Whilst media attention has focused on the headline news from the recent polls, there are several significant subplots and issues that merit further scrutiny. Take the convincing victory by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu. Much coverage zooms in on DMK leader M.K. Stalin who has finally got the chance to step into his father’s shoes and take on the chief ministership.
The DMK used to be celebrated for their grassroots organising and network of members. This faded away through the 2000s, but it appears as though Stalin has managed to rebuild some of that institutional capacity and commitment. The DMK did not secure victory on their own though. A cursory look at images of celebrating cadre tells an important story.
Few such pictures appear without at least one joyful activist bedecked not in the traditional red and black of the Dravidian party, but sporting the red, white and blue of its junior alliance partner, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or The Liberation Panthers Party. In recent years, the Liberation Panthers have emerged from the shadows to become a significant player in state and national politics. This election has been their most successful to date, and so an analysis of the Liberation Panthers is overdue.
Such analysis is all the more important as these polls mark a significant milestone for the party, because the party emerged victorious in two general constituencies. The Liberation Panthers have long presented themselves as a Dalit-led Tamil party rather than ‘just a Dalit party’, and the successful campaigns of J. Mohammed Shanavas in Nagapattinam and S.S. Balaji in Thiruporur set the seal on this. This is very important because there have been numerous attempts to pigeonhole them as a Dalit party, despite the party’s strong commitment towards anti-caste liberatory politics guided by principles of emancipation, dignity, social justice and equality.
For the last few years the party and its leader Thol. Thirumavalavan have been to the fore in fighting against the Hindu majoritarian politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Brahmanical patriarchy of the Manusmriti and the insular casteism of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). VCK’s ‘Save the Nation’ conferences and rallies – which attracted over 80,000 people – brought leaders from multiple parties together and offered a coherent critique of Hindutva politics.
When the DMK was soft-pedalling on Hindu majoritarian politics, Thirumavalavan and VCK went a step ahead in its counter offensive and emerged as the new face of anti-Hindutva politics in the state. Given the nature of electoral politics in the state which has moved from a two-party system to one where coalition arithmetic is increasingly important, this victory cements their reputation as a force to reckon with and as a loyal partner who can deliver. VCK will emerge as an important player in alliance formations in future and may as well supersede PMK in the northern belt if they strengthen their base.
Hard road to travel
Whilst four MLAs may not seem like much is set against the 133 seats secured by the DMK, but this performance needs to be set in context. Although the Liberation Panthers first contested elections in 1999, they are a small organisation with limited resources and are not yet a ‘recognised party’. To gain formal recognition as a state party one needs to have secured 6% of the votes and two MLAs or to have met other criteria. A party’s vote-share, however, is directly correlated to the number of seats it contests.
Unlike Kamal Hasan or Vijayakant they have not been able to field candidates in every constituency, but have been dependent on alliance partners for financial support. Standing in a limited number of constituencies makes it nigh on impossible to reach the benchmark. This is important because it means that the party does not have its own electoral symbol. A new symbol is allotted in each poll, and has to be taken to the voters in the weeks before the vote. This places recognised parties at a distinct advantage. This is one reason why senior alliance parties ask junior partners to contest on their symbol.
The VCK’s election campaign, thus, began with tough seat sharing talks. The DMK opened proceedings with a derisory offer of two seats for a party that has stood by them for the best part of a decade and recently demonstrated its ability to win elections in the Lok Sabha polls. The VCK is on the backfoot in such negotiation as the senior party knows it is liable to fund part of the campaign. Despite demanding ten constituencies, therefore, the VCK settled for six seats in the Secular Progressive Alliance.
The Liberation Panthers are caught in a pincer grip here, with the DMK saying one thing and party members voicing their anger and frustration and the seeming subservience towards the Dravidian ally. Thirumavalavan had to appease his cadres who felt that it was a big compromise. He did so first by stressing the urgency of, and ideological commitment to, thwarting Hindutva forces. Second, however, he insisted that the VCK candidate would contest on their own symbol and not that of the rising sun. Finally, the VCK insisted on being recognised as a party for all.
Discontented supporters have moaned about the VCK becoming the ‘SC/ST wing of the DMK’, and so the allocation of two general constituencies is symbolically powerful. The VCK, thus, got two general – Nagapattinam and Thiruporur, and two reserved constituencies – Kattumannarkoil and Cheyyur. All these constituencies fall in the zone where the party has a substantial base. Taken together, the seat-sharing negotiations offered an important statement of autonomy, and a significant indication that the party has achieved a certain stature in Tamil politics.
If the DMK hierarchy had any concerns about accommodating this assertive outfit, these must surely have been assuaged through the campaign. Thol. Thirumavalavan was central to the campaign, a star-speaker and the person who most clearly articulated a coherent critique of Hindutva. Not only this, his party made sure that no stone was left unturned both in VCK constituencies and in working for allies.
The VCK has shown that it can transfer its core votes to allies, and can offer a reliable counter-weight to the PMK in northern districts. The party emerged victorious in Nagapattinam where the VCK candidate defeated his nearest rival, the AIADMK and in Thiruporur where the Vanniyar VCK candidate came out on top defeating their arch rival, the PMK, offering an anti-caste rebuttal to attempts to portray the VCK as the party of caste-hate and staged love. Likewise, the VCK registered victories in Cheyyur and Kattumannarkoil where the respective candidates defeated the AIADMK candidates.
The tasks ahead
For almost a decade since its inception, the Liberation Panthers had boycotted electoral politics as unrepresentative and corrupt. Cadre spoiled ballots with messages such as ‘none of you is worthy, so none will have our votes’, and questioned the legitimacy of the democratic process. The move led to them being cast as extremists, hounded by the police and alienated from their supporters.
