Tag Archives: tamil nadu

Rajnikanth and Politics – A Few Words

Everyone has an opinion about whether Rajnikanth should enter politics, and as a self-proclaimed fan of the actor, I have one too. SPOILER: I think he should enter politics, but not in the way everyone thinks. Before I explain my point of view, let me explain the context in which this debate takes place.

A (Very) Simplified Recap of Tamil Nadu’s Politics

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu’s politics effectively rejected national parties in favor of regional parties that emerged from the Dravidian movement. CN Annadurai’s call for strengthening the state around linguistic lines as opposed to a disconnected central government swept through generations of people who would identify themselves as either of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which means the party for advancement of the Dravidians, or its alternate, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was a breakaway formed in 1972 and named for former Chief Minister CN Annadurai. The two parties have produced seven Chief Ministers over half a century and their tug-o-war moves between phases of development and welfare schemes. The passage of time has bred discontent cynicism in the people as allegations of corruption, nepotism and neglect of long-term state-development took root.

Former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu

Rajnikanth and the 1996 Elections

At the peak of anti-Dravida party sentiment, Indian National Congress leader GK Moopanar broke away from the national party to form a Tamil Manila Congress (TMC), a state-centric party. His clean image and popularity received a boost from support by Tamil cinema’s leading man, Superstar Rajnikanth. An alliance between the TMC and the DMK came to power in 1996 and many credited the actor for turning the tide decisively against the incumbent government. This may not have been an overstatement considering the longstanding ties between the cinema industry and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both chief ministers from DMK, CN Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were successful writers who had written many socially motivated plays and cinema that shaped the discourse of the Dravidian movement. AIADMK’s founder MGR, arguably the most influential politician in the state, was an actor who cultivated his image through the resounding message of hope and revolution, written for the most part by his former colleagues, the aforementioned chief-ministers. His successor J. Jayalalitha was the leading lady in many of his films. Many of the minor parties that have developed in the state are often led by actors. So, Rajnikanth’s value to a political party or his potential impact is not insignificant.

Pros and Cons – Perceptions of Political Life

Which brings us to the question of his entry into the political fray. First of all, there are those who claim that the actor’s background as a Marathi native born and raised in Karnataka disqualifies him from entering Tamil politics – to them, I have nothing to say except point out that as an Indian national, he has every right to run for public office anywhere in the country. Cynical critics look at his recent comments about politics as an attempt to capitalize the political vacuum created by the passing of then incumbent chief minister J. Jayalalitha. A few critique his perceived ideological proximity to the right-leaning national party BJP and the national premier Narendra Modi. However, it is important to note that Rajnikanth has maintained cordial relationships with all political leaders from either side of the aisle. Quite a few cite the 67-year old actor’s age as being past the prime to enter politics. Former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha was actively involved in politics until her last year and she was of the same age as Rajnikanth. Opposition leader M. Karunanidhi is 92 years old, and he is still projected as the party’s incumbent leader. Outside of the state, current US President Donald Trump entered his office at the ripe old age of 70. Age cannot be the only consideration to exclude someone from public office. Others look at the years as well; not exactly his age, but his years of relevance. The Superstar has not shone as brightly in 2017 as he did in 1996. Although his films are still received with an enthusiasm reserved for a festival, they have become few and far between. People are far more critical of the extravagant flourishes of the Superstar, than they were in the 90s. In his years of absence, he has ironically been overexposed by the many younger actors imitating him in tribute and inevitable parody. This may not be a bad thing, because it shows that the people discern between the actor’s on-screen persona and his potential political life. His laconic and enigmatic mode of speaking, which enthralled his fans in an earlier time is not welcome by a people clamoring for clarity and actionable ideas. His gentlemanly image simply feels outmoded in this contemporary period of unrest.

The Actor’s Image as Myth

Should He Enter Politics?

