Neither Sasikala nor EPS, the real winner in TN is…

Television images of Tamil Nadu politics have been depressing and bizarre by turn. But even as we lament the AIADMK’s resort politics, let’s not forget that Narendra Modi’s Gujarat was one of the first states where in 1995, MLAs were actually airlifted to Khajuraho to prevent ‘poaching’.

But the big news from Tamil Nadu is not its politics but its civil society. The Tamil potboiler dominates the national news map at a time when the Tamil identity is more confident and assertive than ever before. Only last month thousands of young people converged on Marina beach to protest against the apex court’s strictures on Jallikattu, speaking out forcefully in defence of a Tamil tradition.

When Sasikala seized power, Tamilians protested vociferously, the #NotMyCM hashtag trended and a Chennai rapper’s dissenting song went viral. The Tamil Gen Next is celebrating and expressing its cultural identity openly without the insecurity of earlier generations.

There was a time when pop culture caricatured Tamils. The deplorable word ‘Madrasi’ was often used, and songs like Mehmood’s ‘Ek chatur naar’ from Padosan reflected north Indian stereotypes about the south. That K Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu CM and Congress president, even fought shy of taking up the prime ministerial mantle in 1964 after the death of Nehru, saying ‘No Hindi, no English, how?’ shows how deep the Hindi-English dominance has been on national politics.

But all that has now changed. Never mind Vibrant Gujarat, in the last decade Tamil Nadu is the only state where economic progress matches social development. It is among the top three investment destinations in India, the only state with four international airports and the second most industrialised state after Maharashtra.

Among industrialised states, Tamil Nadu has the best literacy rates and health indicators. The steel frame of enlightened civil servants may have rusted elsewhere but holds firm in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the Tamil Nadu model trumps the Gujarat model in the way it combines growth and welfarism.

Much of the India action is coming from Tamil Nadu. Chennai cricketer R Ashwin is not just a Chennai Super King, he’s been called the Don Bradman of spin bowling, and is regarded as the best all-rounder in the world today.

Chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand is world champion multiple times, while composer A R Rahman is now a global superstar. The trailer of Rajinikanth’s Kabali reportedly crossed five million views in 22 hours, setting an internet record. The Punjabification of India means bhangra rock may be played at most weddings but when it comes to intellectual pursuits, from biochemistry to economics, Tamilians dominate.

But has the north-south divide been bridged? Not really. In 1965 the government’s decision to impose Hindi as an official language led to fierce anti-Hindi protests and eventually to the rise of Dravidian politics. The violent edge of Tamil sub-nationalism may have declined but those emotions still resonate. In 2015, the national media was accused of ignoring the Chennai floods. Bollywood has been accused of not recognising musical geniuses like Ilaiyaraaja.

The film 2 States showed the cultural gap between north and south, a script that had played out earlier in Ek Duje Ke Liye. In 2017 Chennai became India’s news capital but beyond the headlines, how many reports have there been on the long-term changes in Tamil Nadu?

That’s a pity because Tamil civil society has never been more lively. The idea of being Tamil is a matter of pride among youth. Youngsters are energetically defending Jallikattu and intensely debating politics. Courageous anti-corruption NGOs are speaking out against newly sworn-in chief ministers.

The old sub-nationalist identity has been replaced by a positive regional identity that refuses to take a subordinate position to the north. Sure, geographical boundaries matter less now than ever and perhaps Chennai is a ‘Tamil first’ city, unlike a more cosmopolitan Delhi or Mumbai. Pride in identity perhaps makes Tamilians less embracing of the other, but also makes them more rooted in their rich cultural traditions.

Jairam Ramesh recently said the elites of south India are more comfortable in Berkeley and Stanford than in India, but wherever they are, they don’t forget their heritage as a legatee of the great philosopher-poet Thiruvalluvar.

Thus, the Tamil Nadu model is the model for the future, combining economic growth with social and cultural emancipation, global living choices yet retaining traditional rootedness. There’s corruption in politics but a spirited and fearless challenge from civil society. So, Sasikala and OPS may come and go, but Tamil Nadu’s time has come.




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Jayalalithaa no more, Karunanidhi inactive, but TN crisis shows their politics is here to stay

To characterise Saturday’s ruckus in the Tamil Nadu Assembly as betokening the post-Jayalalithaa-Karunanidhi politics is almost ahistorical. Yes, Jayalalithaa is