Tamil Nadu

Fight for relevance

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Piyush Goyal, election in-charge of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, with alliance partners (from left) Dr Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK; Thambidurai, Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam of the AIADMK, and PMK founder Dr Ramadoss at an election rally in Chennai in March. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan campaigning in Kattumannarkoil in Chidambaram constituency.

The PMK seeks to take advantage of the AIADMK alliance arithmetic to stage a second coming after a decade in the doldrums.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) is at a crossroads today. The party, which has joined hands with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, could play a key role in notching up the numbers for the combine. At the same time, the party itself badly needs to spring back to relevance after having alienated all other castes on account of its focus on Vanniyar caste consolidation and suffered successive electoral debacles since 2009.

Its vote share of around 5 per cent could also prove pivotal to the survival of the AIADMK government because six of the 18 Assembly constituencies where byelections are to be held along with the Lok Sabha election fall in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, where the PMK is perceived to be powerful.

The AIADMK government of Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his deputy, O. Panneerselvam, needs to win eight of the 18 seats to enjoy a comfortable majority in the Assembly and complete its full term.

The PMK, a party by, for and of Vanniyars, a Most Backward Caste (MBC), has used the Vanniyar card for far too long for it to have the same utility value today. The party’s single-caste-consolidation strategy has alienated it from all other castes, not just the Parayars (a Dalit community), who have been its traditional adversaries both politically and socially. The PMK’s decision to contest elections either in an alliance with non-Dravidian outfits or alone, with its youth wing leader Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss, as the chief ministerial candidate, has left it bruised and now perhaps scared too.

This year, the PMK gave up its go-it-alone strategy. When the call came from the BJP-propelled AIADMK leadership asking if it would like to join their alliance, the PMK gladly grabbed the offer and settled for a quid pro quo model of “you vote for me [Lok Sabha] and I vote for you [Assembly and Lok Sabha]”. The scorn it had heaped on the AIADMK until recently was well and truly buried. The alliance leaders are confident that the PMK will pick up a few seats and help its partners through the transfer of its vote share to its allies, although the reading on the ground is different.

Vote share

Despite its electoral failures for a decade, the PMK has not declined into irrelevance mainly on account of two factors. One is the mobilisation of the Vanniyars, who reportedly constitute 12 per cent of the State’s population, a third of them concentrated in the northern districts. The other is its vote share of 5.32 per cent, which is crucial for any alliance that the major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, conceive of. In this scenario, the Dravidian majors vie with each other to win over parties such as the PMK and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), which has a 2.39 per cent vote share. These parties also drive a hard bargain, knowing their importance and relevance in the shifting sands of the political landscape. (Former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa made occasional deviations, contesting the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2016 Assembly elections alone, but this has never been the rule.)

This round of elections is critical for both the DMK and the AIADMK. The DMK is facing an election without M. Karunanidhi at the helm for the first time. Its rival, the AIADMK, too, is not on a comfortable wicket after the death of Jayalalithaa. This leadership vacuum has helped smaller players strengthen their bargaining chips, with the PMK being the biggest beneficiary. The DMDK is in doldrums as its leader, Vijaykanth, is out of active politics owing to ill health.

More than the DMK, it is a battle for survival for the ruling AIADMK. With T.T.V. Dhinakaran breaking away from the AIADMK and charting his own course, the extent of split in the AIADMK vote share is difficult to assess now. To counter any loss of share, the AIADMK seemed more than eager to roll out the red carpet for the PMK and the DMDK, which were at one time its bitter adversaries.

However, some AIADMK members who spoke to Frontline in villages across the northern districts, fear that this excessive reliance on the PMK and the DMDK might not yield the desired results for the Dravidian party. Surprisingly, many diehard AIADMK cadres still hold on to the magical charm of the party’s “two leaves” symbol. “I hate the leadership for aligning with the PMK, which called our Amma and the present leadership corrupt and inefficient, and the BJP, an anti-Tamil party. Yes, the DMDK should not have been encouraged into the alliance. But we in Tiruvallur will vote for the AIADMK only,” said M. Ramakrishnan, an AIADMK worker in Puduchatram village in Zameen Korattur block in Tiruvallur district.

