Thol. Thirumavalavan, VCK leader

‘Our front faced many conspiracies’

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Thol Tirumavalavan addressing a gathering on the occasion of the silver jubilee of his party on April 25, 2015. Photo: G. Moorthy

Interview with Thol. Thirumavalavan, VCK leader.

THE wait in his office for nearly two hours to meet him brought to me memories of the late 1980s when I, as a fledgling reporter of a national English daily in Madurai, attended his press briefings. Besides me, there used to be only a couple of other reporters to meet this Dalit leader in the making. He was a coordinator for the Mumbai-based Dalit Panthers of India and worked from a tiny room on the fifth floor of a small lodge in the temple town to highlight the sufferings of members of the Scheduled Castes in the villages in and around Madurai and in the southern districts. He would offer each of us a pencil and a tiny scribbling pad, saying that he could not afford more. A quarter century later, Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), is an iconic figure among the oppressed, mainly from the Parayar community in a State in which Dalits form 18 per cent of the population.

A steady stream of visitors and media personnel are trooping in and out of his modest office at Velachery in Chennai. Many are waiting to see him just for courtesy, while a family of six has come from a village in Perambalur district, some 400 kilometres away, to discuss an issue relating to the family. Many of those who have come have similar issues to take up with him. For the marginalised in Tamil Nadu, Thiruma, as he is known, is more than a leader; he is their hope. One of his aides says this is his routine. Just two days earlier, he returned from Kattumannarkoil, from where he contested unsuccessfully in the Tamil Nadu Assembly election, losing by a mere 87 votes. But there was no sign of despair in the air. Instead, one discerned an optimistic longing for yet another new beginning.

The reasons for this are not far to seek. At a time when the Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu is said to be getting subsumed in the politics of the Dravidian parties, Thiruma, 54, single-handedly scripted a new chapter by taking Dalit assertion to the centre stage. A third front of six parties, including the VCK, took the field with gusto and faced the brute force of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) against heavy odds. The front did not do well, but its very existence is a victory for the VCK in terms of the marginalised staging a political move to counter the Dravidian parties, which have denied them dignity and the space they deserve in the political arena. A debate on whether a Dalit Chief Minister could head the government also was initiated in the early days of campaigning. Two decades ago, these could not have been imagined in the bipolar Dravidian politics of the State.

In this interview to Frontline, he explains how his new political experiment, though systematically stymied by the Other Backward Classes (OBC)-centric Dravidian parties, underscores the need for political power for Dalits. Excerpts:

The PWF alliance looked like a credible alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK with whom a significant section of voters was disenchanted. It was also a socially and politically progressive front to come up in five decades of the State’s electoral history. It was inexplicable how the front could suffer such a humiliating defeat. Do you think the people of Tamil Nadu refuse to see beyond these two parties?

I would not blame the people. In such a high-stakes battle, the powerful OBC-led “tenders mafia” that virtually rules the State by proxy whenever the DMK and the AIADMK are in power defeated us. We faced a formidable lobby of contractors, landlords and even media barons who saw us as a threat to their very existence. They, in fact, find these two parties as their natural allies for their pliability. These lobbies felt uneasy with our positive alternative politics that mooted the concept of a coalition government and advocated a hundred per cent corruption-free, liquor-free and caste-free dispensation for people-centric governance for the first time in the State.

The Dravidian parties are presumed to be committed to upholding E.V.R. Periyar’s legacy of social justice in all spheres of governance. It seems your front failed to convince the electorate otherwise.

Our political narrative on the alternative government was well received. In fact, our manifesto offered enviable space for the marginalised in governance, whereas the Dravidian parties encouraged a corporatised system of governance in which money plays a major role. Even their version of social welfare in the form of freebie distribution has a strong but invisible link to business transactions. When the poor received freebies, the rich and the powerful OBC-controlled corporate lobbies too benefited equally. Hence, it systematically nurtured and preserved the Dravidian bipolar politics.

If that is the case, why should people reject you outright? Your six-party alliance, which included a party like the DMDK, which boasted a vote share of 8 to 10 per cent, polled 20 lakh votes, winning a 6 per cent share of the votes. How do you explain this?

I accept that we fared badly. Our post-election analysis points to some disturbing factors that went against our progressive policy. Sadly, the reference to the contribution of the marginalised in our governance, which we mentioned in our manifesto, had not gone down well with this OBC lobby. We understood that it would upset their apple cart. Hence, they ganged up to prevent us from exposing the misdeeds of the DMK and the AIADMK. They indulged in mud-slinging, targeting the chief ministerial candidate Vijaykanth and the alliance’s coordinator Vaiko.

That was why we were branded the “B team” of the AIADMK although we attacked the party during the campaign. Vaiko underwent mental agony because of the DMK’s attempt to tarnish his image and force us to go on the defensive. It was a vengeful and vindictive act. A corporate lobby that wished to see the DMK in power took up the assignment. But the bottom line here is that the attempt eroded our credibility among voters. Instead of taking our revolutionary manifesto to the people, we had to do a lot of explaining and focus on damage control, especially to convince the people that the accusations against us were false.

Do you think the timing of the decision to float the third front was not right? Did you fail to understand that the electorate in Tamil Nadu was not ready for it?

No. It is not so. The atmosphere was conducive to a counter-narrative to the bipolar Dravidian politics. People were disenchanted with their style of functioning and the multiple charges of corruption. We have a Chief Minister who was jailed on corruption charges, while in the case of the other one, he and his family members are facing serious charges in the 2G spectrum case. Liquor is destroying the very fabric of society. Hence, the existence of an alternative front was timely and apt.

