by Sri Lanka, invokes in his speeches Tamil culture and identity, and stresses the need to go “back to the basics” or “roots” of Tamil essence. Rivals accuse him of exploiting Tamil sentiments, particularly among the Tamil diaspora, to build his political career.

Speaking to The Indian Express at his residence in Valsaravakkam, Chennai, Seeman, now in his mid-50s, says his candidates do not need to spend more than Rs 2 or 3 lakh each. “We raise funds from people. We got Rs 15 lakh from crowdsourcing.” He says his candidates are people who were “denied a space in popular politics”. Apart from 50% of the candidates being women, the NTK list has 13 Muslims, 55 Dalits (including 13 from non-reserved seats) and one Brahmin.

The years have seen Seeman’s evolution from atheism and Periyar ideology to Tamil nationalism. His party posters now depict him with vibhooti on the forehead; his temple visits are widely covered. In recent past, the sharp bend towards a puritan Tamil identity has invited comparisons of Seeman being “the Bal Thackeray of Tamil Nadu”.

Laughing this off — “Why not call Bal Thackeray a Maratha Seeman then” — the NTK leader says his realisation of Tamil identity came late. “India was never a country until the British bundled it and named it before they left. But we (the Tamils) existed, the Telugu people existed, the Malayalis existed… I always talk about my culture and tradition, I don’t ridicule others.”

As for his transition from atheism, Seeman contends this is distinct from the changes in the political scenario across the country. “Tamils are not Hindus but a diverse community… It is the British who tagged us along with Hindus,” he says, adding that while he travelled on the path shown by Periyar earlier, he was now “leading the path”. “Here, I realise that the life of my Tamil people is also about their beliefs. When I lead them politically, I need to engage with their culture as well. It is not about my belief or the existence of God. Anything and anyone with goodwill is what is God to ordinary people.”

Seeman feels a “minor fault” of Periyar was that he denied people’s beliefs and expressions. “Our centres of worship also carry inscriptions of our history and legacy. Why should I detach people from these and take them to structures such as Periyar Samadhi or MGR Samadhi or Jayalalithaa Samadhi? Don’t these ancient temples carry the history of struggle better?”

Once considered close to Tamil Nadu titans M Karunanidhi (in his early days) and J Jayalalithaa, Seeman says the NTK never thought of aligning with either the DMK or AIADMK, or even the newer parties of T T V Dhinakaran or Kamal Haasan, as he “requires absolute freedom to fight for the freedom of weaker sections”. “If I join hands with these powerful parties, it wouldn’t be helpful to the poor. My aim is not to make Kamal or TTV the Chief Minister.”

To charges of a distinct soft approach towards the AIADMK, Seeman says the NTK opposed the ruling party on NEET and the CAA. But it is natural the DMK would bear the brunt of his attack, he adds. “Philosophically, the DMK is the original Dravidian party. Even the AIADMK was an offshoot. So the DMK will be criticised more.”

About the BJP, the NTK leader says that while it wouldn’t have had this visibility in Tamil Nadu if Jayalalithaa was alive, it would still get nowhere. “They have to ride piggyback on the AIADMK. They are the biggest party in India, why don’t they contest alone like I do?” Seeman says, his voice rising as he warms up to the subject. “Hindutva ideology is not in our genes. We have been fighting them for about 3,000 years, from the time of Nedunjcheliyan I (a Pandya king) and Cheran Senguttuvan (a popular Chera ruler from the Sangam age). So Narendra Modi’s lotus cannot bloom here. Even if (J P) Nadda makes 100 visits to Tamil Nadu, their votes will be below NOTA.”

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