Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami campaigning in Erode district, January 6
WITH ELECTIONS SCHEDULED to take place a full month and a half before the term of the 15th Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu comes to an end, the manic rush to raise funds, organise public events, select candidates and hammer out agreements with alliance partners has further gone into hyperdrive. On April 6th, 6.26 crore voters will decide between reinstating the incumbent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and electing the MK Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to power. AIADMK, which will face the polls along with BJP, Anbumani Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) and other allies, is banking on pre-poll bonanzas and some social engineering to buck anti-incumbency and fill the void left behind by former chief minister J Jayalalithaa. It has also got a windfall in the form of ousted AIADMK General Secretary and Jayalalithaa aide VK Sasikala’s sudden retirement from politics. Announcing her decision in a two-page letter, Sasikala, on March 3rd, called upon the ‘true followers’ of Jayalalithaa to ‘remain united, act wisely and work hard’ to ensure that ‘our common enemy and evil force, as identified by Amma [Jayalalithaa], does not return to power and the golden rule of Amma is established in Tamil Nadu’. After her release from prison in February upon serving four years in a corruption case, she was expected to play a role in the upcoming election, possibly splitting AIADMK’s vote and shifting some of it to her nephew TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). Her exit from the scene, coming amidst reports of alliance talks between AIADMK and BJP proving inconclusive with leaders of the Dravidian party refusing to join hands with Sasikala and Dhinakaran, could well pave the way for a unified AIADMK to emerge.
“There has been a visible upswing in favour of AIADMK in the last two months, thanks to pro-people announcements by our government,” says state Minister for Culture ‘Ma Foi’ K Pandiarajan. There is another factor at work, he says. AIADMK’s alliance partners, especially BJP, are starting to pull their weight.
“Who is a bigger liability—Narendra Modi for AIADMK or Rahul Gandhi campaigning for the DMK alliance?” asks journalist and writer Maalan Narayanan, referring to Gandhi’s recent tour of the state’s southern districts that saw him showcase his fitness rather than his leadership skills. In contrast to Gandhi’s impromptu efforts to connect with the people, BJP leaders are carefully sticking to script. On his first visit to Tamil Nadu since November, when Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a rally in Villupuram last weekend, he followed Prime Minister Modi’s example and expressed regret at being unable to speak Tamil. While opposition politicians pounced on the opportunity to call out the hypocrisy of the national party accused of favouring Hindi, it is not Hindi that BJP has been trying to impose on Tamil Nadu. The party has been slowly but surely working on the ground to get Tamils to speak its language of Hindutva as an alternative to the Dravidian politics that has dominated the state for decades. In a state that does not allow its affection for the gods to spill over into the poll arena, stirring the caste cauldron, however, is known to yield results on occasion, and AIADMK, with BJP’s active assistance, is doing just that. Helmed for the first time by a Kongu Vellala Gounder, a dominant community in the western districts, the party is trying to consolidate its traditional Other Backward Classes (OBC) votebank and transfer a section of the Scheduled Caste (SC) vote to itself. By passing an internal reservation Bill, envisaging 10.5 per cent quota for Vanniyars in education and employment within the reservation for Most Backward Classes (MBC) and Denotified Communities (DNC), hours before Assembly elections were notified, AIADMK hopes to strengthen PMK’s prospects in the 23 seats allotted to the latter, thereby preventing DMK from storming the Vanniyar belt in northern Tamil Nadu that has over 80 Assembly seats. If AIADMK manages to retain the west, where it is traditionally strong—as evident from the panchayat poll results in 2020—it can focus on the fight in the delta and the south. In the event of an AMMK-AIADMK merger, Thevar votes in about 40 constituencies in central Tamil Nadu could further consolidate in favour of the ruling party. The region is also among the key beneficiaries of the Edappadi K Palaniswami government’s waiver of Rs 12,110 crore in loans taken by 16.43 lakh farmers across the state.
