Tamil Nadu

Deepening divide

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami campaigning in Tirunelveli town on April 4. (Facing page) DMK president M.K. Stalin at a public meeting in Coimbatore on April 3. Photo: A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

DMK president M.K. Stalin at a public meeting in Coimbatore on April 3. Photo: S. SIVA SARAVANAN

DMK candidate K. Kanimozhi addressing voters in Thoothukudi on April 2. Photo: N. RAJESH

AMMK deputy general secretary T.T.V. Dhinakaran addressing a campaign meeting at Oddanchatram in Dindigul district on April 3. Photo: G. KARTHIKEYAN

Caste continues to dominate the electoral discourse in Tamil Nadu, where the AMMK, a breakaway faction of the AIADMK, is likely to damage the prospects of the alliance led by the ruling party.

The setting: a stuffy marriage hall in a town in southern Tamil Nadu. The event: a dance recital by a five-year-old girl. The recital gets over and the child is being applauded by a small crowd at the venue. A little while later, a man in his mid 40s walks up to the child and asks: “So, what are you, girl? A Thevar or a Nadar?” (The girl was a child with Thevar-Nadar parentage.)

A friend next to him intervenes: “She’s only a small child, anne [brother]…”

The man who asked the question replies: “I was only trying to find out what she is learning at home.”

Caste, an Indian reality, is acutely felt in all spheres of activity in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu—in Madurai and the entire geography south of it barring parts of Kanyakumari, where religion is the binder—much more starkly than in other parts of the State.

The phenomenon extends even to sporting activities. In large parts of the south, the two major Dalit groups, the Pallars and the Parayars, play kabaddi; the Nadars play volleyball and have now moved on to hockey too; while members of the fishermen community play football.

There are no exclusive rights over a sport for any particular caste, but this is, by and large, how the turf in sports is divided. Former national kabaddi captain and Arjuna Award winner Manathi Ganesan grew up in this rigid caste hierarchy, as did Nicholas, a footballer, who made a difference to the Tamil Nadu team for over a decade and also captained the team. Manathi Ganesan now promotes the sport as a district sports officer, while Nicholas, who works for the Tuticorin Port Trust, organises camps for youngsters.

Even within castes, there are subtle differences. For instance, Tuticorin and Tirunelveli Nadars are “different” from the Nadars of Virudhunagar and Madurai. There is a religious divide, between Christian and Hindu Nadars, and geographical and cultural differences, too. Among the Vellalas, Illathu Pillamar, a minor caste grouping, does not consider itself to have much in common with the majority Saiva Pillais.

Christians are not a single vote bloc: within the Roman Catholic and the CSI [Church of South India] church too, there are divisions. In the case of the CSI, the differences are irreconcilable. If one faction of the church votes for a particular political formation, the other will vote for the opposing formation, even if it is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Major political formations are always aware of these differences and usually cater to the demands of the majority caste by fielding a candidate from that caste. When two castes have near-equal representation in a constituency, parties often have to field a candidate from one or the other. The voting also happens on caste lines in case two parties put up candidates from different castes. The distribution of cash for garnering votes happens despite these issues, but money alone will not end up being the deciding factor in most contests.

Catering to caste

While caste mobilisations in other parts of the State happen frequently and regularly, the manner in which it happens in southern Tamil Nadu is difficult to comprehend. The only factor common to southern Tamil Nadu and the rest of the State is in the coastal areas: fishermen who go out in country boats, and who form the majority of the voters within the community, are wooed by the major political formations at the expense of owners of mechanised boats.

At the other end of the spectrum are caste-based murders. In the last week of March, a youth named ‘Pura’ Madasamy was murdered in Seithur village in Rajapalayam in the southern district of Virudhunagar. It seemed an isolated murder of a known anti-social. However, just a few days after the crime, news emerged that it was connected to the murder of C. Pasupathi Pandian, part-time politician and full-time gangster, in January 2012. Five of the 10 persons allegedly involved in Pandian’s murder have so far been killed. Madasamy was murdered as part of a revenge killing, and five persons surrendered, claiming to have killed him. There is no end in sight to this cycle.

“This is how this place has always been,” a police officer in Tirunelveli said. “If there is a murder, there will be a revenge murder. You don’t need to look beyond the caste angle in most of these cases,” he added.

Tirunelveli’s chief problem, unemployment, is because of the neglect of the industries that once existed and the lack of adequate support to those managing to operate even in adverse conditions. In a small area of less than 50 km from Vickramasingapuram (once a vibrant town of Madura Coats, which even set up a cricket pitch much before most cities in India had one) to Tirunelveli, the neglect of traditional expertise and industries is palpable.