He said that the cadres of alliance parties were yet to overcome their differences—built over the years—against the Dravidian parties. He also claimed that the Dhinakaran factor would not have any impact in these pockets, where Dalits and Vanniyars were almost equal in number. The AIADMK has retained its sitting MP, P. Venugopal, in this reserved constituency, while the Congress has fielded former MLA Jayakumar.

“Yes, we feel uneasy working with these two alliance partners [PMK and DMDK]. Amma told the Assembly that the AIADMK had committed a mistake by aligning with the DMDK in the 2011 election. But the situation has changed now after her demise. We cannot afford to lose a single vote now,” said G. Murali, an AIADMK functionary in Thakkolam village in the Arakkonam Lok Sabha constituency. Political observers are not so sure about the claims of party functionaries that the party continues to be intact after Jayalalithaa’s death.

Widespread resentment

Across the length and breadth of rural northern Tamil Nadu, from Tiruvallur to Tiruvannamalai and on to Villupuram and beyond, spread over 12 Lok Sabha constituencies and seven Assembly segments, what came across prominently was a feeling of resentment, particularly among Vanniyar youths, against the PMK and its leadership. The party leadership’s decision to join the AIADMK-BJP alliance has not gone down well with them because the AIADMK and the DMDK have been targets of their political campaign in the past.

Besides, many AIADMK sympathisers in these districts, where Muslims and Christians are significant in number, are shocked by the party’s decision to ally with the BJP. Sixty-year-old Shakeel, who works in a hotel in Arakkonam town, claimed that all Muslims, including those in the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which has joined hands with Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), have decided not to vote for the AIADMK alliance. “We do not wish to remain divided over affiliations. Our votes will not be wasted to help Hindutva forces,” he said. There are some 50,000 Muslims in Arakkonam town and its suburbs.

Vanniyars who look beyond caste and party affiliations resent the party leadership’s unabashed shifting of loyalties by playing up the caste card for political mileage. “You [PMK leadership] make us hate people from all other castes. Now you have overnight reversed your decisions. It affects our morale, disturbs the peace and corrodes the trust and relationships in our villages and neighbourhoods,” said M. Manivannan, a Vanniyar youth who was once an active member in the Vanniyar Sangam in a village near Vandavasi.

The cadres in this village find it embarrassing to work among the people when the decisions on alliances were made at the top level without taking into consideration the ground realities. “It is a frustrating experience,” they said.

Sixty-year-old Muniswamy, a flower vendor in Thennangudi near Vandavasi in Arani block in Tiruvannamalai district, said that he was disillusioned with the PMK leadership for its opportunistic decisions. A staunch Congressman since the days of K. Kamaraj, he joined the PMK some 15 years ago, trusting “Dr Ayya [S. Ramadoss] as the saviour of the community”. “But today he is using the Vanniyar card to bargain more for his son and his family. We are being mocked. His decision has hurt us,” he said.The PMK leadership’s practice of using caste for political gains has started alienating it from the masses. “We feel cheated today. The promises they made yesterday are breached today for pecuniary gains,” Dakshinamurthy, a 42-year-old Vanniyar farmer near Uthiramerur in Kancheepuram district, said. He added: “In every village we have been working for the last several years against what Dr Ayya called the corrupt DMK and AIADMK. We had been told that besides corruption they were anti-Tamils too. The vote for the PMK, we had been told, was for a change from these Dravidian parties. How can we go to people now and mobilise votes for the AIADMK?”

Several people echoed his views. Bala, a Vanniyar youth of Muluwai village in Tiruttani block in Arakkonam constituency, where the PMK’s A.K. Moorthy is facing the DMK’s Jagathrakshagan, said that the expected understanding between the AIADMK and the PMK had not taken place at the grass-roots level. “Even AIADMK people will not vote for the PMK,” he said.

