When former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J Jayalalithaa was alive, one of the assumptions among political commentators was that her “soft Hindutva” politics kept the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Sangh affiliates from expanding their base in Tamil Nadu.

Since her death in December 2016, the AIADMK – which is ruling Tamil Nadu– has slowly but surely gravitated towards the BJP.

One of the reasons attributed to this shift was the pressure from the Centre on the party through its investigation agencies, and the role of the BJP in the internal turmoil about Jayalalithaa’s successor that saw it split into two factions.

Looking at the developments within the AIADMK since 2016, the inference many drew was that its leaders were competing with each other to ingratiate themselves to the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to keep corruption cases away and protect the state government from falling.

Meanwhile, the question of whether this growing political and electoral relationship with the BJP also had ideological implications remained unanswered.

Developments over the last week, however, have brought this question to the fore.

Reacting to a statement earlier this week by Makkal Needhi Maiam leader Kamal Haasan that independent India’s first extremist was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu, AIADMK Minister Rajendra Balaji said Hindus should cut off the actor’s tongue.

Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

The minister faced heavy criticism for his remark. But he refused to take his comments back, and went on television channels asking whether Haasan would dare to talk about other religions in a similar manner.

This language of whataboutery is similar to that deployed by the Sangh Parivar, which often accuses the Opposition of minority appeasement and of turning a blind eye to terrorism by Islamist extremists.

Do these developments indicate a slow shift in the ideological position of the AIADMK from a party that embraced Hindu orthodoxy to one that is now open to Hindutva?

Jayalalithaa and after

Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was unabashedly Hindu. Despite leading a party that emerged from the stable of the atheistic Dravidian movement, she did not shy away from showcasing either her religious beliefs or her caste identity as a Brahmin.

Jayalalithaa would often visit temples and donate in cash and kind. Her supporters thronged temples on her birthdays to conduct special prayers. When she was admitted to Chennai’s Apollo Hospital before her death, party workers took to extreme rituals, including body piercing and walking on simmering coal, to pray for divine intervention. She was also known to be a strong believer in astrology.

During her tenure as chief minister between 2001 to 2006, this strong religious belief had an impact on policy decisions as well. Jayalalithaa passed an anti-conversion law and issued an order asking officials to act strictly against those performing animal sacrifices in temples.

As academic P Ramajayam of Bharathidasan University pointed out in an essay for The Hindu Centre, from the times of its founder MG Ramachandran, through socio-cultural and ritualistic politics, “the AIADMK emerged as a strong supporter of Hindu religious rituals to extend the limits of its social base from caste to religion”. He wrote:

“As a Dravidian Party giving more importance to the local cultural festivals AIADMK openly encouraged the cultural politics ignoring Periyar’s rationalism and Dravidian Movement as the parent organisation. This kind of cultural politics of dominant castes is being appropriated by the religious forces claiming advantage for BJP.” 

A total whitewash in the 2004 parliamentary elections – in which the AIADMK allied with the BJP – brought a change in Jayalalithaa’s functioning. She withdrew the anti-conversion law and the order banning animal sacrifices was put in cold storage. She cut all electoral ties with the BJP and never allied with the party again.

The common assumption in Tamil Nadu was that Jayalalithaa’s image as a staunch Hindu kept the BJP in check as voters who had strong religious feelings had no reason to back a predominantly North Indian party in place of the AIADMK. Jayalalithaa was also better placed to take on her arch-rival – the atheistic Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its president M Karunanidhi.

However, when Jayalalitha died months after her party was voted back to power for a second consecutive term, the AIADMK slipped into turmoil with multiple factions competing for leadership.

The BJP stamped its influence on this game of thrones, putting its weight behind factions led by O Panneerselvam and Edappadi K Palaniswamy. This eventually led to an electoral understanding between the AIADMK and the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls 15 years after Jayalalithaa snapped ties with the national party.

Makkal Needhi Maiam President Kamal Haasan during an election campaign ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls, in Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu, on March 31, 2019. (Photo credit: IANS).).

Turn to Hindutva?

AIADMK minister Rajendra Balaji’s comments against Kamal Haasan were much stronger than even those made by leaders of the BJP.

In a statement on Tuesday, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katch leader Thol Thirumavalavan said Balaji’s comments were illustrative of the fact that the AIADMK was turning into a Sangh affiliate.

But this is not the only instance that has forced many to ask whether the AIADMK is now ideologically in tune with the Sangh Parivar.

Between 2003 and 2016, both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi made life extremely difficult for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP.

The organisation was repeatedly denied permission to hold public marches in Chennai, and was also subjected to police action when it tried to assert itself. But just a month after Jayalalithaa died, the RSS was allowed to conduct the event in Chennai in January 2017.

Should the strengthening equation between the Sangh organisations and the AIADMK be taken as the Dravidian party’s shift towards Hindutva?

Senior journalist R Ilangovan said Hindutva was never anathema to the AIADMK. “It was with the AIADMK’s emergence that the dilution of the Dravidian ideals began,” he said.

Ilangovan argued that Balaji’s comments should also be seen as a political compulsion as the AIADMK government depends on support from the BJP-led Centre to protect the state government. “It is a race within the AIADMK to showcase loyalty to the BJP,” he said. “It was Balaji who some months ago said Modi is our daddy.”

C Lakshmanan, political commentator and academic at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, said a distinction has to be made between Hinduism in the theological sense and Hindutva in the political sense. “Jayalalithaa subscribed to Hindu orthodoxy but not hardcore Hindutva,” he added. “Even with the anti-conversion law, she withdrew after there was criticism.”

Lakshmanan said Balaji’s comments were fueled by the delicate political situation the AIADMK currently finds itself in. At the moment, the party needs the backing of the BJP. “But if Congress comes back to power, you will see AIADMK leaders changing their positions,” said Lakshmanan.

DMK’s silence

Another facet of the controversy surrounding Haasan’s comments is the silence of the DMK. The party leaders have not reacted to Balaji’s threat nor have they responded to Haasan’s position on Godse.

Ilangovan said this only reflected the sensitive electoral situation in Tamil Nadu.

Though voting for the Lok Sabha elections is over, the state will see bye-elections on May 19 to four crucial Assembly seats that could decide the fate of the state government.

The DMK, Ilangovan said, has spent a lot of energy countering allegations that the party is anti-Hindu. “In such a situation, backing Haasan will be problematic for the party,” he said.

Ilangovan added that any religious polarisation will affect the DMK alliance first as it was the principal Opposition formation contesting against the AIADMK-BJP front.