DMK’s A Raja’s comments turn spotlight on misogynistic political culture
Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader A Raja’s comments against Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his late mother have turned the spotlight on the misogynistic political culture in the state. Raja has since apologised as DMK chief MK Stalin sought to control the damage by warning his party leaders to maintain dignity while campaigning. Stalin, who is the DMK’s chief ministerial candidate, said the party will not accept such comments. Tamil Nadu goes to polls on April 6.
Women’s rights activists have also written to the Election Commission (EC) seeking action against DMK’s Dindigul I Leoni and Karthikeya Sivasenapathy for making misogynistic remarks. “Candidates who vilify members of any gender, caste or community in the course of an election campaign, including by making personal comments on their appearance or lifestyle, are not deserving of the honour of representing any of us,” said Swarna Rajagopalan, the founder of a women’s rights group. She added it is time that misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic speech is considered grounds for disqualifications to maintain the honour of serving in legislatures.
Leoni, a veteran leader of the DMK, had remarked that the “milk of foreign cows [is] turning women into barrels” while campaigning in Coimbatore for Thondamuthur’s DMK candidate Sivasenapathy, who later apologised on Leoni’s behalf. To be sure, this is not the first time candidates have made misogynist remarks while campaigning or otherwise. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Radha Ravi, while campaigning in Coimbatore, took a dig at Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) leader Kamal Haasan’s personal life. “He’d go abroad, marry a woman there, and split families. Six months later, she’d become old,” Ravi said. Ravi, who was earlier a DMK leader, was suspended from the party in 2019 for sexist remarks against actor Nayanthara. Senior BJP leader H Raja, in 2018, indirectly called DMK’s Kanimozhi an “illegitimate child born out of an illegal relationship” in a tweet. He has now condemned A Raja’s remark. Even former chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader ‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa slandered DMK leader Kanimozhi during her campaigns.
Palaniswami choked up a day after Raja made the comments. “This is how they speak of the chief minister as if he is a common man,” Palaniswami said. “If this is the condition for chief minister, who will protect the common people? Imagine what will happen to women if such people come to power. My mother was born in a village. A farmer, she worked day and night. She is no more now. How disgusting is it to make a comment like that.”
AIADMK workers protested against Raja in Palaniswami’s constituency and burnt his effigy.
Raja has also been booked under the Indian Penal Code’s sections 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot) and 294 B (foul language in a public place) and under the Representation of the People Act, confirmed a police officer, requesting anonymity. He was booked on the basis of AIADMK leader C Thirumaran’s complaint to the chief electoral officer Satyabrata Sahoo.
AIADMK has said Raja should be debarred from campaigning.
Sahoo on Monday said a report has been sent to the EC to examine if Raja violated the model code of conduct.
DMK leader Kanimozhi said it is important to take a stance even if one’s own party men indulged in sexist remarks. “I had tweeted about it earlier and it is good that he [Stalin] condemned it; not many leaders would have done that,” said Kanimozhi in an interview with HT without taking names. She had tweeted that political leaders should not indulge in such comments.
The DMK leadership is unhappy with Raja, whom Stalin handpicked as the party’s deputy general secretary in 2020. “He should have not made such comments. A good speaker does not allow room for misinterpretation,” said a DMK leader, who did not wish to be named. “I told him he could have used any other comparison or metaphor to criticise the chief minister. But it should not be crude. He occupies a high post in DMK and should speak suitably.”
Raja, a Dalit face of the party who shared a close relationship with late DMK leader M Karunanidhi, held a press conference on Monday over the issue. He said he was just comparing two personalities--Palaniswami and Stalin-- in public life.” Raja said his comments were taken out of context and that the video clips of his speech were edited. “I was distressed to know from media reports that the chief minister was hurt by my words and I apologise.” He said there was misreading, selective reading, out-of-context reading, and non-reading of his speech while citing similar comments made in a court order that acquitted Raja of the 2G spectrum allocation scam. He was accused of having a role in the scam when he was the Union telecom minister.
Raja earlier last week triggered a controversy when he said Palaniswami was “worth a penny less than Stalin’s slipper”. To this, Palaniswami retorted that as a farmer that is how much he can afford unlike Raja, whom he accused of looting ₹1.75 lakh crore in the 2G scam.
Raja responded saying he was acquitted but AIADMK’s late leader J Jayalalithaa was convicted in the disproportionate assets case. Raja called Palaniswami for a debate over the charges and criticised him for becoming the chief minister “by licking and falling on the feet of Jayalalithaa’s aide VK Sasikala”.
The barbs are also seen as an outcome of friction between Dalits and Gounders in Tamil Nadu’s western region. Palaniswami belongs to the backward but powerful Gounder community, which has a strong presence in this AIADMK’s stronghold.
After his acquittal in 2017, Raja was re-elected as a member of Parliament from Nilgiris in 2019. Nilgiris is part of the western region where Dalits are usually labourers in farms owned by Gounders.
Political analyst Durai Karunanidhi said since Raja is Dalit, there is anger in the region over his comments. “...[it is] a setback for the DMK in this region. ...Stalin had built himself a good campaign which Raja had destroyed. ...His [Raja] intention is unclear,” said Karunanidhi. “On one level, it seems spontaneous because politicians would use anything as a weapon for their victory as elections are close. But such extreme comments make one doubt that he is being provocative. There is some displeasure that Raja and Kanimozhi are being sidelined by the family. Is he causing more damage to Stalin by talking like this?”