How Sitharaman’s ‘Kashi yatra’ could help BJP boost Tamil connect, counter DMK

How Sitharaman’s ‘Kashi yatra’ could help BJP boost Tamil connect, counter DMK

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is on 2-day visit to Varanasi to attend Kashi Tamil Sangamam, a month-long cultural event organised by Union govt with some 2,500 attendees from TN.

Tamil Nadu

A batch of delegates from Tamil Nadu arrives in Kashi | Photo: ANI

New Delhi: Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is on a two-day visit to Varanasi this weekend to attend the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, a month-long cultural event that was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November.

Organised by the BJP-led central government, the event has been billed as an effort to “celebrate, reaffirm and rediscover the age-old links between Tamil Nadu and Kashi” and “remove linguistic differences and establish emotional unity” with the people of the state.

About 2,500 participants, including students, teachers, purohits and artisans from various parts of Tamil Nadu are expected to attend.

Compared to the other southern states, Tamil Nadu is where the BJP is facing the greatest animosity over “Hindi imposition” — an issue that the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has raked up to its benefit and that the BJP is aiming to offset with the Kashi Tamil Sangamam.

BJP leaders whom ThePrint spoke to acknowledged this, hinting that the event’s political agenda was to help create a space for the party in Tamil Nadu.

In the Tamil Nadu assembly election of 2021, the DMK won an absolute majority while the BJP was able to secure just four seats.

A BJP functionary involved in organising the event told ThePrint: “We are eager to position our party as a strong contender to the DMK in the state, but the latter is stalling our progress by talking about language and cultural differences (between the north and the south). Through this Kashi event, we will be able to bridge this gap.”

The functionary alleged that “the notion that Dravidian culture is a distinct identity and cannot submerge into north Indian culture has been created by vested interests. It has been created to suit the Dravidian party”.

“We want to contest these notions not by challenging them but by showcasing cultural similarities. The first in a series, this (sangamam) event has been organised so that the common people of Tamil Nadu can see the cultural similarities with Kashi,” he said, adding that “we even invited the DMK to take part in the event but they thought it would backfire politically”.

According to BJP leaders, the DMK “used language politics to stop the entry of the BJP into Tamil Nadu”. They pointed to the DMK’s politics involving the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), which it had promised to abolish if voted to power in the state in 2021.

Also read: Modi’s Tamil-Varanasi outreach is BJP’s ‘Look South’ strategy. Fort DMK better watch out

‘Spread the word’

Expecting the event’s 2,500 attendees to become ambassadors for connections between north and south, the BJP has asked several Union ministers as well as party leaders to visit Varanasi.

Sitharaman herself, who comes from Tamil Nadu and was born into an Iyengar Brahmin family, will take part in several programmes, including the laying of the foundation stone of Sankara Nethralaya hospital, a student interaction at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and meeting with families of visitors from Tamil Nadu. She is also expected to take part in evening cultural programmes.

BJP Varanasi city president Vidya Sagar told ThePrint that “the finance minister comes from Madurai and did her schooling in Chennai and Tiruchirappalli. She will help establish a connection with the Tamil people and spread the word about cultural linkages”. He added that “we already invited our former Tamil Nadu president and Union minister L. Murugan for the inauguration ceremony”.

Chamu Krishna Shastri, co-founder of the Sanskrit revivalist organisation Samskrita Bharati and the brain behind Kashi Tamil Sangamam, told ThePrint: “Sanskriti (culture) is one, while its manifestation is different in different regions (of India). We can’t call it a different culture. India’s beauty is in diversity and we are celebrating this diversity which is meant for unity.”

He added that “language is an instrument to unify and connect people, not to divide them”.

“Tamil Nadu people will understand the PM’s appeal to preserve ancient Tamil culture which is more than 1,000 years old. We are inviting the Tamils to see the ancient linkage with Kashi… when Kanchipuram saris are sold in Kashi and Banarasi saris are sold in Kanchipuram… when 108 temples have the name of Kashi in Tamil Nadu… how can we say these are two different cultures,” asked Shastri.

Evoking Tamil icons

Modi has in the past evoked the name of revolutionary Tamil poet Subramania Bharati on various occasions, including in Parliament during the Budget session this year and during his visits to Tamil Nadu.

Apart from setting up a chair in his name at BHU in September 2021, the Union government has also suggested that the poet’s birth anniversary on 11 December  be celebrated as ‘Bharatiya Bhasha Divas’ every year.

While inaugurating the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, Modi spoke of the time spent by Bharati in Varanasi. He also took the names of other notable personalities from Tamil Nadu — such as former President of India S. Radhakrishnan and vedic scholars Rajeshwar Shastri and Pattabhirama Shastri — to drive home his point.

A Tamil Nadu BJP vice-president told ThePrint: “No one imagined that we would be able to make inroads into Tripura, a communist state for long, or enter West Bengal. (CM) Mamata Banerjee said ‘it’s (BJP) a north Indian party which will destroy bhadralok’.”

“But we respected Bangla culture, and by respecting their icons, food and culture, we established ourselves as the opposition party in the state. Likewise, in Telangana, our vote share used to be 2 per cent but we have reached 20 per cent now. Tamil Nadu is a difficult state but we will cross that bridge,” he added.

Professor D. Devanathan, of Annamalai University’s political science department, said: “The BJP first attempted to break barriers in Tamil Nadu by appropriating the cultural icons of the state. It is aware that the people connect will make its job easy. Imagine, when the 2,500 attendees of Kashi Tamil Sangamam travel to Tamil Nadu’s cities and villages, they will create a political environment for the BJP.”

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Tamil Nadu isn’t so ‘South’ now. Stalin wants to paint BJP ‘northern’ with anti-Hindi bogey