In nearby Ambasamudram, most of those engaged in the famed wood carvings have either left the jobs or shifted to other occupations; Kallidaikurichi’s appalam manufacturing still remains on the scale of a minor cottage industry; Karaikurichi’s breathtaking terracotta industry has no serious recognition outside the region; Veeravanallur’s famed weaving industry exists largely in local folklore; and Pattamadai’s korai grass mats have seen better days. Local people in these towns say that across the region, business was already down because of the migration of local talent due of lack of jobs, zero interest shown by the district administration, and the lackadaisical attitude of local representatives.

In such a scenario came demonetisation in 2016 and GST [goods and services tax] in 2017, which wiped out the region. Whoever survives now is doing so because of their commitment to keep their skill alive. Across the region, people do not have much hope that their fate will change, regardless of who comes to power at the Centre or the State.

Apart from Kanyakumari, the southern region has the following Lok Sabha constituencies: Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin, Sivaganga, Virudhunagar, Theni and Madurai. The BJP is contesting four of these nine seats as part of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led (AIADMK) alliance. In the DMK alliance, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) faces the BJP in Ramanathapuram; the Congress is contesting in three and the DMK in the remaining seats. The DMK is contesting Tenkasi, a reserved constituency, after a gap of over two decades.The strategy behind the rise of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu centred around catering to the hopes and aspirations of the intermediate castes, almost to the near exclusion of both the upper castes and the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). This paradigm is now facing a serious challenge from the BJP’s tactic of appealing to minor castes within the backward class pantheon, attempting to co-opt the S.Cs and accentuating existing divides among different castes. In fact, it is not just one strategy that the BJP is employing in southern Tamil Nadu where it fancies its chances and where it has chosen to field four of its five candidates.

“The BJP is playing a dangerous game with caste. This will not go away with the election,” senior Congress leader S. Peter Alphonse said. “The rifts they create today will be the basis of all caste-related problems that we will face tomorrow,” he added.

In Tuticorin, where the BJP’s State president Tamilisai Soundararajan is contesting, there is a slight change in this strategy: realising that there is a sizeable chunk of Hindu Nadar votes that cannot be ignored, it plans to lay great emphasis on Tamilisai Soundararajan’s Nadar ancestry and attack her opponent, K. Kanimozhi of the DMK, by saying that she has been denigrating Hindus and Hindu beliefs. Reaching out to priests in smaller temples and talking to the smaller caste groups among Hindus and encouraging them to join the Hindutva bandwagon is another. The pitch to the smaller caste groups is that their voices will be heard better if they are with the BJP and that the major Hindu communities alone will not hog all the benefits of power and occupy all positions in the social hierarchy.

A telling poster found in some parts of the constituency mentioned the names of Tamilisai Soundararajan’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather, all of whom sported the Nadar surname. Tamilisai Soundararajan’s father, Kumari Ananthan, a former Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president, never used the caste tag in his name.

Tamilisai Soundararajan wants the vote so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi can run the country for another term. She has made some tall promises, including connecting Tuticorin with a bullet train, in response to a manifesto for the constituency released by K. Kanimozhi.

For K. Kanimozhi, the fight is the biggest in her career. “The BJP, today, signifies all that is unconstitutional, unjust and unfair. They have systematically disbanded all independent constitutional institutions. The most significant metric of the present regime has been the social justice fabric that has held this country together for the last 70 years. Women, minorities, backward classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have suffered the most. The economic gains of the last 25 years have been squandered owing to short-sighted and whimsical schemes like demonetisation,” she said.

“In Tamil Nadu, the voice of the people has been suppressed through authoritarian actions such as the brutal police killing of 13 protesters in Tuticorin, disregard of rising public opinion on the jallikattu issue and motivated politicising of the Cauvery Management Board,” she added.

Communal campaign

“The neglect of Tamil Nadu” is the focus of the opposition’s campaign across the State, while the AIADMK combine is campaigning among electors seeking a “vote for development”. The AIADMK combine has also resorted to a high-decibel “minority appeasement will not happen” campaign and has not fielded any Muslim candidate. The DMK has fielded only one candidate and most other parties, barring the Makkal Neethi Maiyam, have no Muslim candidates.

The AIADMK seeks to brush this aside with the argument that “the best candidates were fielded”, but has no answer as to why the sitting MP Anwhar Raajhaa has not been fielded again.

In fact, not fielding him is at the heart of the strategy in Ramanathapuram, and this is one of the constituencies that makes it clear that the BJP, not the AIADMK, is the leader of the Tamil Nadu campaign. The BJP’s candidate is Nainar Nagendran, a former AIADMK Minister who joined the BJP just a couple of years ago.