I am firmly of the belief that anyone who holds considerable sway among the public should actively engage in political work contributing to progress. As long as we keep claiming that only career politicians can enter politics, we are skewing the conversation about national growth in the direction of nepotism and protectionism. Public figures from all walks of life should engage in a political life, doing their best to advance the cause of the common folk. However, I also believe that entry into politics is simplified into a false choice of either joining an existing party with its corrupt machinery or launching his own party, haphazardly converting fan-clubs into political offices. Established parties are already making overtures to the actor asking him to join them. Instead, I would like Rajnikanth’s entry to politics to take a third way – for him to effect actual change at the grassroots, he must run for a clearly defined political office for as an independent candidate. By this, I mean, he could contest to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly and set an example of what good leadership could bring to a single constituency. If his ambitions are grander than that, then he could contest as a mayoral candidate for a city and work for its welfare. The problem with the reaction to his entry to politics seems to be located with the notion that if he enters politics, he must be a Chief Ministerial candidate. Only when we recognize the importance of leadership at all levels will we see the exodus of the crony culture. Socially minded public figures are not new in Tamil Nadu, just as anywhere else in the world. The usually reclusive actor Kamal Hassan has recently expressed his thoughts on political and social problems openly. Radio Jockey Balaji became a cult figure due to his public works during the Chennai floods two years ago. Only when public figures of non-political background volunteer in their own spheres of influence, do we have a chance of challenging or at least destabilizing the status quo of dominant parties and encouraging a legitimate democracy. Rajnikanth’s entry to politics would be a success if he can add to that critical force that listens to the people and works for their progress. However, we can only wonder if the larger than life image of the actor would allow him to enter politics at the humble, day-to-day level of community service.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Jallikattu – Looking Back at a Protest

Nearly three months ago, Tamil Nadu saw a huge wave of protests against a controversial ban of a traditional sport – Jallikattu. At its peak, the protest wave transcended its local purposes and became a social, political and cultural movement that provoked institutional reversal, albeit momentarily. However, underlying the overwhelming mass-appeal of the protests, there are some problematic strains that undercut the protest narrative that need to be addressed. The importance of refining protest language and rhetoric amidst a political struggle is very high, because it is not only representative but also formative in shaping popular dispositions and argumentative structure.

Jallikattu

To offer a little background, Jallikattu or Aer Thazhuvuthal (literally Bull Hugging) is a kind of bull-fighting where an agitated bull is released amidst a sea of participants who try to subdue it. There are clear rules about how many people are supposed to engage with the bull at any given time, as well as which part of the bull can be held during the event. However, the actual numbers of bull to man ratio is not clear on any of the sources. This sport has been a point of contention, as many see a move to forbid such events as a challenge to or dilution of their culture. And many who are outside the culture do not see the point of something that is visibly cruel towards an animal.

The debate over Jallikattu has raged sporadically for a few years around this season but an uneasy compromise often was offered instead of a clear solution. This year, the issue reached a head when the Supreme court ordered to ban the event. Compounded with a general anger against unilateral government policies that lost touch with ground reality, the issue of Jallikattu became a flashpoint of public action. Supporters of the sport took to social media and the streets to protest peacefully in remarkable numbers. The critical mass of the movement was so monumental that it changed the popular discourse about the event, and it gained national and even international attention, leading to a change in the laws themselves. In a nation where the idea of political change is often dealt with skepticism, if not cynicism, the results were beyond the most optimistic expectations. Jallikattu events happened around the state and it was seen as a victory for the untapped political power of youth movement and social media networking.

Protesters at Marina Beach, Chennai

However, the language in which much of the protest was carried out was anticlimactic and weak, because it called for hostility towards one organization (PETA) and ignored the core issue at hand. Ignored were the other Indian Animal Welfare organizations that also had called for a ban on the sport. Instead of engaging with the politics and more importantly, the ethics of the criticism – the resistance focused on the origin of the opponent. By attacking PETA’s American origin, the protests slipped away from the legitimacy of their position, creating greater ambiguity of message. Ironically, PETA was not called out for its many inconsistencies or hypocritical reaction to animal welfare. Instead, it was challenged simply because it was not an ‘Indian’ organization. Other Indian organizations were dismissed equally nonchalantly, because they were not ‘Tamil’. And what happens to those who happen to be Tamil, and against the sport? They are traitors and outcasts who are no longer connected to the roots of the culture.

I am also aware that my own opposing views would be seen as at best, contrarian or at worst – treacherous. It does not help that I am writing this piece in English – I am already a sellout. I can already hear the accusation that, “Of course he lives abroad, disconnected from the realpolitik of day-to-day Tamil Nadu and the aspirations of the Tamil people. What else can you expect?” And I ask the same question – what else can you expect, when the quality of your resistance lacks moral direction? The rhetoric was constructed on a fervent Tamil nationalism and a rhetoric of anger that discredited any view that was opposed to theirs. This is a dangerous and totalitarian discourse that resists dialogue in favor of a populist will. Sensitive issues are inherently polarizing and a misguided rhetoric that prevents communication does not improve the situation – it simply turns into a political tug-o-war.