However, Shanmugam of Katteri village in Tindivanam differed. He said that it was just a matter of time before the differences are sorted out. “Vanniyars will vote for the PMK only,” said the 55–year-old farmer who is now is the proud owner of a cow that was given free by the AIADMK government under the Free Livestock Scheme.

The slogan “Vanniyar votes are not for others” has been dinned into people’s ears for decades, and a generation has grown up in hate politics. “It is like a feudal clan that functions in its zone of control,” said a professor of a private arts and science college near Vandavasi. “But people have realised the senselessness of such caste-based politics. Many of our youths, the majority of them engineering graduates, remain jobless in villages. The reservation for Vanniyars under the MBC category, which is said to be the PMK’s main political achievement, has not benefited them today. These youths have realised that caste is just an insurance for these politicians.”

Trust deficit

For long, the PMK and its leadership have engaged in caste polarisation, alienating not only the Parayars, the second major social bloc in the region, but other communities such as Mudaliars, Udayars, Reddiars, Naidus and Vellalars too. This ploy of consolidating one caste has led to a counter consolidation of other castes in the region, which could jeopardise the PMK’s relevance in Tamil Nadu politics.

“This is an unexpected phenomenon. The PMK is going to face the crisis of public trust not far in the future,” said Ramu Manivannan, head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras. “The erosion of its vote base is going to be significant. Its leadership is to be blamed for this. How long can one run a political party with the consolidation of a particular caste? It does not have a pan-Tamil Nadu presence. When a political party survives on the support base of just one particular group, sooner or later it becomes anaemic,” he added. Two factors have contributed to the growing distrust of the PMK. The first is the party’s alliance with the AIADMK after claiming to have “zero tolerance” to corruption and even submitting a list of corruption charges against the AIADMK government to the Governor. “We were told that the party would be forging an alliance with the AIADMK and the DMDK. No suggestions were asked and no explanations were offered,” said a PMK functionary who attended the party’s high-level meeting prior to alliance talks.

But Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, who is seeking re-election from Dharmapuri constituency, rebuked those who criticised the forging of the alliance. He snapped at the media when asked for the reason behind the alliance, which he said was “mutual and voluntary”.

“We reached out to people as an alternative to the two Dravidian majors. But they did not elect us. We presented a good manifesto. Since we suffered defeats in the last four elections since 2009, we have had to go back to the drawing board to work out a strategy,” he said.

The party polled around 23 lakh votes in the last Assembly elections.

Uneasy alliance

“In every alliance, there has to be an electoral understanding. We have struck a rapport with the cadres of both the AIADMK and the DMDK. It has become a cohesive unit. We will ensure that the AIADMK wins the byelections while they [AIADMK], we believe, will work for our Lok Sabha victories,” said the PMK’s Arakkonam town secretary K.M. Ramesh Babu, who was supervising the preparations for Palaniswami’s visit to Arakkonam town on March 24. Similarly, many AIADMK functionaries are hoping for a smooth vote transfer from the PMK to them.

PMK cadres who have been instructed to work in tandem with alliance partners are uneasy. “We have been selling the image of Anbumani as our future Chief Minister door to door for the past several years. But now, we have to reverse the entire campaigning module to suit the needs of today’s alliance,” said Ram (55), a Vanniyar in Mamandur. He is worried that it would send the wrong signals to the people and cadre who voted and worked for the party.

“Winning and losing should not be the benchmark for running a political outfit. People are attracted to the ideological moorings of a party. Retaining people’s trust as a leader and party is essential. Had Karunanidhi not been mature and patient, the DMK, out of power for 13 long years, would not have returned to power in 1989,” said an analyst. The second problem that haunts the PMK and its leadership is the demise of two-time MLA Kaduvetti J. Guru, the militant face of the party, in 2018, and the controversies that followed. Some claim that Guru, who was hailed as a “maaveeran” (great fighter) by Dr Ramadoss, had been sidelined since the entry of Dr Anbumani into politics. When the heir apparent virtually took over the party, Guru, it is alleged, was systematically ignored since he wielded enormous clout among Vanniyar youths. Dr Ramadoss had actually entrusted him with the task of mobilising the Vanniyar community behind the PMK.

