Why DMK Leader Bharathi's Arrest Under SC/ST Act is Unlikely to Make Much Political Impact

N Sathiya Moorthy

The arrest of DMK’s Rajya Sabha member, RS Bharathi, for reportedly making negative comments about a judge of the Madras High Court, with specific reference to his caste, will definitely take the legal route. However, it is unlikely to have much politico-electoral consequences. Or, so it seems in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.

A lower court in Chennai has granted Bharathi interim bail till June 1, pending his existing application before the HC, seeking to quash the proceedings and grant him anticipatory bail. Given the background, the details of the arrest procedure is unclear as yet, particularly because the state authorities had sought a week’s time to file their response, but have gone ahead and arrested him.

In doing so, the government also transferred the case from jurisdictional Teynampet police station in Chennai to the Central Crime Branch (CCB), which effected the arrest.

The police action followed a high court directive to investigate a social media video where Bharathi is shown telling party cadre how DMK patriarch, the late M Karunanidhi, as chief minister had recommended the elevation of a particular incumbent judge, taking into account his social background. After his arrest, Bharathi reiterated how he had already explained the circumstances that led to the when controversy.

Surely, Bharathi can be expected to take forward the case, going by the advice of the party leadership. But the options are not too many. Either he offers an unconditional apology before the court and accepts whatever follows, or contests the case, going possibly all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Depending on the mood of the high court, the party may have the option to move the Privileges Committee of Parliament against the state police. The leadership will also be aware that in the committee, decisions are taken on numerical majority, which it may lack. More importantly, the party may not want to wash its dirty linen in Delhi.

Permanent Complainant?

Within the DMK, Bharathi, as the secretary of the party’s legal wing, is seen as a ‘permanent complainant’ to the state’s Department of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DV&AC) against successive AIADMK governments. He was the complainant in the infamous ‘TANSI land deal’ case against the late Jayalalithaa’s first government in 1991-96.

Against the incumbent government of chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, especially against individual ministers, Bharathi has been approaching the DV&AC and also the courts with specific petitions for follow-up investigation. The latest one was reportedly moved on Friday, with regard to the procurement of equipment for the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation.

Ramadoss Parallel

The temptation now will be to compare the Bharathi’s arrest with Jayalalithaa’s action against PMK founder S Ramadoss who was detained for anti-Dalit violence alleged to have been triggered by his party cadres returning from the outfit’s annual Mahabalipuram conclave. But the comparison should end there.

This did bring in some electoral dividends for the AIADMK, given the Dalit community’s traditional adversity to the Vanniyar community, and cost the DMK some Dalit votes, despite the electoral partnership with Thol Thirumavalavan’s VCK in the PMK-strong northern region. It may not happen again.

Though a party senior in his own right, Bharathi is not in the top brass within the DMK as Ramadoss is in the PMK. Two, the traditional animosity that Dalits and Vanniyars have for each other is not present in this case, as the DMK is not seen as a caste-based party, barring remnants of the traditional anti-Brahmin identity (which again was never ever strong, as is being made out outside the state).

Indications are that unless there is a sea change in public perception between now and the assembly polls, due by May next year, Covid-19 related social and economic crisis may emerge as the major election issue. Chances are that caste politics may be pushed to the background after a point, with professional strategists taking over tactic-planning for both the DMK and the AIADMK.

The DMK has signed on political strategist Prashant Kishor for the assembly elections. Kishor’s one-time aide, Sunil, was the DMK’s chief strategist for the 2016 assembly polls and the 2019 general elections.

The DMK did creditably well in the former, despite not being able to dislodge the ruling AIADMK under the charismatic Jayalalithaa. The DMK-Congress alliance swept the Lok Sabha polls last year against the BJP-AIADMK combine, winning 38 seats by huge margins.

With Prashant Kishor taking over the DMK’s poll management, Sunil is said to have been commissioned by the AIADMK for the assembly polls. With the chief strategists for the two rivals having worked with each other, it remains to be seen what new ammunition each of them bring to the table.

Sunil may be at a slight advantage here, having worked with Stalin, whereas Kishor may lack full knowledge of his new client.

Anti-Dalit Imagery

According to some DMK insiders, the court case against Bharathi, and his subsequent arrest, is a part of a larger strategy, claiming it a ‘conspiracy’ to paint the DMK as ‘anti-Dalit’. Before Bharathi’s case, a section of the state BJP had sought to depict Karunanidhi, too, as ‘anti-Dalit’, by claiming that the site on which the party headquarters stood, or a part thereof, was Dalit ‘Panchami’ land, gifted to the community by the erstwhile British rulers.

The allegation was that Karunanidhi, as chief minister, had got the Madras City Corporation and other authorities to change the ownership. Stalin was quick to recall how Jayalalithaa as chief minister had raked up the issue once earlier, and Karunanidhi himself had given a fitting reply. He also pointed out how the Jayalalithaa administration did not proceed with the allegations.

The BJP leader who raised the issue this time round, L Murugan, has since been named as the state party president. In turn, Murugan, belonging to the Dalit-Arundathiyar sub-sect, had enrolled former state assembly deputy speaker, VP Duraisamy, from the same community and district, Namakkal, into the BJP on Friday.

Duraisamy was a deputy general secretary of the DMK. Party boss MK Stalin divested him of the position after Duraisamy called on Murugan at the BJP headquarters in Chennai, describing it as a ‘courtesy call’. His place in the DMK has since gone to another Arundathiyar leader, ‘Andhiyur’ P Selvaraj, who was made Rajya Sabha member in March.

Coinciding with Bharathi’s arrest and interim bail, another DMK parliamentarian, former Union minister Dayanidhi Maran, has moved the high court, seeking anticipatory bail, in a similar case. Maran had reportedly made a remark that is being interpreted as anti-Dailit, when he criticised state chief secretary K Shanmugam for allegedly showing disregard to party MPs who called on him.

Justice M Nirmal Kumar of the high court is scheduled to hear Maran’s petition on Saturday afternoon.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, which is headquartered in New Delhi. He can be contacted at sathiyam54@nsathiyamoothy.com. Views expressed are personal)