And perhaps the most disheartening part of this fervent discourse was the ad hominem attacks which took the easy routes of sexism and xenophobia. The overwhelming misogyny directed towards actress Trisha when she expressed an opinion contrary to the public groundswell was downright shameful. She was addressed with the most unimaginative epithets and was called out for drinking and hanging out with people from outside the state. The shutting down of a film production which featured her was celebrated as an achievement. Similar moral outrage over drinking and threats of physical violence were directed at the head of PETA’s Indian administration. Of course, she was a woman as well. None of the social media bravos expressed their displeasure with the usage of such language, regardless of their own drinking or smoking habits. The populist imagination was so opposed to contradiction that it fiercely challenges any form of dissent. Beyond a question of doubt, such language was mainly directed towards women, chastising them for the impunity of trying to curb something that is masculine. This attitude of cultivated ignorance and rage against the other that has insinuated itself into the culture of protest so deeply, that it achieved little more than simply changing a decision about an event – while utterly wasting its potential that once seemed to become a point of legitimate dialogue between opposing ideals.

Equally worrisome was the demand for banning things. There is a petulance that could easily take a fascist turn if not checked with a desire to engage with opposition in a responsible and co-operative manner. To call for a ban on something is to reject a conversation in favor of fascist political control. Why not test the validity of the idea in the open market? Why not boycott PETA or any organization whose principles you are against? Why not simply stop using the products of the multi-billion dollar companies who are seen as an anti-national enemy? Nothing cuts a business more than the absence of growth and profit. A ban does not express the will of the people – it only reveals the insecurity of those who want to remove anything that is challenges their power and authority. The call for a ban is a reactionary and rage-fueled response that unironically affirms the same authority which had banned Jallikattu unilaterally in the first place.

There were many voices that presented a well-argued position that stemmed from pragmatism (protection of native species) and rationalism (a call to closely regulate the events instead of banning it) – which were very clearly visible throughout the protests. However, they were never invested with the responsibility to be the most important part of the protests. Instead, show of strength and populist slogans took over the narrative. There are agriculturalists and historians who watch helplessly as their nuanced arguments have been steamrolled over by simplistic jingoism.

Ultimately, the sport was conducted, but the results were anti-climactic in their mundanity. Despite the many advocacy groups which flagrantly declared their guarantee of better treatment of the animals – the sport was conducted in the same way as it always had been – with abuse, death and irregularities. Nobody was interested in talking about reform of the problem after the fact. That would be a conversation for next year, three days before the event. Questioning the brutality of the sport which left two dead this year also quickly became taboo – you cannot choose the extent to which you support the event. There can be no discussion on the evolution of the sport to offer greater protection for the participants and the bulls. You are either with the protest or against Tamil Culture. We need a better quality of protestors, those who engage with the problem and not the people. Those who believe that ideas can be debated without disrespect. Those who know that just because something was a certain way in the past, it does not mean that it ought to continue in the same way.

That is why, despite my own personal support of Jallikattu – I am not comfortable with the “I Support Jallikattu” movement. It is important to remember that a movement which loses its moral direction becomes irrelevant, regardless of its cause. When the dust settles, the issue of Jallikattu has not yet been resolved, it has been summarily and perpetually postponed by the overwhelming will of the majority. A truly ethical decision would focus on developing a much more nuanced way of conducting the sport which includes incorporation of safety elements for both the animals as well as the participants. The current reactionary move to reinstate the sport does little than revert to an older form of status quo. Instead of addressing any of the questions (such as these raised in an opinion piece featured in The Hindu) that should haunt the self-proclaimed lovers of animals and those who call upon the greater good of preserving native species of cattle, all we got was a day with a few agitated bulls rushed through roaring crowds.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

TN Politics and a Better Quality of Dissent

Despite the lingering tension about the Speaker’s conduct during the government’s floor test, it seems like we have reached the end of the struggle between former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, O. Paneerselvam, and the AIADMK party establishment that has rallied around V. N. Sasikala. Perhaps many are disappointed that a remarkable political drama ended without much of a sizzle, as the party establishment secured its majority and the control of the state assembly. As entertaining as this drama was, it also brought to surface some usual ugliness in TN politics that has become so tiring and dated, that we need to rethink its acceptability. There are many real problems and instances of misconduct that could have been used to attack the opposition, but the argument quickly reached name-calling and personal attacks. While I am no fan of either faction, it was disheartening to see that quality of rage against the machine was without decency. Of course, this was not an isolated event in TN’s political history.

