Cho Ramaswamy was an interesting person, a man of many parts. Certainly, part Vidushak, part Chanakya. Political in the world of art and artful and artistic in the world of politics. He is therefore a difficult and complex subject to write about. It would seem very inappropriate to eulogise him as he himself was quite averse to it. And, banish the thought of singing uncritical paeans about the man who swore by critical analysis and contrarian positions. He would have liked a bit of satire and humour but only a man of his talent could pull it off in a tribute.
If the Dravidian movement thrived by mixing performing arts with politics, it is no wonder that one of its trenchant critics would pay back in the same coin. Cho was passionate about theatre and used his plays to, among other things, criticise the Dravidian movement and its politics. His searing criticism and deep insights were often couched in wit and satire. In cinema too, he excelled as a comedian. He earned the freedom to improvise and sneak in satirical comments about contemporary politics in run-of-the-mill cinema scenes and be irreverent towards iconic movie stars such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. His satire and wit in cinema and theatre struck a chord among many, specially those who were marginalised by and therefore opposed to Dravidian politics. Yet, everyone could have a good laugh and enjoy his sharp wit. He was a modern-day Vidushak whose witty commentary on social, political and religious issues were thought-provoking.
While his plays were hugely popular and quite effective in taking his message to the masses, Cho needed a broader, more frequent and affordable vehicle to reach his vast army of followers and admirers. His political weekly Thuglak was largely read by people who were keen to know his views and insights on contemporary political and other issues. In fact, the huge popularity of his trendsetting column in which he answered questions posed by readers show how his loyal readers sought out his views on any and every subject. And, with eclectic interests and varied scholarly pursuits, Cho had an informed view on everything. His training as a lawyer perhaps helped in logical explanation and persuasive argument on a wide range of subjects. And, the dash of wit and satire added the required dose of spice. He was an unconventional editor — with strong personal and political views and opinions and an activist-evangelical zeal.
As Dravidian parties ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967, Cho being a critic of Dravidian politics became a leading anti-establishment voice in the state. He had the courage to oppose and take on hugely popular Dravidian leaders such as M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa. At the national level too he opposed the Congress Party and Indira Gandhi. Yet, from Chandra Shekhar to L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi and later Jayalalithaa, he had his favourites among political leaders too. On the one hand, he opposed dictatorial tendencies in leaders such as Indira Gandhi and on the other he had a soft corner and open admiration for “strong and decisive” leaders such as Mr Advani, Mr Modi and Jayalalithaa.
An astute political observer and commentator, Cho was known for having his finger on the pulse of the electorate. He had an uncanny knack to discern subtle changes in electoral sentiment or shifts in popular mood. Political giants across parties sought his counsel as he was gifted with both political intuition and knowledge and insight. The Vidushak could effortlessly slip into the role of Chanakya, the legendary adviser of rulers. He also donned the mantle of kingmaker when he facilitated electoral alliance between Tamil Maanila Congress and DMK to ensure the defeat of Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK.
Cho was known for being fearless. He was unflappable and stoic in the face of threats to his life and freedom. Naturally, during the Emergency, he was among the few editors in the country who resisted and opposed it tooth and nail. Similarly, at one point of time when the LTTE enjoyed overwhelming support among people and the ruling establishment, he had the courage to oppose it. So much so, that the government had to provide him security cover.
Besides his political outlook, Cho drew his courage and moral integrity from his pronounced spiritual Hindu outlook. This was the most complex and controversial aspect of his life and personality. Only a nuanced and elaborate study could unravel it and do justice to him.
Indian politics and society in general and Tamil Nadu’s unique contemporary reality shaped the persona of Cho. And, he, in turn, played a catalytic role in scripting change....