Have you analysed the reasons for the rout?

The front faced many conspiracies. We have identified five major tools that distanced us from the people. They were the power of money, a well-orchestrated attempt to erode our credibility, glitzy election promises, whipping up hatred against the coalition, and our strategy that failed to counter dirty insinuations. As the man behind the third front concept, I struggled hard to keep the front in robust health. The leaders maintained brotherhood and shared ideas and strategies. Everything was fine until these two Dravidian players started to tacitly adopt foul methods to destroy our growing acceptance among the people. A section of the media and a few opinion makers, too, played a conniving role in depicting us as a bunch of discards. Any conscious shaping of positive opinion about us was prevented.

You have pointed out that money was one of the crucial factors that led to your defeat. How would you substantiate it?

For political parties, elections in Tamil Nadu have become astronomically costly affairs. That money played a decisive role in this close multicornered contest is not far from the truth. I did not say it, the Election Commission said it. Elections in two constituencies have been postponed. Hundreds of crores of rupees have been seized. We in the field faced its heat, felt despondent and buckled under. For that matter, any party that does not have money will feel the same.

While our candidates struggled to meet even basic expenses, both the DMK and the AIADMK were spending crores. Who was behind this massive funding? What will they gain from this act? These are questions that remain unanswered. But it is an open secret that corporate lobbies are funding these political parties for obvious gains.

What do you suggest to overcome this negative factor?

The present first-past-the-post electoral system breeds corrupt practices. The Election Commission should take the responsibility of funding candidates. Both the DMK and the AIADMK reportedly spent around Rs.3,000 crore each in the election. Where can parties such as ours source such money? We have no level playing field. The Commission should take steps to enact a law to stem the money flow so that no influence can be exerted on an individual voter. It should also ban door–to-door campaigning and permit parties to campaign in designated places. The preventive mechanism must be strengthened within the existing system.

Could your defeat be attributed to your call for a “share in power”? Also, does it mean that a Dalit party seeking power to rule in a political landscape monopolised by the OBC-controlled Dravidian parties for six decades will not be tolerated?

Yes. A Dalit party’s call for a “share in power” was viewed as an act of impudence in Tamil Nadu. When we began our first round of campaigning, we could see that the concept of a coalition government in which a Dalit party plays, for the first time in Tamil Nadu’s electoral history, a lead role was whipping up a frenzied interest across the State. In many villages, especially in Dalit habitations, celebrations were held.

But the virulent anti-Dalit mindset which I saw and experienced when I shared the dais with the Tamil Maanila Congress [TMC] leader G.K. Moopanar during the 1999 Parliament election, when caste Hindus in Usilampatti in Madurai district indulged in large-scale violence against Moopanar for sharing a public platform with a Dalit, is still prevalent.

However, it is not as vicious as it was in 1999. But Vaiko faced almost a similar situation in Kovilpatti, which forced him to withdraw from the contest to avoid any unsavoury caste flare-ups in the sensitive southern districts. The anti-Dalit groups among the OBCs hate us for saying in our manifesto that a law would be brought to prevent honour killings if we were voted to power. The defeat was a setback definitely, but my wish is that this alliance should continue.

But Dalits have voted for these two parties for long despite the presence of Dalit parties in the field.

The Dravidian parties have been exploiting Dalits in a subtle manner. They wear Periyar’s social justice mantle on their sleeve but promote the OBCs on the sly in their rank and file. Otherwise, how can you explain the massive win for the AIADMK in the western zone where the OBC consolidation against Dalits remains formidable? Dalits too vote for them in every election. Freebies are given to them, while power in politics and in the party is shared by the oppressors. These two Dravidian parties are careful to keep the marginalised on the margins and their leaders as players on the bench.

Your dabbling in Tamil nationalism and moving with the PMK in the past has cast a ring of uncertainty around your decisions both politically and socially.

No. My understanding of Tamil nationalism is distinctly different from that of Seeman’s and Pazha. Nedumaran’s, who strongly advocate the theory of racial purity, which in turn would lead to caste purity, which the PMK leader S. Ramadoss has been promoting. Yes, I am a Tamil. But my Tamil nationalism serves to preserve my culture, identity, rights and language. These should not be denied to me under the ruse of Indian nationalism, which I presume promotes Hindutva, which preserves the caste structure. Annihilation of caste is actual Tamil nationalism.

Have you any inclination to join the PMK to counter the Dravidian hegemony?

No. We will never. The PMK is a caste-based outfit and is against inter-caste marriages with Dalits, though they [these marriages] are happening naturally. For the PMK leadership, everything is vote-bank politics. It promotes a self-centric politics of intolerance. By promoting his son Anbumani Ramadoss, the senior Ramadoss promotes his party as a single-party alternative to the DMK and the AIADMK.

But we offered a credible alliance as an alternative to the Dravidian majors in order to ensure pluralism. There is absolutely no chance of forging an understanding on any issue with the PMK in the future.

A few accuse Periyar of subverting Dalit struggles and promoting OBC dominance under the pretext of opposing Brahminism.

Periyar was multifaceted. We cannot confine him to a tiny space. His social justice movement played a significant contributory role in the annihilation of the caste structure.

We need all like-minded people from different strata of society to usher in a casteless society. No movement can survive in isolation.