Tamil Nadu Elections: A Professor's Big Fight Against Jayalalithaa

Former vice-chancellor, education activist and Marxist V. Vasanthidevi is contesting against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on a People's Welfare Front ticket.

Chennai: Hundreds of people had assembled at the busy Korukkupet junction, one of the most congested neighbourhoods in Chennai. Except for a few who were carrying their toddlers, almost all the men and women were holding party flags high – ranging from red and blue to variants of the tricolour and Tamil Nadu’s familiar red and black. They had gathered in support of V. Vasanthidevi, the common candidate fielded by the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) in Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar (R.K. Nagar). Neglect has been a recurring theme in this locality in north Chennai, little over five kilometres from Fort St. George, Tamil Nadu’s power centre.

V. Vasanthidevi. Credit: Meera Srinivasan

V. Vasanthidevi. Credit: Meera Srinivasan

Vasanthidevi soon arrived with her team. Wearing a cotton sari – the sporadic breeze ruffling her pearl-white hair a bit – she climbed on to a modest pick-up truck and began speaking into the microphone. “You are forced to send your children to private schools charging exorbitant fees because the government has failed you. It did not care about our public schools. Remember, good education is your child’s basic right. You should not have to pay so much for it,” she told the predominantly working-class audience.

Vasanthidevi is contesting on behalf of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Tamil Nadu’s main Dalit party and constituent of the PWF. A former vice-chancellor and a well-known educationist, the 77-year-old draws attention for more reasons than one. In her electoral politics debut Vasanthidevi is contesting against Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, in one of the most high-profile constituencies of the state. Last summer, Jayalalithaa won a by-election after the Karnataka high court had acquitted her in the disproportionate assets case.

Every afternoon, Vasanthidevi sets out from her south Chennai apartment to canvass in R. K. Nagar, which is home to a sizeable population of the city’s fisher folk, Dalits and Muslims. “They lead such wretched lives. There are no jobs, women tell me that their sons drop out from school and take to alcoholism. The men bring hardly any money back home because of their drinking problem,” she said, referring to what has now become Tamil Nadu’s chief election issue.

A dense urban constituency with about 2.5 lakh voters, the locality faces a host of civic problems – bad roads, virtually absent pavements, congestion and waterlines polluted by sewage discharge. Public schools and hospitals have received little government attention, but retail chains and restaurants have made their way into the area. Once Madras’s trade hub, the locality is now Chennai’s worst nightmare.

“Most of them do not have pattas (legal documents for land ownership). You will see a tiny home but ten people will be living there,” said Vasanthidevi.

Surprise candidate

Vasanthidevi’s candidacy came as a surprise to many. The PWF, it seemed, wanted to make a symbolic statement on the kind of ‘alternative’ they envision. An eclectic coalition that includes Tamil Nadu’s Communist and Dalit parties, Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and former union minister G.K. Vasan’s Tamil Maanila Congress, the PWF has projected Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam leader Vijayakanth, or ‘Captain’ as his followers call him, as its chief ministerial candidate. Their stated aim is to challenge the entrenched politics of Tamil Nadu’s two principal political parties – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Since retiring, Vasanthidevi has been actively engaging with issues related to education. She meets students and teachers regularly, and sees education as a very political issue, but never dreamt of contesting an election. “Until a month ago it was out of [the] question,” Vasanthidevi told me earlier, when I met her in her apartment.

It was Thol Thirumavalavan and D. Ravikumar of the VCK who approached her. While she had “no such plans,” she eventually felt there was a point to their persuasion. With leaders like G. Ramakrishnan, the CPI(M)’s state secretary,also reaching out, Vasanthidevi agreed to take the plunge. “I had marathon consultations with my family,” she laughed, and said she saw it as an opportunity to take “what I have been saying within four walls to a larger audience.”

Plus, the prominence of the Left and the VCK in the alliance gave her some comfort, given her own radical political beliefs. As two-term vice-chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli she encouraged teachers and students to mobilise and put forth their demands. “Politicisation is such an important part of education. That is why places like JNU are so vibrant.”

