Tamil Nadu governor is lighting fires the BJP cannot control

Bharat Bhushan

Bharatiya Janata Party’s governors in opposition-ruled states have been controversy’s favourite children as they amplify the BJP’s ambitions for complete political control of India. However, even among them, Tamil Nadu governor RN Ravi stands out. No other governor has gone to the extent of censoring tributes to well-established political icons, told the Tamils to rename their state or suggested that their culture is regressive.

Ravi is a retired Kerala-cadre Indian Police Service officer who spent most of his career in the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Intelligence Bureau, two institutions ruined by trying to second-guess the government in their eagerness to please. He appears to follow the same script in Tamil Nadu, where he was made governor despite botching up the Naga peace process, first as the government’s interlocutor and then as the governor of Nagaland.

He is not a Tamil grammarian, an expert on the rich history of the Tamil people or a political sage to force his “mann ki baat” on the state. Despite this, he is bulldozing India’s diverse cultural identities into the unitary vision of India, which in the BJP’s agenda are necessary to unite the nation.

Ravi’s egregious proposal that the state’s name be changed from Tamil Nadu (Land of Tamils) to Tamizhagam (Home of Tamils) is not only unsolicited advice. It is to forget that the renaming of the erstwhile Madras state as Tamil Nadu by C N Annadurai was the culmination of a popular struggle for the state based on a Dravidian re-definition of Tamil language, culture, politics and society.

Was Ravi following orders when he skipped references to iconic social and political reformers in his first address to the state assembly? The governor is only supposed to read the address prepared by the state government. However, he skipped the 65th para of the speech, which said, “Following the principles and ideals of stalwarts like Thanthai Periyar (EVR Periyar), Annal Ambedkar (B R Ambedkar), Perunthalaivar Kamarajar (K Kamaraj), Perarignar Anna ( C N Annadurai) and Muthamizh Arignar Kalaignar (M K Karunanidhi), this government has been delivering the much-acclaimed Dravidian Model of governance to its people.” These omissions become deliberate and objectionable in the context of the assertion of Dravidian identity.

The Dravidian model of governance based on social justice and welfare is decades old and can give the freebie politics now embraced by the Modi government a run for its money. As the “Gujarat Model” lies in tatters, freebie politics is the mantra of the Modi government to win popular support. Moreover, the idols and icons of Dravidian politics are different from the BJP’s national heroes.

Another part of the address skipped by Ravi referred to economic progress in the state: “Tamil Nadu continues to be a haven of peace and is attracting numerous foreign investments and is becoming a forerunner in all sectors.” In fact, Foreign Direct Investment in the state increased by 30.1 per cent in 2021-22. It is among the top five states of India in terms of FDI destination and has proved to be attractive to foreign investment because of its infrastructure, availability of highly skilled engineers and technicians and its locational advantage. The state has become a hub of automobile manufacturing, especially because of easy access to its three deep-sea ports of Chennai, Thootukudi (Tuticorin) and Ennore.

The original speech was restored in the record of the legislative assembly through a resolution passed by the House, provoking the governor to walk out in a huff. These outrageous acts by the governor have led to public protest and his office being publicly abused. The level of confrontation is such that the Raj Bhavan has had to file an FIR against a politician for threatening the governor. Despite these manifestations of public anger, Ravi has signalled that he will not back down. Indeed, after the legislative assembly episode, he issued Pongal invitations in the name of “Governor of Tamizhagam” that also omitted the state government’s emblem, replacing it with the Centre’s emblem. Ravi is also sitting on 20 Bills passed by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and has refused to budge despite mounting public criticism.

The BJP has been trying to make inroads in Tamil Nadu, but its image as an upper-caste party has been a big hurdle in a state known for its social justice programme and backward-class politics. The BJP spotted an opportunity after the demise of J Jayalalithaa, hoping to use a visibly weakened AIADMK to expand its influence in the state. Simultaneously, it made overtures to the Vanniyars, a small backward community and marshalled some Tamil film stars to further its prospects but to no avail.

Ravi’s confrontationist behaviour comes in the wake of statements by Union Home Minister Amit Shah last year that Hindi should be the alternative language to English. The parliamentary committee he headed also recommended that Hindi should be the compulsory medium of instruction in all technical and non-technical educational institutions, including central universities.

Is the BJP, steeped in obscurantism, willing to revive the confrontations of the 1960s when those who tried to impose Hindi then gave a boost to the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu and encouraged separatist sentiment? The language politics so completely marginalised the ruling Congress in Tamil Nadu that it has not recovered ground till today. To challenge the pride that Tamils take in Dravidian culture for small partisan gains is, therefore, playing with fire. The governor has brought together all the potentially combustible elements of Dravidian politics, which accommodative democratic processes had doused. Rekindling them again for uncertain political objectives is foolhardy.

Ravi’s actions unwittingly may have stoked a fire that might become difficult to control. To put a lid on it swiftly, the BJP will have to step back from its ideological agenda of “one nation, one culture, one language”. And consider sending governor Ravi into retirement.