File photo of supporters of former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa praying when she was being treated. Photo: AFP/Arun Sankar
File photo of supporters of former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa praying when she was being treated. Photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

When they were alive, Tamil Nadu’s two former chief ministers, MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi, were fierce political rivals. In latter years, Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa picked up the political rivalry.

All three have passed away, but still their political parties ensure the rivalries continue even while the former political stalwarts are in their final resting places in Chennai city.

As one of India’s most prominent southern states, Tamil Nadu is a political heavyweight. It virtually ousted the Congress Party decades ago and the BJP has no meaningful presence there, leaving two regional parties, the AIADMK and the DMK, to fight for dominance. Whoever emerges as the leader gets to rub shoulders with the political power holders of the north.

The latest tug-of-war is over the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest and most prestigious civilian award. Soon after Jayalalithaa’s death in December 2016, the AIADMK demanded the Bharat Ratna for their leader. Not content with this, the party’s general council resolved to do whatever it could do to ensure Jayalalithaa was also awarded the Nobel Peace prize and the Ramon Magsaysay award for her welfare programs.

The party also wanted Jayalalithaa’s date of birth on February 24 to be observed as National Farmers’ Day. Currently, former Indian prime minister Charan Singh’s birthday on December  23 is commemorated as Kisan Divas (Farmer’s Day).

Nothing much was done to push these demands until the DMK demanded that their leader M Karunanidhi, who passed away on August 7 this year, be awarded the Bharat Ratna. Then, the AIADMK was quick to remind the federal government of its earlier demand. No jumping the queue, was the not-very-subtle message.

The AIADMK executive committee in a fresh resolution recalled, among other things, that Jayalalithaa gave her gold jewels to the then Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, an act that seemingly “displayed her patriotism”. Jayalalithaa would have been 17 years old at the time.

Significantly the AIADMK added two more names to the Bharat Ratna posthumous wishlist: Dravidian stalwart EV Ramaswamy `Periyar’ and former Tamil Nadu chief minister CN Annadurai.

This was interpreted as a deliberate ploy to be one up on the DMK, since though the party had insisted that Karunanidhi be buried next to Anna’s samadhi (resting place), it had not bothered to seek the Bharat Ratna for the DMK founder. Nor had the DMK asked for the Bharat Ratna for Periyar, whose ideology guides the Dravidian parties.

And so the Bharat Ratna has become the new political sparring playground in Tamil Nadu. It has been controversial in the past, when MG Ramachandran was conferred with the honor within a year of his passing in December 1987. The award was seen as an attempt by the then Rajiv Gandhi government to curry favor with the electorate ahead of the 1989 elections. The Congress in alliance with the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK went on to win 38 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu, but lost overall control nationwide.

Apart from Karunanidhi’s impressive credentials as a prolific poet and playwright, social activist and a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, there is also the feeling that if MG Ramachandran could be Bharat Ratna, why would Karunanidhi not be one as well. Within DMK circles and among Karunanidhi’s admirers, there is a unanimous consensus that he was far more qualified for the honor than MG Ramachandran.

But Karunanidhi’s position during the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis is a contentious factor. When the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) returned from Sri Lanka in 1990, Karunanidhi boycotted the ceremony even though he was Tamil Nadu’s chief minister. He did this on the grounds that the IPKF had aided the killing of Tamils. Nowadays this would be deemed anti-national.

Not that Jayalalithaa’s candidature would pass universal muster, either. The DMK had objected when her portrait was unveiled in the Tamil Nadu assembly, arguing that were it not for her passing, she would have been convicted of corruption. Jayalalithaa’s three co-accused are now serving time in a Bangalore prison.

Also it is highly unlikely that two people from Tamil Nadu will be conferred the honor in the same year and if either of them gets it first, it will trigger a political slugfest.

As potential awardees, Annadurai and Periyar are not without controversy. Both espoused the cause of a Dravida Nadu, a hypothetical sovereign powerhouse consisting of the south Indian states. In his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha in May 1962, Annadurai demanded independence for Dravida Nadu; however, after Chinese aggression in October of that year, the DMK virtually abandoned the idea. Periyar also followed a virulent atheist and anti-Brahmin position, which many in New Delhi today would find unpalatable.

Demanding the Bharat Ratna for their leaders has been a favorite grandstanding ploy among regional political parties. For years, the Telugu Desam has sought the Bharat Ratna for NT Rama Rao as has Mayawati for Kanshi Ram.

When it is demanded for political reasons, the awarding of the Bharat Ratna becomes a political decision. In the process, the Ratna loses much of its sheen.