23/10/2017 2:09 PM IST | Updated 23/10/2017 3:40 PM IST

Support For 'Mersal' Shows Why Regional Nationalism Makes The South Unscalable For BJP

The harder the BJP tries, fiercer will be the resistance.


Actor Vijay is no stranger to controversies. He's had trouble in the past with both the Dravidian parties that alternate in power in Tamil Nadu. On more than one occasion, he has been unable to release his movie because he rubbed either the DMK or the AIADMK the wrong way. On all of these occasions, he has found hardly any public support. But not this time.

In his tiff with the BJP — thanks to his comments on GST in his latest film Mersal — the star has found that the entire state is behind him, as the right-wing ruling party takes him on. Even known BJP-sympathizer, Rajinikanth, tweeted in his support. The industry, mainstream media and the people of his state are with him. They don't want him to back down. And Mersal has turned out be his biggest blockbuster.

The industry, mainstream media and the people of his state are with Vijay. They don't want him to back down.

Mersal is not a petty political quarrel, but a symbol of Tamil resistance to any form of top-down nationalism that has little relevance to the state. And it has been an unequivocal trend since the time of the anti-Hindi agitations in the 1930s, 40s and the 60s. The same Tamil unity had been repeated in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, Cauvery and Mullapperiyar water disputes, and in recent times, in Jallikkattu, NEET and finally in GST.

READ: 'Mersal' Controversy: Will BJP's Tamil Nadu Strategy Turn Out To Be A Disaster?

In fact, on all issues of Tamil national interest, there hasn't been a single discordant note, except by politically insignificant people.

That's precisely what has hit the BJP hard in the Mersal issue because Vijay's "controversial" dialogues in the movie were not only on GST and the government's incommensurate commitment to people's welfare, but also on private medical care. But picking on GST and targeting the film backfired, because it was about Tamil sovereignty.

GST had been strongly opposed by all political parties in Tamil Nadu, including by former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, because it took away the tax-autonomy of the state. People saw it as an infringement on Tamil autonomy just as what Hindi imposition, ban on Jallikkattu, intervention in Sri Lanka or the NEET had done.

On all these issues, the response had been instant, spontaneous and unforgiving. The anti-Hindi agitation rewrote the political history of Tamil Nadu by banishing the ruling Congress out of the state. It gave birth to Dravidian politics which has since been the mainstay of Tamil nationalism. On Sri Lanka, Jallikkattu and NEET, the swell of resistance went beyond the control of even the Dravidian parties. Interestingly, in Jallikkattu and NEET, the pan-Tamil anger transcended all political divisions and became a genuine people's movement that resonated well with the aspirations of the new generation of working professionals.

In this culture of the primacy of Tamil nationalism, where disenchantment to local parties brooks nothing but home-grown resistance, the BJP is a misfit because it serves as a counter force.

In this culture of the primacy of Tamil nationalism, where disenchantment to local parties brooks nothing but home-grown resistance, the BJP is a misfit because it serves as a counter force. Nothing else explains why among all the southern states, the BJP hasn't been able to gain any traction in Tamil Nadu. All it could muster so far, despite its alternating alliances with the AIADMK and the DMK in the past, was less than 3 per cent of the vote share (2016 assembly elections). Even a leaderless Congress managed more than twice as much.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images
A man with his hair shaved in the shape of a bull poses during a demonstration against the ban on the Jallikattu bull taming ritual in Chennai on January 20, 2017.

Clearly, Tamil Nadu is showing what Princeton political scientist Atul Kohli had noted - that regional nationalism has greater appeal than Hindu nationalism in many of India's "peripheral" regions. The harder the BJP tries, fiercer will be the resistance. In fact, many observers of Tamil society and its politics had noticed a similar trend during Jallikkattu. According to them, the spontaneous public uprising that resembled the "Arab Spring" was not just about Jallikkattu, but also about the havoc of demonetisation in a manufacturing state such as Tamil Nadu.

After demonetisation, GST was the most severely criticised policy decision in Tamil Nadu.

While the first hurt its medium and small scale sectors, the second, robbed it of Rs 9720 crore, according to Jayalalithaa. The movie industry was among the hardest hit because they suddenly had an additional burden of 28 per cent tax in the form of GST. Mersal rode piggyback on people's anger to hit back.

Mersal rode piggyback on people's anger to hit back.

The pushback that the BJP tried by asking for a"re-censor", as Kamal Haasan termed it, backfired too. They learned yet again that gaining political traction against Tamil Nadu native sentiments is impossible.

The situation is similar in the neighbouring Kerala too, where the BJP has made much more headway with a little over 10 per cent vote share. Amit Shah has been quite bullish about the state because according to him, the party's political fortunes in UP were once similar. But what he and the BJP don't realise is that their strategy of communal polarisation or the development rhetoric won't work and the vote share is unlikely to improve in the state as the lukewarm response of the party's statewide 'Janraksha Yatra' showed recently.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Communist Party of India, CPI(M), organises a demonstration at the BJP Headquarters to protest against RSS-BJP violence against CPI(M) cadres and supporters in Kerala, on October 9, 2017 in New Delhi, India.

As its 'yatra' strategy, Shah and others tried to postulate a non-existing "jihadi-red terror" that nobody in the state took seriously. Worse still, the party imported Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to preach on development, besides slamming the "red-jihadi terror", to Keralites. Even Shah repeated the development rhetoric at the conclusion of the yatra and challenged the Kerala chief minister for a debate.

Talking down development to a state, that too by somebody like Adityanath, with first-world development indices in a country that's worse than some of the poorest countries in the world, was foolish because despite its party divisions, Kerala is proud of its remarkable socio-economic stature and its centre-left political ethos that drive it. In his rebuttal to Shah, chief minster Pinarayi Vijayan asserted this point – all Keralites will be together when there's an attack on Kerala's pride.

In Kerala, the centre-left politics trumps right wing politics.

As in the case of Tamil Nadu, where regional nationalism trumps Hindu nationalism or rather any form of nationalism that threatens its sovereignty, in Kerala, the centre-left politics trumps right wing politics.

In Tamil Nadu, it may be the NEET or the GST, and in Kerala, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR); but the underlying politics is the same. It's the unique socio-political autonomy of the natives. And it's bad news for the BJP because they make the south literally unscalable.