Anbumani Ramadoss discusses his campaign and strategy, casteism and his revulsion for liquor.
In a last minute public meeting at Dharmapuri in north Tamil Nadu, the urbane Anbumani Ramadoss, chief ministerial candidate of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), tried to break many rules of Tamil Nadu politics. From arriving on time to wearing pants instead of a standard-issue veshti, Ramadoss interspersed his Tamil speech with a lot of English. At the end of the four-hour meeting, many excited supporters stormed the stage; a young man gushed that he couldn’t believe the bodyguards did not throw him off.
Ramadoss, formerly the union health minister, was the first to launch his chief ministerial campaign in the state, with a focus on ending alcohol and corruption in Tamil Nadu. The manifesto, his campaign logo, his use of sarcasm, evocation of age and good health – all of it seems cultivated to tap into the Tamil Nadu electorate’s growing exhaustion with the lack of options. In his meetings, he never misses a chance to express his disdain for freebies and the old Dravidian order – M. Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and J. Jayalaithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – that have ruled for five decades.
Yet, a lot about the PMK campaign is discomfiting. Cheers for prohibition come from a raucous crowd of supremely drunk young men. Local party leaders take ageist digs at Karunanidhi, laugh at Jayalalithaa’s apparent illness and use the often ridiculous behaviour of Vijaykanth to run down the third front alliance that includes Dalit and Left parties. Ramadoss too disses the Dravidian ideologies that have built the state’s strong regional politics as archaic, but espouses its principles of social justice. It trashes freebies as robbing people of dignity, even though political analysts say that these alone have kept utter poverty at bay in Tamil Nadu. The party wants to corner the Vanniyar caste vote (about 18% of the total vote in Tamil Nadu), but also keeps this image at bay for fear of alienating others.
Until as recently as 2012, the PMK’s grassroots mobilisation attempted to consolidate the Vanniyars through aggressive, often anti-Dalit and violent rhetoric, but today Ramadoss himself steers clear of it in public. After another day of campaigning in his constituency of Pennagaram, Anbumani Ramadoss spoke exclusively to Rohini Mohan about these contradictions in his campaign, his strategy to woo voters and his revulsion for liquor.
In your public meeting you looked around and said that you were happy that you could not find much grey hair among the audience. Why do you speak constantly about the youth?
Tamil Nadu’s electorate is 5.79 crores, of which 60% are neutral voters, the rest are party loyalists. Of the undecided voters, two-thirds are below 35 years of age. So in sheer numbers, it is about 2.5 crore young, neutral voters. In December last year, after the floods, our party did a survey in Tamil Nadu for our own use. We found that 82% of youth we surveyed didn’t want DMK or AIADMK, so I am gunning for them.
What about the competition from other chief ministerial candidate – Vijaykanth from the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK)?
(Scowls) Please. Vijaykanth is a non-entity in this election. Obviously, those who won’t vote for AIADMK won’t choose Vijaykanth. He doesn’t know what’s happening around him. He is in a different world altogether, totally incoherent. He and his alliance (the People’s Welfare Front) do not matter. (The People’s Welfare Front is comprised of Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Communist Party of India , Communist Party of India (Marxist), Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Tamil Manila Congress). Yesterday, Vaiko suddenly said he won’t contest. The third front itself is a non-starter and only the media is giving them importance. Why? Because, the media in Tamil Nadu is biased towards DMK-AIADMK and doesn’t want to give me importance. If they project me even a little bit, they know that I will be the winner.
On what basis are you so confident? Isn’t it risky for the PMK to contest alone in all 234 constituencies?
How long will the people of Tamil Nadu give chances to the old parties? All the youngsters want a change, they want someone who is a young, who talks sense, who is approachable. Anbumani is all of that.
Is this what you’re projecting consciously?
Yes, it is being done strategically. These are the talking points – youth, approachability, a change from the old ways. That is also my character – I’m a moderate soft spoken person. I don’t use abusive language. I don’t bash up anybody on stage. I am a decent, educated person from (the) medical profession, not from the movies. This works strategically as well; it will appeal to (the) three big groups I’m focused on: youth, women and farmers. I speak their language and the crux of the PMK’s manifesto – employment, prohibition and agriculture budget – is crafted with them in mind.
Why are you the chief ministerial candidate and not your father?
For this particular election, this is the party strategy: to put up an acceptable, young face, a face that has achieved in the past. We decided that for this election, I was the best bet. Next time, it may be different.
