A few weeks ago, your average BJP supporter north of the Vindhyas had likely never even heard of Udhayanidhi Stalin.
Sure, they knew chief minister MK Stalin, the son of a chief minister himself, has a son who’s a minister. It’s why the DMK is in queue as the BJP’s second-favourite party to of dynasty politics.
The more savvy supporter may have watched movies like Ponniyin Selvan or Vikram, though they probably might not have known that these films – like in the Tamil movie market – were distributed by Udhayanidhi’s Red Giant Movies.
The junior Stalin really arrived in public consciousness on September 2 when he talked about Sanatana Dharma at a conference in Chennai. “Just like dengue, mosquitoes, malaria, or coronavirus need to be eradicated, we have to eradicate Sanatana.”
All hell broke loose. The BJP claimed he’d called for “genocide” and roundly condemned his remarks. FIRs were registered against Udhayanidhi and a lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court to call his participation in the conference “unconstitutional”. An Ayodhya seer announced a Rs 10 crore bounty on the minister’s head. Even the prime minister got involved.
In the midst of this mayhem, Udhayanidhi became national news – a far cry from his former avatar as just the CM’s son.
Tempest in a teapot
It all began on September 2, when Udhayanidhi, an actor, producer and DMK minister for youth welfare and sports development, attended an event organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association. The event was titled Sanatana Ozhippu Manadu, or Sanatana Abolition Conference, and included discussions on how Sanatana Dharma propagates casteism, inequality and social injustice.
A day before the event, RSS mouthpiece Organiser that the DMK permitting such a conference to take place was a “clear example of its hatred against Hindu Dharma”.
Among those speaking at the conference were Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika, VCK president and MP Thol. Thirumavalavan, Congress leader and Tamil Nadu State Minorities Commission chairman Peter Alphonse, CPIM state secretary K Balakrishnan, and Udhayanidhi Stalin.
During his speech, Udhayanidhi said Sanatana Dharma’s name was derived from Sanskrit and its fundamental premise was against “equality and social justice”.
While Sanatana Dharma pushed women to “sati and child marriage”, he said, Dravidianism gave women free travel in buses – a scheme launched by the DMK in 2021. And while Sanatanam “divided people”, late DMK chief minister Karunanidhi had introduced , referring to equality villages started in 1997 to ensure people from different castes and religions live together.
Which is why, the minister said, Sanatana Dharma must be “eradicated like dengue, mosquitoes, malaria or coronavirus”.
Now, over the years, Sanatana Dharma being synonymous with Hinduism may be prevalent in northern parts of the country. This isn’t the case in Tamil Nadu, where it in key religious texts. Dravidianism is rooted in Periyar’s self-respect movement and is built on concepts of social justice, rationalism, and dismantling caste and religion.
When it comes to Sanatana Dharma in Tamil Nadu, the terminology has no resonance. If anything, it’s associated with a saffron party that has no base, power or influence in the state. It’s a phrase often brought up – see , and – by governor RN Ravi, who is currently at with Stalin’s government. Just this year, chief ministers MK Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan in Nagercoil, describing Sanatana Dharma as “divisive” and a “threat to humanity”.
So, when Udhayanidhi Stalin said what he did on September 2, he wasn’t treading revolutionary ground. He was reiterating a position that .
But the BJP tried its best.
IT cell head Amit Malviya alleged that Udhayanidhi’s comments were a call for “genocide” and promptly had a in Tamil Nadu for his troubles.
Union home minister Amit Shah and, by extension, the Congress of “insulting” Sanatana Dharma for “votebank appeasement”. At an , which has an assembly election this year, prime minister Narendra Modi said the opposition’s INDIA alliance was out to “destroy the ideas, values and traditions that have united India for thousands of years”.
In fairness to the INDIA alliance, there was quite a bit of waffling over what Udhayanidhi said.
Take the Congress, for instance. Congress MP Karti Chidambaram of Udhayanidhi Stalin, as did Priyank Kharge. But Karti’s father P Chidambaram Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge “has made it absolutely clear” that the party will not be drawn into the debate.
Congress leader Rashid Alvi Udhayanidhi’s comments were “wrong”, that India “is known to respect all religions”, and the BJP was ultimately “responsible for politicising religion”.
Other alliance partners were lukewarm, bordering on frosty. Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut said Udhayanidhi should “refrain from making such statements”. AAP national spokesperson Sanjay Singh his party does not “endorse such comments”.
Udhayanidhi’s father Stalin, unsurprisingly, took a firmer stand, saying the BJP was “desperate to create divisions within the opposition alliance”.
Hon'ble Minister @UdhayStalin didn't call for 'genocide' as distorted by BJP, but only spoke against discrimination. Disheartening to see the 'responsible' Hon'ble Prime Minister, Union Ministers and BJP Chief Ministers ignore facts and driven on fake narratives despite havingâ¦ pic.twitter.com/F9yrdGjxqo— M.K.Stalin (@mkstalin) September 7, 2023
As things stand now, the protection of Sanatana Dharma is seemingly the BJP’s new poll plank, especially in the election states of and . Yet in Tamil Nadu, it’s unlikely to make a difference. It’s been discussed ad nauseam that the BJP is floundering in Tamil Nadu. Its , the AIADMK, this week too.
As for Udhayanidhi, he’s gone from relative obscurity to the spotlight.
He’s widely known in the state. Stalin has two children, Udhayanidhi and Senthamarai. Senthamarai’s husband is Stalin’s “strategist, facilitator and sounding board”. Udhayanidhi is well-known as an actor and producer, predominantly “mass” movies aimed at entertainment rather than political messaging. But his latest movie Maamannan – he acted in it and Red Giant produced it – of caste within Dravidian parties.
While Stalin to make his mark in politics, Udhayanidhi’s turn came sooner. Now 45 years old, he campaigned for the DMK in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, was the managing director of party mouthpiece Murasoli, and was appointed youth wing secretary in July 2019 – for over 30 years.
His first election was the 2021 assembly poll. Udhayanidhi was as the candidate from Chepauk-Thiruvallikeni, a DMK bastion, and he won by . He was in December 2022 as a newly-minted minister.
So far, so good – but nothing that took him national. He did make , when he said the late Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj “died unable to tolerate the torture by Narendra Modi”. The BJP against him – it said Udhayanidhi’s comments were “ridiculous, defamatory and libellous” – and the Election Commission subsequently issued him a notice too.
But the Sanatana Dharma controversy has taken his profile up a notch. Udhayanidhi hasn’t stayed quiet since then either; he’s taking on critics on Twitter, now X, and posting laughing emojis to rile them up.
ð— Udhay (@Udhaystalin) September 9, 2023
Hindi theriyathu Poda ð— Udhay (@Udhaystalin) September 5, 2023
In a way, he’s making up for the absence of Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, or PTR, currently state minister of information technology and digital services. In his previous avatar as finance minister, PTR was legendary for his no-holds-barred approach on social media. He aka Sadhguru, over the issue of “freebies”, and called out Nirmala Sitharaman over .
Then in April this year, a whistleblower leaked an audio clip, purportedly of PTR talking about huge wealth amassed by Udhayanidhi and his brother-in-law Sabareesan. The state BJP tweeted the clip and urged the governor to order a “forensic audit” of it. PTR a “clear case of manipulation” and a “malicious attempt to divide us”. Stalin “cheap politics”.
But by May, PTR was moved out as finance minister and given IT instead. Since then, he’s largely gone silent.
Perhaps Udhayanidhi is now filling the void he left behind.
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