Anti-Caste Politics and the Tamil Nadu Elections: A Lost Opportunity to Deepen Democracy

The 2016 state assembly election results have established the magnitude of the task ahead for those who wish to create an alternative, counter-hegemonic politics in the state that challenges caste-based violence.

The Tamil Nadu Assembly election results have once again confounded expectations and delivered a clear and decisive mandate. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has broken the 32-year-old jinx on re-electing the incumbent party, which meant an alternative party was elected every five years from the well-established duopoly of Tamil Nadu politics. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa now joins her mentor and founder of the AIADMK, the late M.G. Ramachandran (popularly known as MGR), in receiving a consecutive term, a feat he achieved in 1984. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), though bitterly disappointed by its loss, has at least bounced back from the nadir of 2011 when it lost its position as opposition party to ‘Captain’ Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).

It appears that this election has re-established the hegemony of Dravidian politics, since all other permutations and combinations drew a blank. It is against this background that we are going to discuss two important leaders who almost tasted victory but fell by the wayside by the slenderest of margins. K. Krishnasamy, the founder president of the Puthiya Tamilagam (PT) and incumbent member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Ottapidaram was allied with the DMK and was leading in the count until the final hours – eventually losing his seat to the AIADMK by a margin of 500 votes. Thol. Thirumavalavan, president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), was contesting from the  Kattumannarkoil constituency with the Third Front and lost to an AIADMK candidate by a mere 87 votes.

A watershed for subaltern politics

The emergence of both these leaders onto the Tamil political landscape dominated by Dravidian politics was a historical watershed for subaltern politics. They both represent populous Dalit communities in the state – the Pallars and Paraiyars who reside in large numbers in the southern and northern districts respectively. Their emergence in the post-1990 Ambedkar centenary era is significant for Tamil politics on two counts.

Not only did they lead the independent mass mobilisation of Dalits in the state, they have also articulated the possibility of challenging the status-quo of Dravidian political parties. A strong counter-hegemonic Dalit discourse was established for the first time in post-colonial Tamil politics. Although there were important Dalit leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Ilayaperumal (who was with the Congress), they were more or less functioning regionally and there was never a strong assimilation or symbolic value attached to their politics.

Krishnasamy was the first of the two to enter institutional politics in 1996 following state-sponsored atrocity against Dalits in a village called Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district. Members of the upwardly mobile Pallar community were targeted, and their homes and property systematically destroyed with the help of the police. This inflamed a longstanding antagonism between Pallars and Thevars in the southern districts culminated in severe caste riots, which wracked Tamil Nadu for almost three years between 1996 and 1998.

During the 1996 elections, Krishnasamy contested from Ottapidaram constituency as an independent candidate and emerged victorious. Two years later, in 1998, he floated the PT, an independent political party representing the Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised communities. His role as a leader and as a legislator is worth remembering since he raised a lot of issues affecting Dalits, which were long neglected by the Dravidian parties. For instance, he demanded a white paper on the government’s reservation policies, the naming of districts and transport corporations after Dalit icons, and spearheaded a highly successful campaign to abolish the double-tumbler system prevalent in the state. More than anything else, he gave a militant edge to Dalit politics and checked the violence perpetrated by the Thevars against Pallars by speaking and practicing a language of retaliation.

Close on his heels came the rise of Thirumavalavan, a fiery orator who took the leadership mantle of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) following the demise of its founder, A. Malaichamy in 1989. The DPI grew exponentially through the 1990s, practicing confrontational street politics and ‘hitting back’ to challenge the dominance of intermediate castes. It publicised and took up several instances of caste discrimination in Madurai and surrounding districts, compelling authorities to act against unchecked caste violence.

From its base in Madurai, the organisation grew rapidly through Thirumavalavan’s efforts and became a predominant Dalit party in northern Tamil Nadu. His party entered electoral politics in 1999 as the VCK, and it was during this turbulent period that both Krishnasamy and Thirumavalavan emerged as the faces of militant Dalit politics. In 1999 they jointly fought the elections along with G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress, promising a non-Dravidian alternative for the state. In that election and others to follow, although they were unable to win seats, they secured a sizeable number of votes and arose as political players that the Dravidian parties could not ignore.

The call for coalition politics

At this point, the lack of resources, money power and organisational infrastructure, a fragmented Dalit vote base and the machinations of electoral politics prevented these parties from maintaining autonomy, and they were reduced to cogs in the wheel of Dravidian politics. This meteoric rise saw both – together abd as separate players – become part of the Dravidian party alliance fronts headed by the DMK and AIADMK. Both PT and VCK, instead of consolidating the Dalit vote base, started replicating Dravidian politics, focusing on leader-worship and symbolism (more visible in the case of the latter than the former). In this period, the PT and VCK were wooed by different parties as allies based on the demographic concentration of Dalit castes. In responding to such calls, the parties unwittingly deepened fragmentation among Dalits and helped fix political boundaries based on demographics.

