New Delhi: Front page newspaper ads brought home the news that Vishwanath Pratap Singh, former Prime Minister of India and an ex-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was to get a high-profile statue unveiling in Tamil Nadu, at the Presidency College campus in Chennai, by the leading Dravidian party, the DMK. Another former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav did the honours. Family members of the erstwhile ‘Raja of Manda’ – better known nationwide for his championing of the the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on reservation for Other Backward Classes – were present, reported The Hindu.
How should India (and INDIA) read this?
First, that the DMK intends to imprint its signature on the ‘social justice’ part of the offer of parties opposed to the BJP and Modi’s dominance has been clear for some time. It has held seminars and conversations about the economy, empowerment and caste, and has done its best to build the narrative. If Modi does Mann ki baat on the state broadcaster, MK Stalin has gone big with his podcast, in many languages – including Hindi.
Second, the DMK would want to make it clear that it is not anti-Hindi but opposed to diminishing Tamil and Tamil identity to a ‘regional language’ or concern. V.P. Singh was a prime minister, but the pitch to catapult a Hindi-belt icon for backwards, best known for dusting off the Mandal report recommendations and implementing them, much to the BJP’s chagrin at the time, has its significance.
Third, V.P. Singh being lauded for the social justice revolution in north India could also be read as a subtle message to the Congress party – that their recent embrace of social justice, does not mean they have full control about how to power that message. Drawing in Akhilesh Yadav, who has been vocal about not getting what he thinks is his due from Congress in terms of seats in the recent Madhya Pradesh polls could be seen as an overture to a fellow-INDIAn, but also as a not-so-subtle message to Congress, that Akhilesh Yadav is to be projected as a big leader, and kept inside the tent.
Fourth, Akhilesh Yadav’s father – Samajwadi Party founder and stalwart, the late Mulayam Singh Yadav – was seen as a bitter rival of VP Singh, having cast his lot with another socialist giant and former PM, Chandrashekhar. So for Akhilesh too, this is about becoming bigger than his inherited political legacy would dictate.
Fifth, speaking of fathers, both, Stalin, son of M Karunanidhi, and Akhilesh have big boots to fill. Neither of the chief ministers, Mulayam Singh or M Karunanidhi could become prime minister, but they played a vital role in deciding who became one.
Staging something like this, with Tamil Nadu reaching out to Uttar Pradesh and scripting a new backward politics, infusing the history of UP with the energy of the Tamil Nadu version of social justice, makes both look big.
Sixth, making V.P. Singh larger than life (which is what large statues and cut-outs are meant to do) goes some distance in changing two types of conversations. One about what UP’s politics is about (it is currently seen purely through what the head of the Gorakhpur math and chief minister Adityanath does). Doing this changes the optics for some time at least. Two, it also takes away a simplistic ‘north-south’ element that often invades the conversation about anti-BJP politics these days.