Former CM O. Panneerselvam and AIADMK General Secretary V. N. Sasikala

To set the stage, let me briefly introduce to the players in this modern day Game of Thrones – the AIADMK is one of the two Dravidian parties that have alternately ruled TN since 1990s, resisting nationalist political parties and supporting their charismatic leaders. In 2016, after winning a historical second consecutive term, J. Jayalalitha was hospitalized before she passed away. At the wake of her passing, Sasikala, the CM’s close aide, with her extended family, took over as the party’s general secretary and seemed to bide her time before making a claim for the Chief Ministership. A surprising voice of dissent arose from the party when incumbent and 3-time CM, O. Paneerselvam spoke against Sasikala’s aspirations, alleging that he was insulted repeatedly to secure power for Sasikala and her family members. He staked his own claim to retaining his position by explaining that he was coerced into resigning from the post.

That moment became a flashpoint in TN politics, as he received wide-spread popular support, most noticeably on social-media. The overwhelming support that OPS received is not so much a testament to his ability as a leader, but a reflection of the public’s aversion towards Sasikala and her family’s control over the party. Sasikala’s influence was seen as an unsavory influence on the charismatic Jayalalitha, whom the masses adored. Some would go as far as to say that the disproportionate assets case that would later tarnish Jayalalitha’s legacy took shape due to the excesses of Sasikala and her family members. OPS was seen as an alternative to the nepotistic rise of Sasikala, who had not previously held any official positions in the party. There were also many reasons to favor OPS against Sasikala, chief among them being his hitherto untarnished image as a CM, compared to the Mafiosi image cultivated by Sasikala’s family.

Given how clearly the lines of resistance could be drawn, the web-culture did not hesitate to destroy any decorum. The tone in which she has been criticized has been apolitical – and very personal. Most attack ads challenge her legitimacy by simply accusing Sasikala of being a ‘maid’ to the former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha. Her self-appointed moniker of “Chinnamma” (meaning the second-mother, or the mother’s sister) to claim Jayalalitha’s legacy as the “Amma” (mother) was mocked to no end. The language does not engage with the legitimacy of her aspirations or the many accusations of corruption that she has faced. Instead, there is critique of her appearance and her name.

We need a better quality of resistance that discusses the issues and the problem of nepotism and cult of personality – we should be challenging her politically naïve and openly coercive actions against her own party members – instead, the troves of social media news generators are content sharing misogynistic rubbish in the name of protest and popular opinion. If that is the quality of popular dissent we are capable of, then we should be ashamed of our own gross immaturity.

It also felt like OPS was getting a much gentler sentence for his sudden rebellion, which was preceded by a very long period of subservience to the AIADMK party leadership, including Sasikala. Instead of holding OPS to close scrutiny and examining his candidacy on his merit and works, we are happy to give him a pass for simply being an alternative. Those who mocked him for being deferential to Jayalalitha at every turn, now praised his ability to usher in her style of governance. The same people who attacked the present caretaker CM for being ineffective during the Jallikattu protests project him as a heroic figure who stood for the cause of the people.

While it is easy to imagine that OPS’s political aspirations came to an end today, we must also note that ever since the verdict of the disproportionate assets case was declared by the Supreme court, the OPS movement cooled down quite a bit. When it became clear that Sasikala was going to jail for four years and could not contest in elections for another six, effectively ending her CM aspirations, it ironically slowed down the enthusiasm for OPS as well. No longer were the people fighting the image of a wicked woman. The one who has replaced her, Edappadi Palanisamy – another Jayalalitha loyalist, is interchangeable with OPS, unremarkable in the same way.

Which brings us to a question – was the anger towards Sasikala mainly because she was a woman(like she claims)? Or is it more insidious, that misogyny is so deeply entrenched in Tamil language and culture, that when we want to critique a woman, the attack veers in that direction?

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.