Early days

She would know. Her own politicisation began early. Growing up in a liberal household in Dindigul, she had seen her father P.V. Das, a municipal chairman, raise issues of manual scavengers with the authorities. Her grandfather Sakkarai Chettiyar was among those who led the historic Buckingham and Carnatic Mills strike in Madras against the managing company, Binny & Co. “He was one of the pioneers of the trade union movement in [British] India.” By contesting in north Chennai, the hub of workers’ activism during her grandfather’s time, Vasanthidevi completes the circle for her family in a sense.

Vasanthidevi’s student days coincided with the emergence of a vibrant student movement in the country. She was a student of history in Chennai’s Queen Mary’s and Presidency College. During that time, she developed a keen interest in domestic and global struggles.  “That was the first decade after Indian independence. There was a radicalism in the air…we didn’t call it Marxism or anything at that time.” Though she was eventually drawn to Marxist ideology. “Vietnam was big for our generation, we followed developments there very closely.”

However, that spirit of idealism and initial admiration for the Indian state soon began to fade. “We were initially so proud of the socialist mode of development Nehru had chosen for our country.  There was great pride in the third world’s non-alignment with the global capitalist economy, but in some time we were disillusioned.” Especially after the central government dismissed E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s Communist government in Kerala.

In the late 1970s, Vasanthidevi spent about five years in the Philippines, where she obtained a PhD in domestic political groupings and dynamics. Of the professors she worked with, some were former political prisoners. There was also a strong underground resistance movement against the Philippines becoming a neo-colony of the United States.

Back home, however, the climate was different. “At that time in India, there was not much of a consciousness of the control of MNCs. In the 1980s those discussions were just beginning to happen.”

V. Vasanthidevi campaigning. Source: Facebook

V. Vasanthidevi campaigning. Source: Facebook

Dravidian movement

Asked if she got involved in the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, Vasanthidevi said: “There was a complete disconnect. It is unfortunate, actually. When I look back I feel that should not have happened.”

Many in that generation, especially with a Congress or Left background, were “very dismissive” of this idea of ethnic or sub-nationalisms. “The world was whirling around us, but we were insulated.” The elite class alienated itself from grassroots movements, but there were others like her who distanced themselves more for ideological reasons. “By then I had become a complete follower of Marxist ideology. I was very invested in class politics. There was a strong anti-Brahmin sentiment at home and I admired Periyar for his views on women’s liberation and his strong critique of religion. But the idea of a sub-nationalism just did not appeal.”

In retrospect, she appreciates the movement a lot more for how it democratised Tamil society. “Later I also grew to accept the need for considerable regional autonomy.”

But now, the principal Dravidian parties that came out of a radical social movement hardly represent those ideals, she said.  “If Tamil nationalism is counter-posed to Indian nationalism then that should mean the further democratisation of society and economic liberation of those who have been suppressed. Here the Tamil ruling class is no way better than any other ruling class.”

As chairperson of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women and later as an activist advocating human rights education, she saw from close quarters how the two main Dravidian parties alternating in power had brought no change to the lives of millions. As an education activist Vasanthidevi travelled extensively to rural schools in Tamil Nadu and found public schools to be grossly inadequate in addressing even the most basic education needs of the communities they claimed to serve.

Tamil nationalist politics, after all, did not lead to the sharing of power and resources with the most marginalised class or caste groups. It was not successful in addressing inequality in society.  After the Dravidian parties came to power it was all about corruption and degeneration, she said. “They are in no way different from national bourgeois parties, in fact very often they are even worse. So there is nothing to be proud of now. The earlier movement, in the Anna [C. N. Annadurai] days and a little later, had robust elements. But power totally corrupted them.” Both the DMK and AIADMK, she said, completely identified with the national capitalist class. “It is to that class they are spreading [the] red carpet. In terms of economic policy, they are no different from the BJP or the Congress.”

With both parties accused of massive corruption over the years the allegation may not sound new. “Corruption is there everywhere, but this ultimate corruption of the very spirit of democracy, the ordinary voter, is only in Tamil Nadu. They [DMK and AIADMK] have mastered and perfected the art of cash for votes and freebies. Authoritarianism and corruption – on these, both are equally blameable.”

Vasanthidevi does not know about her chances of winning an election against Jayalalithaa. “Going to the constituency day after day I realise I am able to connect with the people. And I want to keep going irrespective of the outcome of the polls. There is so much to be done.”

Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16.