The vitriol this once mild-mannered man spews in the name of protecting “Hindu values” and emphatically asserting that anyone attacking Hinduism will be killed needs to be heard to be believed. But it is not far from Modi’s campaign against Rahul Gandhi on April 1, where he used the “we” in reference to Hindus, in Wardha: “Rahul Gandhi didn’t dare to contest from a seat where we are in a majority but where we are in a minority.” When the Prime Minister himself is resorting to the “Us versus Them” rhetoric, others will not be far behind.

The campaign on the ground is also interesting. AIADMK cadres were seen going around requesting people to vote for the BJP because the DMK was not contesting the seat. In its whisper campaigns across the constituency, this message is amplified: “Why should you vote for ladder [the IUML’s symbol],” asked one AIADMK worker. “You should vote for our people” is the message. In other words, vote for the candidate who is Hindu, do not vote for the IUML’s candidate. Muslims are not a homogeneous population in this district.

There are many who support the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which is in alliance with T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a breakaway faction of the AIADMK. The AMMK-SDPI combine might not look formidable, but it is a fact that the SDPI is growing in southern Tamil Nadu and has caught the imagination of the Muslim youth, something that the IUML has not been able to do. The more vocal of the Muslim youths are either with the SDPI or with the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK).

Even with this dynamic playing out in Ramanathapuram, it is not as if the IUML’s Navas Gani is in a bad place. This is because prominent Muslims in the district believe that in the final analysis, the community will have to make a call if it should allow the Sangh Parivar to gain a foothold in the district. If the answer is a clear no—and it appears so from people who spoke to Frontline—indications are that the IUML candidate will make it past the finishing line.

The Hindu card is in play at Sivaganga, too, where the BJP has fielded H. Raja, the party’s national secretary, who has made many controversial and disparaging remarks on Tamil Nadu, jallikattu, the police and the courts, in the past few years. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is actively helping Raja’s campaign, trying to seek the support of the intermediate communities, but his opponent, Karti P. Chidambaram, who polled over one lakh votes when the Congress contested on its own in 2014, says that he is confident.

His father, former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who has been elected from the seat seven times, was in the constituency to boost his son’s campaign. “They [BJP] made so many promises. Did you get Rs.15 lakh in your bank accounts?” Chidambaram asked in Manamadurai on March 29. The record of the Congress, he asserted, was that it will only make promises it can fulfil. The Hindutva card is unlikely to work for Raja, though it is lending a helping hand to C.P. Radhakrishnan, the BJP candidate from Coimbatore. The textile city is a focus area or “project” for the BJP since the bomb attack on senior leader L.K. Advani in the mid 1990s. He is pitted against P.R. Natarajan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who lacks the resources that the BJP has pressed into service in its campaign. But that has not deterred Natarajan: he has been taking the Hindutva brigade head-on and asking the questions that make the BJP uncomfortable. For instance, he has raised the issue of ecological harm done to the Western Ghats because of an ashram run by the godman Jaggi Vasudev that has encroached upon the elephant corridor. The BJP does not talk about this issue because if it denies the destruction, it would be antagonising voters, who know better. Also, both Prime Minister Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind have visited the ashram and showered praise on Jaggi Vasudev.

Coimbatore has a significant Malayali population, and a host of issues, such as the entry of women below 50 into the Sabarimala temple and the fact that nearby Palakkad has elected the first BJP mayor anywhere in Kerala, lend weight to Radhakrishnan’s campaign.

Pollachi sex scandal

Almost as equidistant as Palakkad to Coimbatore is another town to the south, Pollachi, which has been in the limelight for a massive sex scandal (see “Sex and sleaze”, Frontline, April 12). While the announcement of the revival of the Athikadavu-Avinashi scheme has been received well by the public, the outright denial of any involvement of the ruling party in the sex scandal, the local Superintendent of Police’s mention of the name of the woman complainant, and the subsequent beating up of the complainant’s brother, have all dented the AIADMK’s image.

Although the AIADMK candidate, the sitting MP C. Mahendran, enjoys a lot of goodwill in the constituency, the inaction of the AIADMK government in the scandal, the Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam party’s support to the DMK and the DMK’s determination to wrest this seat in the western region are indicators of a particularly tough fight on the cards.

Pon Radhakrishnan is in another uphill battle in Kanyakumari. He won convincingly in 2014, when the AIADMK, the DMK, the Congress and the BJP contested as separate entities, but this time around, it will not be an easy fight. The fishermen have not forgotten that he was barely around soon after Cyclone Ockhi, and that neither the Coast Guard nor Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman heeded their pleas on where the search operations should be directed.

