Tamil Politics is Undergoing a Transition, of Sorts, But Caste is Still the Key

With one foot in traditional caste rhetoric and the other in ‘modernity’, Tamil Nadu’s political parties are experimenting to draw the old and young voter alike

Anbumani 01

PMK leader Anbumani Ramadoss. Credit: Special Arrangement

Chennai: When the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s (PMK) MP Anbumani Ramadoss unveiled his Obama-esque campaign for change almost six months ago – titled “Maatram, Munnetram, Anbumani” (Change, Progress, Anbumani) – the rhetoric was refreshing although it did turn out to be excellent fodder for jokes and memes on social media.

MK Stalin followed suit, with a new look, discarding the traditional white shirt and veshti (dhoti), for trousers and sneakers instead. “Change” is in the air in Tamil Nadu, with leaders of political parties positioning themselves as agents of that change, speaking of development, progress, destroying the all-pervasive spectre of corruption and taking to social media with gusto in an effort to connect with young voters in the state.

Speaking at a rally in Tirupur in September, Stalin – heir apparent of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam said, “There are 85 lakh youngsters in the waiting list at the state employment exchange. I give an assurance to all youngsters of Tamil Nadu that we will create incubation centres to bring in new industries in the state. We will revamp the employment exchange itself and bring in private companies, conduct group discussions to ensure employment opportunities for our youth.”

The PMK and the BJP are making similar noises in the run-up to the assembly elections this year. “If the BJP is voted to power in Tamil Nadu, we will usher in a ‘development mode’ in the state through district-wise strategies,” said BJP state President Tamilisai Soundararajan earlier this month at a press briefing.

Around one crore young voters are up for grabs in the state come election time. Of these, around 60 lakhs are first time voters, a crucial slice of the electorate which all politicians across the spectrum are hoping to woo.

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

But traditional politics has not been discarded entirely in favour of the new and the raucous. On December 27, DMK chief M Karunanidhi issued a detailed statement citing a story  on RTI data showing only 12% reservations being implemented for OBCs in the country.

Reiterating his party’s stand against dispensing with the creamy layer within OBC reservations, Karunanidhi said, “The DMK demands that the Centre must fill up the existing OBC vacancies at the first opportunity in this academic year itself… After many years of struggle to implement the Mandal findings, it is distressing for us and for like-minded social thinkers to find, that there is a contrary situation now in the country. The government needs to take appropriate steps to amend necessary legislation to remove the words “creamy layer” and ensure that the Mandal Commission is followed in letter and spirit. The government also needs to set up a monitoring committee to ensure that backlog in government vacancies are filled up as per Mandal recommendations.”

The BJP too has plans for a grand OBC alliance of parties and organisations affiliated to various castes in the state. “We are interacting with various communities which want a political voice,” said Muralidhar Rao, national general secretary of the BJP and its state in-charge. “There are established political parties which are part of our alliance and also non-political organisations which will join hands with us,” he said.

The PMK’s chief, S Ramadoss continues to issue statements supporting intermediary castes and often reiterates his demand for amendments to the Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, a demand voiced by most other intermediary castes in the state. Ramadoss’ ‘Anaithu Samudaya Periyakkam’ (federation of all communities) in 2012, was essentially an umbrella group of intermediate castes like Vanniyars, Thevars, Goundars and others, most belonging to the Backward Class (the state equivalent to OBCs) or the Most Backward Castes.

“Change is inevitable,” said N Sathiyamoorthy of the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai. “Thanks to social media, the transition is even more visible. There is a need for political parties to keep their traditional vote base intact but they also have to speak to new voters. So these parties are combining the two – traditional ideology with talk of development and change,” he said.

Sathiyamoorthy believes that the historic win of Nitish Kumar in Bihar has contributed in large part to a realignment of political rhetoric in Tamil Nadu. “The Bihar elections went beyond the simple caste agenda,” he said. “It was a combination of traditional policy, brand image and a development agenda. It worked for Nitish. A reorientation of traditional politics is unavoidable now,” he said.

Ducking tough questions

Other analysts believe that the more things change, the more they remain the same. “Wearing pants and shirts and riding bikes and autorickshaws are pure gimmicks,” said C Lakshmanan, associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and an expert in Dalit studies. “Dravidian parties have been the forerunners in OBC politics in the country. Nitish Kumar is now following what Karunanidhi and Chandrababu Naidu have done successfully for years. The southern states are the trendsetter in OBC politics and no amount of talk regarding development will change that,” he said.

Lakshmanan reiterates that the new social order, post the Dravidian movement, is in fact a hegemony of the powerful intermediate castes in the state. “Brahmins were targeted on one hand and a heterogenous group called the non-Brahmin was homogenised by the Dravidian parties in the 1950s and 1960s. Social justice cannot be restricted only to OBC empowerment. The younger generation in Tamil Nadu is much more casteist than ever before. This can be seen in caste-affiliated groups especially online, amongst the Tamil diaspora and in matrimonial sites. What Karunanidhi has stated is a very dangerous articulation,” he said.

Analysts like Stalin Rajangam, a known Tamil author, agree and say that talk of development is mere eyewash by these parties – a cover for playing traditional caste-based politics. “There has been a change in Tamil Nadu politics due to the Dravidian movement,” said Rajangam. “Political, economic and social power was transferred from Brahmins to the intermediate castes. But the change has stopped with the intermediate castes. To move to the next level, that is to empower SCs and STs, political parties will have to offend the intermediate castes and this is impossible since they are all dependent on these intermediate castes for votes,” he said.

Rajangam feels that next generation leaders like Stalin and Anbumani Ramadoss would not question existing social issues, but would rather hide them under a veil of modernity. “Issues like development and corruption are being picked up so that these leaders do not have to speak of empowering SCs and STs and thereby offend intermediate castes,” continued Rajangam. “This is escapism and it is not correct.”

Whatever the reason, traditional politics in Tamil Nadu is certainly undergoing a change, with politicians responding to the demands and aspirations of urban youth. Come 2016 and Tamil Nadu’s youngsters will take the final call on who they are willing to trust.

  • S.Thiyagarajan

    As the election date nears, the politicians in TN are growing desperate. MK somehow wants to anoint his son Stalin as the next CM and he will do anything and meet anybody and give himalayan assurances for that purpose. There are atleast four declared CM candidates now, Stalin, VijayaKanth, Anbumani and growing voice for Vaiko, and they cannot now go back on their own buildup because that will not only dent their image but also put them to disadvantage electorally. The parties in the Vaiko group will find it extremely averse to oblige the bloated ego of Vijayakanth. There is absolutely no chance that Anbu and VKanth will come under the same umbrella. The alliance between Stalin and Vaiko group is also ruled out due to past animosities. Nobody cares about Congress and MK is trying to use Cong. as his doormat, when no other party has evinced any interest to align with DMK. BJP has again become untouchable and discarded by other parties like hot potato. GK Vasan is waiting in the wings to strike a profitable alliance with a major party at the last minute, and he may just succeed in that. Left has become a fringe player in TN politics as is the case at all india level. So, a multicornered contest is assured in TN to the consternation of MK, who is dreaming of the good old days when parties standing in line for his audience and he used to doll out fewer and fewer seats for them and for some others, “gave a seat in his heart”. That situation is over and gone. Multicornered contest will be a great advantage for Jaya who will give minimum number of seats to smaller parties like TMC and go all out for a victory with all her resources and tactics. If the above situation emerges, Jaya will be the outright winner in the coming elections