DMK, which has held several rounds of talks with its alliance partners without reaching an agreement, is said to be keen on contesting at least 180 of 234 seats. It is haunted by its loss, by a margin of about one percentage point, in the 2016 Assembly elections where a third front led by Vijayakanth played spoilsport. This time around, a ‘big brother’ attitude towards its partners could once again result in fragmenting the anti-AIADMK vote. Congress has demanded at least 30 seats “to maintain the party’s dignity”—down from the 41 it contested in the 2016 Assembly elections—while DMK, at the time of going to press, was reported to have come to a hard stop at 18. The Indian Union Muslim League has accepted DMK’s offer of three seats, and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, two. “Contrary to what opinion polls say, it is likely to be a close contest. DMK has indicated as much by insisting on fielding its own candidates from the maximum number of seats,” says Maalan Narayanan. It has also run afoul of its alliance partner Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a Dalit party that has condemned the legislation to implement internal reservations for Vanniyars as an attempt to make electoral gains by “moving caste pieces”. The decision could further sharpen the Dalit-Vanniyar rift, which has led to major caste riots and honour killings in the northern districts in the past, and alienate the 93 communities which have been forced to share the residual 9.5 per cent MBC quota. DMK, which solicits the votes of Dalits and the minorities by citing social justice among its foundational values, is guilty of playing along. Having cultivated a number of Vanniyar leaders and promised to implement special reservations for the community in 2019, it is in no position to take sides in the debate on internal reservations. “In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, north Indian caste calculations won’t work. Caste is a small part of the story. The right alliance, anti-incumbency, choice of candidates and policies are the major factors determining poll outcomes,” says Congress leader Su Thirunavukkarasar. DMK has allotted six seats to VCK, even as it drives a hard bargain with Congress.
Having promised to implement special reservations for Vanniyars in 2019, DMK, which solicits Dalit and minority votes, is in no position to take sides in the debate on internal reservations
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Meanwhile, for the lotus to bloom amid the two leaves, playing the dominant-caste card alone is not enough. By appointing a Dalit state president and recognising smaller groups such as fishermen, who found themselves sharing the stage with Amit Shah in Villupuram where he inaugurated a statue of freedom fighter, trade unionist and social justice activist M Singaravelar, BJP is stepping out of its comfort zone of Brahmin-Thevar-Hindu Nadar votes. “We are consciously working with all communities on the ground,” says BJP leader KT Raghavan. “When JP Nadda came to Madurai, he met social leaders, and he will do so again in Vellore next week. What we see taking place in Tamil Nadu is a Hindu consolidation irrespective of caste.”
To be sure, the Tamil Nadu BJP is consolidating not just castes, but also legacies. At the venue of Modi’s rally in Coimbatore in February, it even put up cutouts of AIADMK founder MG Ramachandran and veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister K Kamaraj. The appropriation of local leaders is not a strategy but a compulsion for BJP, which has no recognisable faces from history to call its own in the state, argues Congress’ Thirunavukkarasar. Kamaraj, while known for his governance and simplicity, was likely chosen as a representational Nadar figure in this case.
“Purely caste-based parties only enjoy flashes of success in Tamil Nadu,” says AIADMK’s Pandiarajan. “Even Kalaignar [Karunanidhi], who attempted caste polarisation, failed to reap benefits. Today, there is sharp deceleration in caste consciousness in Tamil Nadu, a largely urban state. Neither DMK nor AIADMK can afford to position themselves along caste lines.”
Whatever AIADMK may say, this is a polarising election, and not only because of BJP, says Raveendran Doraiswamy, a political commentator and former PMK member. “This is the first time AIADMK is going to the polls without a caste-neutral leader. The party is dominated by Mukkulathor and associating with BJP will only serve to sharpen these rough edges,” he says. It was upon the Tamil Nadu government’s recommendation that BJP took up the contentious issue of clubbing seven Dalit communities—Pallar, Kadaiyar, Kalladi, Kudumbar, Pannadi, Vathiriyan and Devendrakulathar—under the single heritage name of Devendrakula Vellalar. Talking about the constitutional amendment introduced in the Lok Sabha to this effect, Prime Minister Modi joked at a rally in Tamil Nadu that his name rhymed with ‘Devendra’, essentially claiming credit for fulfilling the longstanding demand of these communities and redeeming their social status. The move may yet backfire among Pillais, Mudaliars and Gounders who call themselves Vellalar—literally, agriculturists—and it is only a statement of intent, as the seven castes are understandably not keen to be delisted as SCs. Other communities, such as the Mutharayars of central Tamil Nadu, have demanded denotified tribe status.
“From the 2019 elections, we know that there has been some shift of votes to DMK in the Nadar and Gounder belts. This election, AIADMK, which had lost the trust of people at the bottom of the social structure, is looking to regain it,” says S Venkatanarayanan, assistant professor at Andaman Law College, Port Blair. “Caste organisations realise this and they are getting activated. This is the first election in memory where societal cleavages and counterstrategies are visibly at play.