Soon after Guru’s death, members of his family embarrassed the PMK leadership by levelling allegations against Dr Ramadoss and Dr Anbumani that they had sidelined Guru fearing that he would block Dr Anbumani’s rise. They claimed that Guru had sacrificed everything for the party. He was jailed under the National Securitry Act in 2013. He remained a livewire behind the annual Chitra Pournami Day political conference at Mahabalipuram, which, in a way, helped the PMK consolidate the Vanniyar vote bank.

Some members of Guru’s family have joined the Thamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi led by T. Velmurugan, an emerging Vanniyar leader, against the PMK’s leadership. Besides, many Vanniyar outfits have expressed their displeasure over the PMK’s alliance with the DMDK, the BJP and the AIADMK, and decided to work against Dr Anbumani in Dharmapuri, where he faces the DMK’s S. Senthil Kumar.

However, a large chunk of Vanniyars still believes that the PMK is the only sociopolitical outfit that will protect the community’s rights and interests, but the lack of trust in the leadership puts them in a quandary.

Social activists alleged that the party exploited the marriage of Dalit youth E. Ilavarasan with Vanniyar girl Divya in Natham colony of Dharmapuri in November 2012 for its own agenda of caste mobilisation in the district.

Dalit colonies in Dharmapuri were set on fire over the issue, allegedly by Vanniyar-led gangs, which escalated the migration of several Dalit families from Dharmapuri to Bengaluru and Tiruppur, a major factor that helped Dr Anbumani win the last Lok Sabha election. “The PMK leadership has systematically and surreptitiously cultivated the constituency by polarising people on caste to make the ground fertile for Anbumani,” said a Dalit writer.

Shifting loyalties

The PMK kept itself afloat by shifting loyalties often. In 2016, it contested 232 seats in the Assembly elections, projecting Dr Anbumani as the chief ministerial candidate, but drew a blank although it polled 23,00,558 votes for a share of 5.32 per cent. It polled more than the margin of victory in 81 constituencies, finished second in four constituencies and third in 66. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it contested as part of the BJP alliance and polled 18,04,812 votes for a 4.4 per cent vote share. Dr Anbumani was the lone winner. Interestingly, the PMK has allied with the BJP on more than one occasion in Tamil Nadu. Its debut in the 1991 elections fetched it an impressive 5.78 per cent vote share. In 1996, the PMK allied with a splinter group of the Congress and won four Assembly seats. Since 1998 it has been alternating between the DMK and the AIADMK in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. It contested five seats in the AIADMK-led alliance in the 1998 Lok Sabha election and won three.

During the 1999 and 2004 parliamentary elections, it switched to the DMK alliance. In 2009, it jumped fences again to join the AIADMK alliance and contested seven seats, facing the DMK in five, but drew a blank.

In the 2001 Assembly elections, it allied with the AIADMK and won 20 seats; in 2011, it aligned with the DMK to win three seats. Vote-bank erosion is a worrying factor for the PMK today. At its peak it had a vote share of 8.2 per cent in 1999 Lok Sabha election. Its share came down to 6.7 per cent in 2004 and 4.4 per cent in 2014. In the 2016 Assembly elections, its share jumped to 5.32 per cent.

Dr Ramadoss even joined hands with the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) in 2004. The two dabbled in Tamil nationalism for some time. It was a surprise alliance since the northern districts had been witnessing frequent Vanniyar-Dalit clashes. But the unusual bonhomie was broken after the Dharmapuri incident.