Your Change-Progress-Anbumani logo imitates the Obama campaign. You have Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-corruption toll-free number. You talk of being CEO-chief minister like Andhra Pradesh’s Chandrababu Naidu.
Yes, I admit I have taken ideas from Kejriwal, Obama and whoever has succeeded. So what? We need solutions, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Why do you want to be chief minister?
I was a cabinet minister at the age of 35 (health minister from 2004 to 2009 under the Congress-led UPA). But at this moment, I felt we need to rescue Tamil Nadu from the clutches of the two Dravidian parties. I want to be the one to change the direction. Even if they rule for another 50 years, they won’t make a single difference. It’ll be the same concept of cheating people, giving empty dialogues and freebies.
Then why did your party ally with both DMK and AIADMK at different times in the past?
The biggest mistake we did was aligning with them for 13 years. For this mistake, I’ve not only regretted in private, but also apologised in public and promised we won’t do it again. We lost our credibility. Now, we’re back on track and don’t want to beg anyone for alliances. We took the decision in 2011 and haven’t allied with them for five years.
What is your personal reason to be so interested in prohibition?
I am a doctor and my leader (father and PMK founder S. Ramadoss) is also a doctor. We know that it is a health, social and an economic issue. My party got 604 TASMAC shops (government-run wine stores) closed down on the highways by approaching the Supreme Court. Sixteen thousand of my women cadres have been jailed while trying to shut down wine shops. Last year, I went to 22 of the 32 districts in the state to protest with women for closing shops.
My constituency of Dharmapuri has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the state. When I go to villages, at 6 pm the boys are drunk – you can’t reason with them, tell them about liver damage – they will agree with you and then again drink. So awareness programmes and all won’t work. The only way is non-availability. Today, it’s a big public issue. Seeing the huge support for the issue, every party is jumping on the prohibition bandwagon today, even Karunanidhi who brought in alcohol and Jayalalithaa who has enforced it. Nobody believes these other parties will do it. PMK can do it because it has the will.
Do you drink?
No, I don’t! (Smiles)
And you never have?
Never. I don’t smoke also.
Prohibition has been tried before in TN and it didn’t work. Gujarat has it, but alcohol has been pushed underground.
We have planned for a toll free number that will be publicised everywhere. If people see anyone selling illicit alcohol, or even drinking, they can call the number. Their identity will be kept a secret and if it’s true, they will be given an award of Rs. 10,000. If illicit liquor is found anywhere, the panchayat president, the sub-inspector and village administrative officer will be suspended that day only. The superintendent of police and the deputy will be given a black mark. We will have a law that gives life imprisonment to those selling illicit liquor and special courts that have to deal with the case in six months. This way, we’ve tied up gaps.
What about state revenue?
Granite and sand mining industries, if pushed and regulated, will make more than Rs. 84000 crores. We don’t need this Rs. 21000 crores from liquor. Plus I’ll save money because I am not going to give any freebies. An industry survey shows that Tamil Nadu’s state GDP is 11 lakh crore rupees. It was supposed to be 13.2 lakh crores. We have lost out 2.2 lakh crore rupees because of alcohol.
Your manifesto is considered progressive, but your party suffers from…
… caste. (Rolls eyes)
Vanniyars are your voter base, Vanniyar pride is deeply embedded in the PMK identity and has led to anti-Dalit violence.
See, I am not saying my party is perfect. We have our discrepancies and shortfalls. I am not denying that. But I am making sure that we are changing. Since I have been announced as the chief ministerial candidate one and a half years back, no one can accuse my party of anything wrong. There have been incidents in the past that we were not involved in, but were blamed for. Why? Because five years back, we came out of the DMK-AIADMK. As soon as we came out, we became a caste party. We are a party of social justice, no other party has a shadow budget for agriculture, we have a Chennai We Want document, we are against nuclear projects. Since our popularity is growing, the blames are also growing.
Isn’t the PMK fanning Vanniyar pride to strengthen your party voter base?
No, that is different. Caste has been there for thousands of years. My party’s ideologues are Ambedkar, Periyar and Karl Marx. For me, caste can’t be abolished. But what could be done is to bring lower sections up to a higher level. That is social justice. Backward caste, minorities, Dalits, people in last rung of society should be lifted up.
See there are issues, I can’t deny. But we are changing. I talk to my youngsters and ask them to be responsible. Since I took over as MP in 2014, not one small incident has happened. I don’t want these issues, not in Dharmapuri, not in Tamil Nadu. I want to talk on progress.