Radhakrishnan’s pet Enayam port project has also invited the wrath of the community, which believes that it will affect their catch. Kanyakumari votes on religious lines, as it has always done. In the 2016 Assembly elections, only DMK and Congress candidates won from the district. For the upcoming election, the scales are tipped in favour of the Congress candidate, H. Vasanthakumar.

In Tenkasi, the AIADMK alliance has a very good chance in Dr K. Krishnasamy of Puthiya Tamilagam, a Dalit party, who is contesting on the AIADMK’s “two leaves” symbol. The Backward Castes in the constituency have one issue, though: they do not want a Dalit party leader to win, which they fear will create bigger headaches for them. This explains why several BC leaders were seen in the constituency actively seeking out members of their castes to advise them on whom to vote for. Dr Krishnasamy is familiar with the constituency and has even won once from an Assembly segment here. But the DMK also fancies its chances here.

Central Tamil Nadu

On the whole, southern Tamil Nadu, where the battle is largely on caste lines, appears to favour the DMK-Congress combine. The central districts too appear to be in favour of this alliance, for different reasons. Just before nominations closed, the AIADMK made an unusual demand of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). It requested that the PMK swap a seat in the north with Dindigul in central Tamil Nadu. This was because the AIADMK realised it was better to go head-to-head with a Congress candidate in the north than with a DMK candidate in the central districts.

Asked about this, a senior PMK functionary said: “Some compromises will have to be made in an alliance. We have only done that. There are about 60,000 Vanniyars in Dindigul. We don’t know how this will turn out.”

Apart from Dindigul, the other constituencies in central Tamil Nadu are Nagapattinam (S.C.), Thanjavur, Myladuthurai, Perambalur, Tiruchi and Karur. In Tiruchi, Perambalur, Myladuthurai, Nagapattinam and Thanjavur, the DMK alliance appears to have a distinct edge because of candidate selection and a host of local factors. The delta districts have also been at the receiving end of problems with Cauvery water supply. A team of farmers from here, who were on a 100-day agitation in Delhi, did not get to meet Prime Minister Modi. There is resentment against this fact and some of them have decided to file their nominations in Varanasi, where Modi will contest from.

In Karur, the Congress has fielded a young face, Jothimani, against the veteran Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Thambidurai. Jothimani has the support of the new DMK district boss, Senthil Balaji, who left the AMMK to join the DMK and has to prove a point to the DMK leadership. The AIADMK-BJP alliance, which includes the PMK, the Desiya Murpokku Dravidar Kazhagam (DMDK), and smaller parties, are eyeing the western and northern belts to deliver them the seats. The AIADMK and the DMK are facing one another in only eight of the 39 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State, although both are contesting 20 seats each, leaving 19 to their allies. The western belt has traditionally been AIADMK stronghold.

AIADMK’s overarching plans

The AIADMK-BJP combine in Tamil Nadu is well aware of the fact that the alliance suffers from quite a few drawbacks. To start with, there is the double anti-incumbency factor because the BJP has been in power at the Centre for a term and the AIADMK has been in power in the State for eight-plus years. Also, AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa is no more and the election is being held in what is considered the worst summer in recent times. The many acts of omission and commission by the State government have evoked strong condemnation from most sections of the people; these include the Thoothukudi firing that killed protesters and the Pollachi scandal.

Several second-rung leaders of the AIADMK and the alliance partners do realise that identification and acknowledgment of the existence of a problem is where the search for solutions begins. “We addressed the anti-incumbency issue with cash distribution during Pongal and for labourers,” a ruling party leader who did not want to be named said. Modi is the icon that the AIADMK is relying on. In a space of 40 days before the announcement of the election by the Election Commission (E.C.), Modi was in Tamil Nadu four times, inaugurating schemes and even naming the Chennai Central Railway Station after AIADMK founder and former Chief Minister MGR, despite the fact that there was no such demand. The timing of Modi’s visit was frowned upon and he was questioned—on social media—why he did not condemn the police firing on anti-Sterlite protesters, which claimed the lives of 14, and why he did not visit the State in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi and Cyclone Gaja. Each time Modi visited Tamil Nadu, #GoBackModi was trending on Twitter.

For every criticism of the Prime Minister, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has an answer and he tackles criticism head-on. “They [DMK] won’t come to power again. That is for sure because people are watching their behaviour…. The DMK first tried to stop the Rs.1,000 Pongal gift and then tried stopping the Rs.2,000 to BPL families,” he said, to drive home the point that the DMK wanted to block money from reaching the needy. His deputy, O. Panneerselvam, while praising the Modi government, has always focussed on the acts of omission and commission of the DMK. In Myladuthurai, he told farmers that it was because of the DMK that Tamil Nadu did not get water from the Cauvery. “Although the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) gave its final verdict in 2007 when the Congress-DMK combine was in power at the Centre, they failed to notify it in the gazette. It was Chief Minister Puratchi Thalaivi Amma [Jayalalithaa] who approached the apex court and got it notified in the gazette, thereby ensuring the legal rights of Tamil Nadu over Cauvery waters.” Panneerselvam’s son and the son of Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar are in the fray this time. Both appear to be struggling because of not only the DMK but also the AMMK. Panneerselvam’s son, O.P. Ravindranath, is fighting Congress leader E.V.K.S. Elangovan, who is a relative lightweight in Theni. However, the AMMK’s candidate is the formidable Thanga Tamilselvan, a former AIADMK district secretary who lost his position because of Panneerselvam. Thanga Tamilselvan has to prove his mettle to his new party and to the AIADMK and the Congress candidate could be the unwitting beneficiary of this tussle.

Jayakumar’s son, J. Jayavardhan, the sitting MP of Chennai South, faces debutante Dr (Sumathy) Thamizhachi Thangapandian, daughter of former DMK heavyweight Thangapandian and sister of former DMK School Education Minister Thangam Thennarasu. Thamizhachi Thangapandian gave up a career in academics more than a decade ago to formally join the DMK. In this constituency too, the AMMK’s Esakki Subbiah is expected to cut into both AIADMK and anti-incumbency votes, but largely AIADMK votes. Subbiah is popular in Tirunelveli and stands a better chance in that constituency, but the fact that he is contesting in Chennai South shows that the AMMK’s priority is to ensure the loss of the star sons of AIADMK leaders.

The AMMK factor

The issue uppermost in the minds of most political observers in Tamil Nadu is how the AMMK will impact this election. A key question in this election will be: where will the pro-Jayalalithaa votes go? From 1989 until her death in 2016, Jayalalithaa slowly and systematically overshadowed the legacy of MGR and replaced it with her own larger-than-life image. The references to MGR became very perfunctory and praise for Jayalalithaa was the slogan in the AIADMK. The teeming millions who voted for a better tomorrow for MGR were now voting en masse because Jayalalithaa managed to replace that image with hers. This large section of Jayalalithaa followers is unlikely to turn to the DMK. For them, the choice is between the AMMK or even Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Neethi Maiyam. Either way, this will help the DMK alliance.

The AMMK is contesting 38 constituencies. For the party, it has been a story of combating adversity from the beginning, from the time its founder Dhinakaran was arrested by the Delhi police two years ago on charges of trying to bribe an official of the E.C. for the “two leaves” symbol. Dhinakaran spent 38 days in jail, and to this day, there is no mention of who the E.C. official was. Dhinakaran also had a tough time with the E.C. changing his party symbol when the R.K. Nagar byelection was postponed from April 2017 to December 2017 and then again for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Through all this, most of Dhinakaran’s supporters have remained steadfast. However, since his immediate circle is used to functioning like the Jayalalithaa household, many close associates are now feeling the heat. The sudden and unexpected expulsion of Sasikala loyalist V.P. Kalairajan, who joined the DMK in March, the parting of ways with another close associate, Senthil Balaji, and the allotment of a Lok Sabha constituency to Thanga Tamilselvan after a lot of back and forth, all indicate a new power struggle within the party.

Despite this, Dhinakaran has not lost focus. The party structure is being built meticulously. For instance, at the booth level the party follows a 3-30-300 structure: the three persons at the top are in contact with the higher echelons of the party and they manage 10 people each, who in turn have to manage 10 persons each. Since there are meetings every so often, the link gets strengthened over time. Each public meeting means an incentive to those who show up. Given the fact that party events are held round the year, the incentives are also available all year. So, a Dhinakaran cadre is unlikely to leave this steady flow of incentives for a one-off during elections.

Owing to the 2019 byelections to 18 seats in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, there is the possibility of a change of government at the State level. The AIADMK is working hard to make sure it gets the required numbers to cross the halfway mark in a house of 234. There are four additional vacancies already and it appears to be an uphill task for the Edappadi-Panneerselvam combine to keep the government going.

Finally, what is this election all about? K. Kanimozhi said: “This election is about conflict: conflict between the ideas of secularism and communalism, between federalism and the concentration of power in Delhi; multilingualism and linguistic imposition; cultural diversity and cultural supremacy; and participatory democracy and fascism.”

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