“Peace prevailed until the Dharmapuri violence took place. We worked together amicably for the local body elections and in the 2011 Assembly elections,” said D. Ravikumar, general secretary of the VCK and a candidate in the Villupuram constituency, where he faces the PMK’s Vadivel Ravanan.

The VCK is part of the DMK front and its leader, Thol. Thirumavalavan, is contesting from the Chidambaram constituency on an independent symbol; Ravikumar is contesting on the DMK’s “rising sun” symbol.

In both these constituencies, Dalits have a formidable vote share of 26 to 27 per cent, with Vanniyars forming the other major caste bloc. Thirumavalavan is facing the AIADMK’s P. Chandrasekar. “Even Vanniyars in Kattumannarkoil and other areas in Chidambaram welcome us today,” said a VCK functionary who is campaigning for Thirumavalavan.

DMDK’s health

The DMDK is a pale shadow of its former self. The party, founded in 2005, positioned itself at the centre of the State’s politics by projecting itself as an alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK. It entered the 2006 Assembly elections all alone. Vijaykanth, who won from Virudhachalam, was the lone winner. However, the party garnered a vote share of 10 per cent. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it fought alone again and garnered a vote share of 10.07 per cent. The DMDK allied with the AIADMK in the 2011 Assembly elections and won 29 of the 41 seats it contested. In 2016, it contested as part of a third front and polled 10,34,384 votes for a vote share of 2.39 per cent. The party’s future rests on its leader’s health.

In a highly fragmented field, the chances of a healthy vote transfer among alliance partners, especially from the DMDK to the PMK and vice versa, appear to be remote since the understanding between the two former foes has not percolated to the ground level. However, a better vote transfer between the PMK and the AIADMK and vice versa is expected.

“Can you expect a Vanniyar in Kallakurichi to vote for the DMDK’s L.K. Sudheesh, a non-Vanniyar?” asked a senior PMK functionary in Salem.

The Kancheepuram CPI(M) district secretary, E. Shankar, told Frontline that the vote transfer among the AIADMK alliance partners would not be that easy. “They are not natural allies. There is going to be significant erosion in the PMK vote bank this time. The neutral voters also would not prefer an AIADMK without Jayalalithaa. Besides, the AIADMK’s alliance with the BJP, which Jayalalithaa studiously avoided when she was alive, would work against this alliance,” he said.

Ramu Manivannan felt that the vote transfer from the PMK to the AIADMK would be around 70 per cent but the transfer from the AIADMK to its partners could not be assessed without studying the Dhinakaran effect. “The Vanniyar community as a whole is divided today. Besides, we cannot brush aside the Guru factor. A conservative estimate points out that around 20 per cent of the PMK votes might go to the DMK this time if the candidate is a Vanniyar,” he said.

Besides, the PMK have never been able to gain votes from those other than Vanniyars. “As they do not have an option of vote transfer fully from their own community and also from others, it is now left to the poll managers of the AIADMK to ensure a good transfer of votes from one ally to another,” he said.

He also said that since it was a do-or-die battle for the AIADMK, much depended on the successful transfer of votes. “In every panchayat it has suffered a split, with about 20 per cent having gone to Dhinakaran. It has also frittered away the advantage Jayalalithaa created by consolidating votes against the BJP and also the DMK,” he said.

P. Radhakrishnan, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, wrote in Frontline (August 17, 2002) titled “The Vanniyar Separatism”: “Devoid of any rallying point (unlike during the reservation-related agitations) to keep Vanniyars together in the PMK, its Vanniyar vote base that might have existed earlier and as perceived by Ramadoss has already been considerably eroded by the multi-caste, multiparty system of Indian democracy. The Vanniyars do not any longer vote for Vanniyars alone.” There is abundant evidence of this at the grass–roots level now.

The PMK is seeking to take advantage of the alliance arithmetic to recapture lost territory. If it succeeds, it will certainly herald a second coming for the party, notwithstanding the ghosts it created in the past.