With No Big Leaders in the Mix, Political Undercurrents Could Play a Large Role in TN

Two factors that are not getting much media attention – caste and Tamil nationalism – could play a more important role than earlier imagined.

This is the second article on a two-part series on the Tamil Nadu elections, reported from from Sivagangai. Read the first part here. 

Sivaganga (Tamil Nadu): In a contest where few candidates are inspiring, the election in Sivaganga – and the rest of Tamil Nadu – may prove to be less about waves than it is about the undercurrents.

The impact of caste

Most important among the forces that are not spoken of directly on the campaign trail is caste.  This is where T.T.V. Dinakaran’s undertow will almost certainly pull votes away from the AIADMK, although the ruling party’s alliance too has courted caste-based votes through the inclusion of Vanniyar-dominated PMK in the northern districts and Puthiya Tamilaham, a party that seeks to rename and de-notify a number of currently scheduled sub-castes, in the south.

Dinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa’s jailed confidant Sasikala, is from the Thevar or Mukkulathor community, a larger caste grouping consisting of Kallars, Maravars and Ahamudayars, all of which are numerous and in many cases locally dominant across southern parts of the state, Sivagangai constituency included.

Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munetra Kazhagam (AMMK) is aligned only with the Muslim SDPI, and can use the fact that they are outsiders to appeal to voters who have grown tired of the AIADMK since a battle over succession that left the state in the hands of an uneasy alliance between equally unpopular factions led by Edappadi Palaniswami and O. Paneerselvam. Some expect a portion of DMK supporters to vote for Dinakaran’s party in this election as well.

The AMMK leader’s subaltern appeal was exemplified for me by a story someone told about a government worker who would come to his job with a picture of “Amma” showing prominently through his translucent white shirt pocket (a common practice), only to flip the image when returning home to his village to reveal Dinakaran’s face in the same spot.

Nearly every one of the dozens of Kallar voters I discussed “TTV” with agreed that “inappparru (caste devotion)” would play a very large role mobilising the Mukkulathor for his party’s candidates. Many were worried about this fact, seeing it as a sign of the decline of a Dravidian ecumenical ethos, while others were proud that they finally had someone to represent their community on the larger political stage.

Also read | Elections 2019: In Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga, Two Unpopular Leaders Fight It Out

It is the Dalits who suffer most under this shift, as they rally to the DMK alliance, even if they harbour legitimate complaints that none of the major parties are willing to discuss the wide range of atrocities that have occurred in recent years.

Both the AIADMK and the AMMK claim to be the true heirs of the MGR-Jayalalithaa legacy, but it is up to Dinakaran to establish himself more fully after having suffered a number of legal losses in his fight for legitimacy. First, he was charged for an attempted bribe to the Election Commission to secure the iconic “two-leaves” symbol from the time of party-founder, superstar actor M.G. Ramachandran.

When 18 MLAs who were loyal to Dinakaran and disqualified from sitting in the assembly appealed the decision in court, they failed. Most recently, a final court decision denied Dinakaran use of the “two leaves” symbol, forcing the party to run under a “gift box” sign that few are familiar with. Not being a nationally recognised party, they must also run as “Independent” on the ballot.

The rally in support of AMMK candidate, the largely unknown “Therbogi” V. Pandi, held in Alangudi nevertheless made a much bigger splash than even the chief minister of the state had, a few days after the latter’s visit. Busloads of villagers, again at Rs 200 per head, where brought to welcome the candidate, choking the streets leading to town for well over an hour. Stories abounded about how such-and-such family member had jumped the AIADMK ship to throw in their lot with Dinakaran, and the meeting itself was filled with a much more rambunctious energy than other similar campaign rallies that had been held that week. So many enthusiastic people rushed to the stage when Pandi appeared that a loudspeaker fell into the standing audience, leading some to complain that the rally was too undisciplined.

“Therbogi” Pandi, the AMMK candidate from Sivaganga, at a rally.

Whether the numbers add up to make a substantial difference in this election in Sivaganagai remains to be seen. What is clear is that emotions surpassing that which can be bought with cash were on full display when Pandi told the crowd that he had many “relations” in the region. Everyone knew what he meant. The state-level by-election contests underway are likely to feel the “TTV” effect more than the Lok Sabha polls, although many expect their candidate in neighbouring Trichy constituency, former mayor Sarubala Thondaiman who is married into the Pudukkottai Kallar royal lineage, to do well.

Tamil nationalism

The second major factor that is largely invisible from mainstream of news coverage, especially English-language, is that of a radical strain of Tamil nationalism that has given up on the major Dravidian parties, and even Vaiko’s MDMK, which is now part of the Congress alliance.

Many blame both Congress and the DMK for the lack of action in the final bloody days of the Sri Lankan war in 2009, and the jallikattu protests of 2017 emboldened a newly politicised and social networked youth to take to the streets for other causes under the umbrella of Tamil ethnic nationalism.

Former actor Seeman’s resurrection of the Naam Tamilar party has perfected their appeal to these disenfranchised and educated youth through what might appear to be an unlikely combination of militarism and environmentalism. The Naam Tamilar campaign is using the figure of LTTE leader Prabakaran, while lending its strong support and organisational capacities to causes like the anti-hydrocarbon protests in Neduvasal, a region with substantial family connections to estate workers in Sri Lanka.

The defence of Tamil land has a resonance here that is deeply felt, if not well understood by more metropolitan political actors. Seeman is furthermore considered to be a great speaker, whose words spread far and wide through the WhatsApp-enabled cellphones of even those who disagree with his racially charged rhetoric.

Also read | Elections 2019: An Unprecedented Poll Campaign of Invoking Fear and Hostility

Naam Tamilar, which is fielding candidates in every Tamil constituency, half of them women, is also the only party contesting in Sivagangai that can plausibly claim to be based on ideology and not only on the power of money to push their agenda. They don’t expect more than 2% of the vote share, but hope to pull from those who would have voted for the DMK or Left parties that not are seen as active enough among their traditional base.

While Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiyam had also promised to end political corruption and refused to dole out cash for votes, they are all but absent in the countryside, especially after the actor himself had decided not to contest as a candidate.

Will money talk?

Tamil Nadu’s place as the state where massive amounts of money are most likely to affect election results is no source of pride for voters in Sivaganga. But it is a fact.

Seizures of crores of rupees have become the unremarkable stuff of daily news. The RK Nagar by-election in Chennai, that Dinakaran had won against the Dravidian majors to replace Jayalalithaa, had to be cancelled once because of the “seriously vitiated” environment produced by an extreme flow of monetary incentives.

And while cash paid to rent crowds for massive election rallies does not translate into support for a party or candidate – acting, at best, as a kind of exposure and advertising mechanism – money distributed at the time of voting has proven to play a large role in decision-making in the past beyond the most recent by-election.

None of the major party candidates have established a special link with everyday voters, and so money, which both the major alliances as well as the AMMK are expected to spread very liberally when the time is right, would appear to be more important than ever.

There is great deal of contingency involved in harnessing both countercurrents as well as the sense of debt that comes with magnanimous provision, especially without known faces attached to gifts. All of this makes the Sivagangai constituency a test lab of sorts for the kind of democracy we can expect to see in a Tamil Nadu that must come to terms with life after the leadership of giants.

All images by Francis Cody.

Francis Cody teaches at the University of Toronto in the Department of Anthropology and the Asian Institute.