New Fronts Are Taking Shape in Tamil Nadu But the Dravidian Parties Are Still on Top

The PMK and the Peoples Welfare Front, which brings together the Left, the MDMK and the Dalit VCK, are saying they will fight the 2016 elections alone. But challenging the dominance of the AIADMK and DMK is easier said than done.

J. Jayalalithaa. Credit: moneybazaar.com

J. Jayalalithaa. Credit: PTI

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have started to make moves keeping in mind the forthcoming elections. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is in power and more or less in a comfortable position except for the floods that ravaged Chennai and other northern cities – which could play into traditional anti-incumbency factors – is the one party remaining aloof from alliance talks and electoral meetings. This demonstrates its strength and marks it out as the party to beat. Perhaps for this reason, most of the others have started their work; the DMK has already formed a committee to work on its manifesto, and the Congress has put forth its pre-conditions for an alliance.

Whilst these moves are typical of any Tamil election over the past few decades, the erosion of the Dravidian duopoly is also evident. The Pattali Makkal Katchi was the first to announce its chief ministerial candidate and has organised multiple conferences across the state calling for an end to Dravidian rule. With the coming together of parties like Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Left and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) as People’s Welfare Front, which has also released its common minimum programme, the stage is set for a multi-cornered fight in Tamil Nadu. Whilst this points towards the slow growth of multi-party contestation in Tamil politics, however, some factors remain constant.

Amidst all the pre-election machinations, it is clear that caste is set to play a predominant role in deciding electoral fortunes. While the caste basis of several smaller parties is apparent, the notionally caste-free Dravidian parties continue to operate a caste logic. This is exemplified by the fact that  Jayalalithaa recently announced the appointment of 50 district secretaries keeping in mind the forthcoming elections. The caste-wise break up shows us that 30 out of the 50 are Mukkulathor (a cluster of Kallar, Maravar and Agamudaiyar castes, often known as Thevars), Kongu Vellala Gounders and Vanniyars. Only one Dalit, one member of the fisherfolk community and one tribal candidate were chosen; the rest were all from the trading and other intermediate castes. Caste majoritarianism, we see, continues as political praxis in Tamil Nadu.

Slipping hegemony of DMK

DMK leader M K Stalin posing for a selfie with students at Coimbatore during his 'Namakku Naame Vidiyalai Thedi' campaign ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. Credit: PTI

DMK leader M K Stalin posing for a selfie with students at Coimbatore during his ‘Namakku Naame Vidiyalai Thedi’ campaign ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. Credit: PTI

In a bid to reconnect to the grassroots, the DMK has started a programme called Namakku Naame (We for Ourselves), where the party’s treasurer and DMK patriarch’s son M.K. Stalin will be visiting all 234 constituencies in the state to interact with people. Stalin ended his tour at the symbolically significant town of Kancheepuram, birthplace of DMK founder Annadurai on November 8, 2015. The images we saw of Stalin’s tour invited comments from political onlookers akin to that of what Rahul Gandhi did in Uttar Pradesh where, in an effort to connect to the masses, he stayed at a Dalit’s hut, ate food there, and was found working in a field helping a tiller. Stalin in his tour came out breaking the stereotype of a Tamil politician. Trading in the traditional white veshti and shirt for smart trousers and sneakers, he tried his hand at tilling a piece of land using a mattock and posed for selfies. All of this was dubbed by political commentators as attention-seeking efforts unlikely to bring the DMK votes.

The programme is seeking to revive DMK’s fortunes by returning to its past and is based on one of Karunanidhi’s famous slogans. The phrase was earlier used by the DMK for a popular government welfare scheme promoting self-reliance, and the party is hoping to recapture voters in the process. A website has been also created by it to reach out to educated and young voters. Coining terms and sloganeering is one of the cornerstones of Dravidian politics, which invests much on rhetorical flourishes and symbolism. Here the slogan has been transformed into action in a last-ditch effort save the DMK’s fortunes, and speaks to the decline of its strong local organizational base.

Emergent challengers

The weakness of the DMK as a challenger to Jayalalithaa is perhaps best seen in the emergence of the non-aligned fronts. Sensing the continuing unpopularity of the DMK and the reluctance of the AIADMK to share seats, two alliances have emerged to exploit the cracks in Dravidian hegemony. On one hand we have the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) which comprises the MDMK, the VCK and the Left parties who claim that their poll alliance stems from a coming together of like-minded parties to address people’s issues. The participation of the Left parties here is the most significant indicator of change in Tamil politics, given their tendency to prioritise national questions and Parliamentary representation over questions of principle. The front’s common minimum programme gives us an idea of the ideological influence of the Left in its drafting and prioritises economic aspects and welfare measures rather than emotional issues like Tamil nationalism that are the political staple of the MDMK and VCK. The most important aspect of the CMP is the promise to enact a law against (dis)honour killings which are rising, but which the Dravidian majors carefully avoid talking about.

The PWF is a coming together of weaklings in the electoral politics of the state. Statistics show that all of them together do not even constitute 5% of the vote share. Not only does arithmetic count against them but they are weak even in terms of having established bases. The Left can claim East Thanjavur and Nagapattinam as their strongholds, and MDMK can say that about Virudhunagar though Vaiko couldn’t win in the Lok Sabha election. The VCK unfortunately has no constituencies, which it can claim as its bastion. Mangalur and Chidambaram come close but one of the major setbacks of the Dalit-dominated party, which has a good presence across the state, has been its failure to create such constituencies. In an effort to become a mainstream party, the VCK has emphasized Tamil nationalism in a manner that has alienated its core base of Dalit supporters.

The party’s leadership assumes that the Dalit populace would vote for them by default. Its general secretary recently argued that it has identified 84 constituencies where the Dalit population constitutes 25-44% and that the VCK has a strong presence. He suggested that if his party can get 30-40% of Dalit votes, it could pull off a win when its allies’ share is also added. Judging by the VCK’s past record, we can understand that this is a highly impossible scenario. The PWF’s most realistic chance of upsetting the Dravidian majors from this perspective may be if they rope in Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam and G. K. Vasan’s break-away Tamil Maanila Congress. If the alliance remains intact, we will at least get a true impression of the support that each of these parties – who normally stand alongside one of the two dominant parties – have at the grassroots.

Caste consolidation?

Like the DMK, the PMK stands as a party with no alliance partner. The PMK is a party of ironies, a party which grew out of the Vanniyar Sangam in the 1980s in a classic case of the ‘politics of caste mobilisation’, The party’s infamous Vanniyar agitation in 1987 demanding reservation for most backwards castes, saw close to 5,000 Dalit hutments set on fire and hundreds of trees felled in protest. A few years later, the party floated a movement called Pasumai Thayagam (Green Motherland) with no appreciation of the irony this entailed. On the back of this mobilisation, the PMK grew into a major party and has been a first choice ally both for the DMK and AIADMK in the past. For a while, the party acted as a weather-vane in Tamil politics, successfully joining the winning side in multiple elections. Persistent alliance hopping, the loss of Dalit votes to the VCK and the fracturing of the Vanniyar vote by the DMDK saw the political fortunes of the PMK decline. Following successive electoral reverses, its leader, P. Ramadoss, swore never to ally with the Dravidian majors again and returned to caste-based mobilisation. In recent years, he has sought to consolidate an anti-Dalit front of intermediate caste groups in the state.

Now P. Ramadoss wants to see his son, Anbumani Ramadoss become chief minister, so he is playing a very careful game of politics – talking about caste only in regions where it is a vote-winner (such as in the southern districts and the Vanniyar belt) while maintaining an image of ‘developmental politics’ elsewhere. One of the possibilities is the coming together of caste and religious orthodoxy, which saw the PMK ally with the BJP in the national elections. The BJP, which desperately wants to make inroads in Tamil Nadu, is engaged in wooing both Dalits and intermediate castes – casting them as the victims of Dravidian politics – and may be open to a similar alliance in the coming state polls. Given that the PMK’s electoral base is confined to the Vanniyar belt and the BJP’s sole foothold in Tamil Nadu is in Kannyakumari, these parties too are assiduously courting Vijayakant as an electoral partner.

New directions in Tamil politics

The deliberations and discussions in advance of the 2016 elections suggest that the hegemony of the Dravidian giants has been effectively eroded. This does not mean, however, that one or the other will not emerge triumphant next May. The AIADMK as noted at the outset, remains set to repeat its victories in the past two elections. The two uncertainties confronting Jayalalithaa are the appeal against her acquittal on corruption charges, and the propensity of Tamil voters to choose the better offer. In a similarly unpromising scenario in the past, the DMK has managed to confound expectations with manifesto commitments and promises that have captured the imagination of the people. Whether they are capable of constructing such a package, and whether this will offset the taint of corruption and family rule is less clear. Certainly, the hurdles ahead of the DMK are higher than any they have faced in the past.

What, though, of the emerging fronts and the changing formations of Tamil politics? Both the PWF and the PMK are untested as non-aligned electoral fronts. We can safely predict that neither will form the next government, but there is still huge interest over their performance in the coming months. The first question is whether they can resist the allure of the Dravidian fronts and remain independent. All too often, parties have used pre-election campaigns to maneuver themselves into a stronger bargaining position. The second question is whether Vijayakant can bounce back from the problems of the past few years and resurface as a credible force. The third question relates to the performance of the PWF and the PMK. We know that people in Tamil Nadu are tired of Dravidian dominance, but will they be prepared to vote for alternatives when so many resources and opportunities flow through the political institutions of the DMK and the AIADMK? Irrespective of the answer to these questions, we know that caste considerations will inform the vote and it is here that the electorate have a significant choice: will they opt for the unstated caste majoritarianism of the Dravidian parties, the outspoken caste sentiments of the PMK and the BJP or the anti-caste rhetoric of the PWF. That these remain the options in the land of Periyar shows how far the state has yet to go to realise his vision of social justice.

D.Karthikeyan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh and Hugo Gorringe is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Edinburgh and the author of Untouchable Citizens : Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu, 2005.