In 1984, shortly after the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, a young farmer from Tamil Nadu’s Karur district paid his tributes to the slain leader at a condolence meeting organised by the Congress party. It was the first time Raju was speaking at a public function but it wasn’t the last.
Raju impressed the local Congress leaders so much with his oratory that the party began calling him whenever it had a public meeting and during election campaigns. Thirty-five years on, Raju is now a ‘star speaker’ for the Congress.
Raju is part of a dwindling tribe of permanent public speakers in Tamil Nadu who are neither powerful politicians nor highly paid celebrities often seen whipping up a frenzy in election rallies. In fact, Raju and many like him don’t do it for money or fame, but simply for the love for oration.
“It happened to me by accident but became a hobby, a passion,” says Raju with a beaming smile.
Spotted at a Congress rally at in Karur recently, he told The Federal that over the years he resisted many offers from rival parties to speak at their functions. “I rejected all of them because of my loyalty to the Congress,” he said, adding that even today he travels from one constituency to another at his own expense.
However, there are many among the new crop of star speakers who, unlike Raju, speak for two or more parties. In fact, it has become a lucrative business of sorts. This poll season, the state election commission approved the names of as many as 838 star speakers for various parties. Most of them are from the film industry, though it is believed some of them speak at rallies voluntarily and needn’t necessarily charge a hefty amount of money.
Raju credits his strong oratory skills to another hobby of his — reading books.
“I read a lot of books even though I didn’t attend school beyond Class 9. When EVKS Elangovan was the chief of Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, he used to send me books every now and then,” he says.
As a matter of fact, there was a time when Dravidian parties had their own literary wing and a padippakam or party library. The literary wings nurtured novice speakers to make them hold the fort in public meetings and campaign rallies during elections – the beginning of their career in political oratory. Renowned orators like Theepori Arumugam (DMK) and K Kalimuthu (AIADMK), who excelled in both literary and colloquial language, owe their success to the same literary wings of their respective parties.
However, the parties’ interest in permanent star speakers seems to have waned over time. A reason for this could be the closing down of padippakams. Old-timers like Raju believe today’s youths are not much interested in books. Moreover, political parties would rather rope in film stars since they draw huge crowds.
In his heydays, Raju and his counterparts would go to various functions to speak. Moreover, during the 1980s and 90s of Tamil Nadu, there were no restrictions on campaign timings. So, the speakers would go on, sometimes well into midnight. But with money coming into the scene, time too has become precious.
“Public speaking is my passion. I will not exchange it for money. I’m happy with what I earn from my farm. It’s enough to lead a peaceful life,” says Raju.