In 1999, therefore, they took the momentous decision to become a party and contest the polls themselves. In the two decades since then, the party has faced numerous ups and downs, allied with both Dravidian giants, teamed up with the PMK and – indirectly – joined forces with the BJP in different elections. They have also sought to broaden their appeal and message by foregrounding their Tamil nationalist credentials and their commitment to social justice (including reservations for OBCs). For all that they have insisted that their focus is on a Tamil nation free of caste, supporters have been worried about a dilution of Dalit issues whilst rivals have continued to portray them as a Dalit or Paraiyar caste party. The victory of four Liberation Panther MLAs in this poll, therefore, is hugely significant in establishing its broader appeal by winning in two general constituencies.
The party entered the fray with the promise to turn Tamil politics upside-down, but has since found itself engaged in ‘normal politics’. The VCK now has reached a transformational phase in its political career. With two MPs and four MLAs, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with, and this remains the best time for them to strengthen the party and its cadre base.
If core supporters are not to be further alienated, now is the time for the party to show that it can deliver and shape policy rather than being a junior ally. For a start, the party must reaffirm its commitment to the Dalit cause. The victory in general constituencies should not in any form pave the way for a watered-down approach on such issues. Key steps here could be to strenuously articulate demands for Panchami Land retrieval, proper implementation of the Scheduled Caste Sub Component Plan and legislation against so-called ‘honour killings’.
The party should also seek to halt the various measures to evict the Dalit slum population from city centres, which has resulted in vertical forms of ghettoization, denial of employment opportunities resulting in the concentration of poverty and crime. The Left parties could become worthy allies in these political demands and struggles.
Equally, however, the party has a golden opportunity to cement itself as a party for all Tamils, and cannot afford to let this slip. The VCK has been to the fore in campaigning on issues like NEET and reservations and can use its greater profile to communicate this to a wider audience. Communication here is key.
During his stint as an MLA, D. Ravikumar, now an MP, lobbied for a series of measures for transgenders and to replace mud huts with concrete dwellings, but little of this was known by the party members let alone others. With the security offered by six parliamentary representatives, the VCK could revamp its magazine Tamil Mann and use its online TV channel to alert people to the steps that they are taking.
In the case of the two general constituencies, communicating what the MLAs are doing is particularly important, and strategies are needed that move beyond the VCK’s own media. Mohammed Shanavas’s media profile could be important here. Also, we cannot discuss the party’s Tamil platform without discussing the Sri Lankan conflict. Thirumavalavan cut his political teeth campaigning on this issue. He met with Prabhakaran and expressed his support for the LTTE and against the abuses that Tamils endured towards the end of the war. In 2009, as the conflict reached its climax, Thirumavalavan embarked on a hunger fast in support of Tamils and critiquing the role of India in the conflict.
Despite this, subsequent elections saw him join hands with the DMK and Congress. He staged lone protests in and out of parliament, but did not resign as MP or leave the alliance, leading to a huge sense of disillusionment amongst many followers, some of which may have fed into the performance of Seeman’s NTK in this poll. Prominently raising the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees might be one step towards regaining trust on this issue.
Too often in the past, the party’s representatives have been stretched too thin – campaigning against atrocities, travelling across the state to build and sustain the party, and endlessly positioning themselves in relation to other parties. The present election affords them the opportunity to consolidate their position as a key player in the state. In each election, the VCK not only gains a new symbol, but often contests from a new constituency.
With five representatives other than Thirumavalavan, and two further candidates who put up strong performances, the VCK can no longer be portrayed as lacking secondary leadership. More needs to be done, however, to delegate responsibility to these secondary leaders. Furthermore, the party led a high-profile campaign against the inherent sexism of the Manusmriti last year, but failed to field a female candidate.
We understand that a couple of candidates were suggested, but none made it onto the ballot paper. The VCK’s core objective of gender equality remains hollow whilst senior female leaders remain in the background and are not fully accepted by party members. Meena Kandasamy recently called for all feminists to stand with Thirumavalavan in his campaign against the Manusmriti, but these ideological positions need concrete action within the party too.
Where now for the Panthers?
In sum, these elections mark the point at which the VCK come of age, cement their status as a reliable ally, and demonstrate that they are a party for all. Whilst the elections may seem like the archetypal contest between the two main Dravidian parties, the importance of the alliances here should not be underestimated. If anything, the national parties of the Congress and the BJP served as millstones in both cases, and it was the local coalition of partners that proved most significant.
Caste considerations are never far from the surface in Tamil politics, and they took centre stage in the campaign with the AIADMK’s hastily promulgated Act setting aside 10.5% of MBC reservations for the Vanniyars in order to appease the PMK. The VCK offered a sharp critique of the rapidity of this process, the figures it was based on, and its potential to dilute the benefits of reservations for Vanniyars and for MBCs as a whole. In this sense, it was the PMK and AIADMK that emerged as caste-focused, and the VCK as holding true to the legacy of Periyar. Whilst others focus on Stalin, or on the performance of filmstars like Kamal Haasan, we call for the Panthers to be given their due.
Karthikeyan Damodaran is an independent scholar based in Bangalore. He was previously a visiting fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at the University of Göttingen, Germany.
Hugo Gorringe is a senior lecturer in Sociology and the co-director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Untouchable Citizens (2005) and Panthers in Parliament: Dalits, Caste and Political Power in South India.
Note: In an earlier version, it was incorrectly stated that the VCK had won the Vanur assembly seat. The party came in second, with 38.69% of the votes, after the AIADMK with 50.6%.