Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K Palaniswami in his assembly constituency of Edappadi (Image courtesy: @CMOTamilNadu)
Every year, Pongal, a four-day harvest festival, is celebrated in Tamil Nadu with traditional fervour and cultural pride. Though the unseasonal rains in January and the economic slide due to COVID-19 has dampened the festival spirit, political parties are livening up the festival mood by playing a blend of welfare politics and the Tamil cultural card together.
The Dravidian parties which opposed most of what prevailed in Tamil society at the beginning of the 20th century, embraced Pongal as a symbol of Tamil culture and deftly blended their ideas of secularism, equality, glorification of labour and Tamil identity, besides utilising this popular festival as a connect between the rising movement and common man. Besides propagating it as the cultural festival of Tamils, they also made efforts to declare it as the Tamil New Year day.
Being an election year, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government under Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami is making the best use of Pongal and announced a cash gift of Rs 2,500 along with one kilogram each of rice and sugar, 20 gram packets of dry grapes, cashewnuts, cardamom, a sugarcane stem and other commodities to cook Pongal, which is also the name of a dish of rice mixed with sugar, milk and sugar, prepared on the first day of Pongal celebrations. The cash and gift bag will be distributed to around 20 million family card holders in Tamil Nadu through the PDS outlets.
The AIADMK is often accused of bringing down the significance of Pongal which was declared as Tamil New Year by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government under (late) M Karunanidhi in 2008. The DMK’s allegation is based on former Chief Minister (late) J Jayalalithaa’s move in 2011 to shift Tamil New Year to April 14.
In a bid to come out with a strong rebuttal to the DMK’s claim of being the sole guardian of Tamil culture, this time the AIADMK government also declared Thai Poosam, a prominent festival celebrated in temples of Lord Muruga, as a public holiday.
Lord Muruga is considered as a Tamil deity as most of the classical literature of the Sangam age (between 4,000 BC and 100 AD) describes him as a hero warrior who rode on an elephant named Pinimugam and vanquished the demon Padmasura. Thai Poosam is the full moon day in the month of Thai and is said to be the birthday of Lord Muruga, or the day on which a sacred javelin was given to him fight the demon.
The ruling AIADMK, which wants to make the best use of its freebies, has entrusted the task of distributing tokens for the scheme with the local AIADMK functionaries. The tokens for the scheme also contain pictures of the Chief Minister and AIADMK’s tri-colour flag. Images of Palaniswami are also found on the gift bags and banners showing the ruling party symbol ‘Two Leaves’, which are displayed in front of most PDS outlets.
Surprised by the AIADMK’s deft use of Pongal festival, the DMK is caught in a bind as it cannot oppose both the moves which have found good support among the people. However, DMK leader MK Stalin demanded that AIADMK double the cash and provide Rs 5,000 to the people in these difficult economic times.
Not to fall behind the Dravidian parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) too has joined the festival politics by arranging Pongal celebrations in its state headquarters. Prior to this the saffron party has not celebrated Pongal in its party office. It used to give importance to Vijaya Dasami, Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali earlier. Another change this time is that the BJP is calling the festival ‘Pongal’ other than ‘Magara Sankaranthi’. BJP President JP Nadda is also expected to join the Pongal celebrations in Tamil Nadu.
Palaniswami, who is addressing election rallies across Tamil Nadu, conveys his Pongal greetings at every venue and does not forget to mention his government’s Pongal gift scheme. Stalin, is trying to deflect people’s attention from the scheme by levelling serious corruption charges, and recalling the AIADMK government’s subservient attitude to the BJP at the Centre. He is also listing instances of Palaniswami sacrificing the welfare and self-respect of Tamils.
For now, the people of Tamil Nadu are preparing to celebrate Pongal; this summer it will be seen which party celebrates after the assembly elections.