Still Searching for New Directions in Tamil Politics

Liberation Panthers' leader Thol. Thirumavalavan. Credit: YouTube screengrab

Liberation Panthers’ leader Thol. Thirumavalavan. Credit: YouTube screengrab

“Dalits in Tamil Nadu want to become decision makers and share political power,” thundered Thol. Thirumavalavan, addressing a massive gathering in Madurai on the occasion of his party — Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi’s (Liberation Panthers) — silver jubilee conference. He called upon his cadres to be prepared for the second leap in electoral politics, which should take them towards attaining concrete political power. Stating that his party would pitch for a coalition government in the state, he reasoned that it was the only way Dalits, minorities and other oppressed castes can taste political power.

As a Dalit politician, Thirumavalavan’s speech not only reflected his or his party’s anxieties but those of Dalits in general in the state. Dalits form 20 per cent of the state’s population and have a long history of anti-caste mobilisation, which preceded the Dravidian Movement, but Dalits have never been able to influence the state’s politics. The Dalit electorate in Tamil Nadu was traditionally with the Congress during the 1950s and 60s, but when the Dravidian movement’s political offspring the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and later it’s break away party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, came onto the political scene, the Dalits shifted loyalties respectively. It was during the early 1990s, following the Dr. Ambedkar centenary, and a time when Dalits were facing high-levels of caste atrocities at the hands of intermediate castes, that Puthiya Tamilagam and Vidhuthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi emerged originally as social organisations and later entered electoral politics.

Cogs in the wheel

Dalit politics in the state emerged as a counter-hegemonic discourse critiquing the Dravidian ideology as being non-inclusive and one which failed to mainstream the subalterns. However, caught under the machinations of electoral politics, the Dalit parties became cogs in the wheel and are now victims of the hegemonising tactics of the Dravidian parties. Both the Dalit parties failed miserably to mobilize a solid vote bank and lacked the resources to stand alone in many constituencies. As a result, they were forced to bargain for a couple of seats for the Lok Sabha and less than ten for the Assembly elections with either the DMK or AIADMK.

The bi-polar nature of Tamil politics and the reluctance of significant alternative parties like the Communists to take the lead, meant that forming a third front with like-minded parties was out of the question. All that the Dalit parties were able to do was win a couple of Assembly seats and a Lok Sabha seat.

Worse still, ever since they entered institutional politics there exists a widespread feeling that the radicalness associated with the Liberation Panthers was palpably missing. Moreover, during the last parliamentary elections, the party had a tough time bargaining for seats; expecting 4, they were given only one by the DMK despite the fact that they had stayed with the DMK alliance for almost ten long years in what many Dalit intellectuals saw as a suicidal move. This step-motherly treatment by the DMK was not taken lightly by the VCK cadres who indulged in road rokos and protests and went to the extent of burning effigies of DMK leader Karunanidhi. These spontaneous protests made the DMK offer the VCK one more seat in 2014.

The reasons for the continued marginalisation of the VCK and PT lie in the disparate and fragmented nature of Dalit votes and the continued influence of dominant castes in the state.

In Tamil Nadu, the two major castes which were never part of the non-Brahmin collective — the Thevars in the southern districts and Vanniyars in the northern districts — have emerged as the biggest beneficiaries of Dravidian politics. The Thevars were historically loyal to the Forward Bloc, a party that was brought to Tamil Nadu by Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar and the Vanniyars were affiliated to the Commonweal and Tamilnad Toilers Party. And it is these castes, which have a bloody history of caste oppression and violence unleashed against the Dalits. Irrespective of which party is in power, Thevars wield political influence and anticipate meaningful portfolios in government. The Dalits on the other hand had been loyal towards the Dravidian parties, but all that they could get as elected representatives in DMK and AIADMK administrations were portfolios like Animal Husbandry and Adi-Dravidar Welfare Departments.

Prospects for DMK bargain

The VCK, which drew a blank in the 2011 Assembly and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, is on weak turf in demanding a coalition government with power sharing. This would be unprecedented in the political history of the state where there had been pre-electoral alliances but power was never shared. Both VCK and PT, however, are on equally weak ground in relation to their core supporters. Continued subordination to the Dravidian parties has frustrated their followers and created a feeling that there is little to be gained from Dalit politics. For their part, the Dalit leaders are waking up to the limited nature of their gains and are seeking to make the most of new alignments in Tamil politics.

The decline of the DMK as an organisation and the decision of the AIADMK to go it alone in 2014 – combined with serious allegations of corruption against both parties — has meant that the possibilities of a Third Front are no longer as remote as they once seemed. In such a context, the time may be ripe to shift Tamil Nadu beyond two-party rule and into the realms of meaningful coalition politics. The Dalit parties certainly need something to show their followers for any continued alliance with the Dravidian parties. Moreover, they are now faced by concerted Bharatiya Janata Party efforts to breach the Dravidian citadel. The BJP have given the job to strongman Amit Shah, who had already initiated measures to woo Dalits in both northern and southern districts of the state. Buoyed by the reprieve afforded to Jayalalithaa in the courts recently, and the results of the 2014 elections, the AIADMK may disprove the accepted wisdom that one-party rule is over in the state. The DMK, by contrast, is currently at an incredibly low ebb. If Dalit parties and others can make the price of its renaissance a commitment to coalition politics, then we may witness the dawn of a new politics in Tamil Nadu in 2016.

D. Karthikeyan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu. He previously worked as a special correspondent for The Hindu newspaper. 

Hugo Gorringe is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Untouchable Citizens (Sage, 2005) and multiple articles on caste, Dalit politics and violence.