Just as Dalit observers feared that they had been fully co-opted, following ten long years as part of the DMK alliance, the VCK in 2015 floated the idea of a coalition government and formed a People’s Welfare Alliance (PWA) with disgruntled political parties, including the Left and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). The call for coalition politics reflected the fact that small parties gain little more than resource flows from political alliances and never gain decision-making power. The PWA took up total prohibition, corruption and separate legislation for honour killings as central issues. As the 2016 elections approached, the PWA roped in the DMDK and Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) and fought the elections on the promise of an alternative to the Dravidian majors. The PWA did well in a number of constituencies, but failed to win a single seat. Krishnasamy was an incumbent and everyone predicted his victory as he had functioned as an efficient MLA. The PT fought the elections as part of DMK-Congress alliance in four places. Despite this, they also missed out.

Dalit politics and the silencing of caste

It is important to analyse what the electoral setbacks for VCK and PT mean to Dalit politics in the state. One insidious tendency has been to bracket them together with dominant-caste parties like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (who openly campaigned against cross-caste marriages) as practicing ‘caste-based politics’. Such labelling serves both to de-legitimise Dalit concerns as sectional and divisive, whilst romanticising Dravidian politics as caste-free and universal. Such practices conceal the production and re-production of caste by these Dravidian majors who cherry pick candidates and district secretaries based on their caste, meaning that the three intermediate castes of Mukkulathors, Kongu Vellala Gounders and Vanniyars occupy all major positions in these parties.

Although Dalits are demographically important, they are fobbed off with tokenistic representations and less-important posts. More significantly, despite claims to follow in Periyar’s footsteps, the Dravidian parties never condemn honour killings and increased forms of violence against Dalits. During the December 2015 floods that ravaged coastal areas of the state, numerous reports highlighted discrimination in the distribution of relief and compensation. Both the PT and VCK were at the fore in terms of visiting affected areas and aiding afflicted households and villages. Following the 2016 results, there are no representatives from Dalit parties and the Left in the legislative assembly to check the caste-majoritarianism that is the unwritten norm in Tamil politics.

The knee-jerk response would be to abandon the prospect of a Third Front and return, cap-in-hand, to the AIADMK/DMK fronts in the next elections. We have focused here on both PT and VCK in order to problematise such a response, since the former lost despite their alliance. Thirumavalavan would surely have gained a seat had he allied with one of the dominant parties, but alliance politics has significant drawbacks.

It is telling, for instance, that PWA leaders stood united in condemning the horrific honour killings in early 2016 in a manner that would never occur on a Dravidian stage. The PWA was also committed to sharing power amongst parties and establishing a coalition, which neither Dravidian party is willing to contemplate. The poor showing of PT and VCK candidates – other than their main leaders – demonstrates their weakness as an electoral force, but Dalit parties need to reflect hard on the lessons to be learned from this.

Creating an alternative politics

Even in an unsuccessful campaign, the parties gained sufficient votes to make a difference in multiple constituencies, so they could use this to bargain for seats at the Dravidian table. This is an attractive option, since it would afford them access to powerful allies, financial resources and access to state patronage. The question confronting the PT and VCK is what they wish to achieve. If the parties are seen as vehicles for the financial security of a few political entrepreneurs, then this is the road to travel. If they knew that creating an alternative politics in the state would be difficult, the 2016 results have reinforced the magnitude of that task.

Established parties are able to reach out to voters through the media and with cash (the amounts distributed to voters this time led to the unprecedented postponement of polls in two constituencies), handouts and ties of patronage. Both main parties have overseen an effective public distribution system which supplies essential items to poorer families and has underpinned social development. Challengers, thus, need to offer a credible and viable alternative if they are to make any headway.

Lacking significant financial resources, Dalit parties need to rely on mobilisation and grassroots commitment instead. As a minor ally, the VCK has been unable to cultivate constituencies over time – often deciding where they will contest late in the day. Earmarking a number of seats well in advance of an election, systematically engaging with voters and building a reputation might reap some rewards.

That said, Krishnasamy could not hold onto his post, and the lack of a recognised symbol hampers the VCK. At their peak, both PT and VCK were rooted in villages and had vibrant grassroots organisations. Some of that energy has been lost in the narrow leader-centric focus of parliamentary politics. Neither party, for instance, has constituency offices or identified media spokespeople. Sustaining a presence at the grassroots would reconnect both parties to the people and give them a head-start in campaigning, but is unlikely to propel either group to significant electoral successes.

In a first past the post model, small parties are at a significant disadvantage, particularly when they can be cast as sectional. The two could function as an effective opposition that highlights abuses and holds power to account, but it is highly likely that the rewards of a Dravidian alliance will prove too tempting for one or other of them. If they are not to be seen as lackeys or the SC/ST wings of established parties, and if they are committed to creating a change in Tamil politics, then one thing that Dalit parties should resolve to do is to raise the price of their support. For all its many failings, the PWA broke the silence around caste violence and voiced the demand for coalition politics. If these two strands were the price of any pre-poll pact then PT and VCK would serve a vital function; they would either compel the AIADMK/DMK to confront casteist atrocities or they would once and for all strip them of the mask of universalism behind which their caste politics can hide.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a PhD candidate at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh. Hugo Gorringe is a senior lecturer in sociology, University of Edinburgh and the author of Untouchable Citizens: Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu.