Srinivasa Iyer Ramaswamy. The name may not spark much of an interest even in Chennai. But call him by his moniker “Cho” and watch the reverence and respect light up in the eyes of your listener. Today we mourn the passing of Cho Ramaswamy – the satirist who shaped the political views of Tamil Nadu’s masses, the relentless and fearless critic, the wildly famous editor, and the king-maker.
Cho S. Ramaswamy took his last breath on 7 December, 2016 at about 4 A.M. following a heart attack. He was 82. He passed away at the same Apollo Hospital in Chennai where former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and his own protégée, J. Jayalalithaa passed away just the previous day. Cho’s demise is deeply mourned both in Tamil Nadu and across the country.
In 1970, Cho Ramaswamy founded the magazine that would go on to become his primary mouthpiece for political critique and satire – Tughlak. He launched the magazine on Pongal day and later held great commemorative events each year. The highlight of these anniversary events would be the round of questions that attendees would pose to Cho which he would answer with his signature sarcastic humour.
The magazine draws its name and mascot from the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughlak, whose policies, though far-sighted, earned him a lot of ridicule for being quixotic. Earlier in 1968, Cho had staged a play by the same name. This satirical play about politicians and the political system in India had been a massive hit and was later turned into a movie.
Cho used the Tughlak as a medium to pen down many scathing columns and editorials. Tughlak was the only magazine which had its advertisements censored during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. Daringly Cho published the first post-Emergency issue with an all-black front cover to register protest. The Tughlak took on a black jacket once again when the Babri Masjid was demolished.
The magazine came to be known for its fierce reportage and for sheer fearlessness. Senior politicians including Indira Gandhi, Moopanar, M.G. Ramachandran, Karunanidhi, N. T. Rama Rao, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh faced the brunt of his editorial attacks. For decades, the Tughlak has remained the magazine of the intellectuals and the masses alike.
Born into a south-Indian Brahmin family of lawyers, Cho followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to become a lawyer at the Madras High Court. Although he earned reputation in this field, his true passion lay in theatre and entertainment. With over 15 plays and over 190 movies to his credit, Cho established himself as a comedian and writer. His book ‘Enge Brahmanan’ (Where is the Brahmin?) was adapted into a tele series. His explanation of the Hindu religion, its rituals and practices, and their relevance in the modern world remain at the heart of Tamil culture till date. He audaciously questioned the puritan outlook of many and staunchly supported the use of commonsense in day to day life.
He gained respect of politicians and leaders cutting across party lines for his impartial analysis of political issues and for his staunch refusal to take up politics as a career despite his immense popularity.
His success as a lawyer, journalist, editor, political analyst and entertainment personality earned him the President’s nomination for a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Cho Ramaswamy served as a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) between 1999 and 2005.
In the later years of her political career, Tamil Nadu’s former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha came to depend greatly on Cho Ramaswamy as her mentor and guide, her “Chanakya”. He helped her get a resounding victory in the 2011 state assembly elections by facilitating an alliance with the DMDK led by Vijayakanth. Cho was also largely responsible for Jayalalithaa’s image transformation from that of a corrupt hoarder of wealth to a people’s leader. It is on his advice, it is inferred, that the AIADMK leader chose to eliminate longtime aide Shashikala from her Poes Garden residence and cut all ties with those who were misusing her political clout and connections. Cho’s support and advice were believed to be responsible for Jayalalithaa’s comeback and soaring popularity.
Cho Ramaswamy was one of the first analysts to suggest that Narendra Modi would ascend to the position of Prime Minister of India. He actively campaigned for Modi during the general elections of 2014. At one of the Tughlak’s anniversary events held in Chennai, Cho went on to recall Sonia Gandhi’s reference to Modi as a “Merchant of Death” adding that he was the “Merchant of Death” for terrorism, corruption, bureaucratic negligence and poverty. PM Modi calls himself a fan of Cho Ramaswamy and refers to him as the “Rajguru”.
Those Who Mourn
Cho’s death is certainly the end of an era. It is the end of relentless and fearless truth seeking, of holding up a mirror for politicians to see and drop the glitzy garb of sycophancy, of asking the common man to seek out answers and hold those they elect answerable. No long will the masses wait to check what Cho says about a political development to make up their minds. While the demise of a fine mind, a political analyst and a veteran journalist is cause for grief for the entire nation, Tamil Nadu in particular is likely to miss him, given the state of political turmoil that is looming ahead.