The battle for Kongu Nadu

The DMK banks on two-pronged strategy in the Kongu region of western Tamil Nadu to break AIADMK’s dominance.

Published : Apr 17, 2024 12:03 IST - 12 MINS READ

DMK election campaign rally at Pethanayakkanpalayam in Salem, which is part of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu. The DMK has turned to pragmatic long-term solutions to regain control of the region from the AIADMK.

DMK election campaign rally at Pethanayakkanpalayam in Salem, which is part of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu. The DMK has turned to pragmatic long-term solutions to regain control of the region from the AIADMK. | Photo Credit: S Guru prasath

The Kongu region of western Tamil Nadu has long been considered an AIADMK stronghold. It is this fortress that the DMK wants to breach this time, for which it has put in place a long-term two-pronged strategy that consists of development projects and social engineering. 

The AIADMK’s dominance here was built up slowly following the party’s strong performance in the region during the reign of its founder and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran and continued afterwards under MGR’s protégée and successor J. Jayalalithaa.

Except for a few unusual circumstances, such as the one in 1996 when it suffered a near wash-out in the Assembly election winning just four of the 167 seats it contested (Jayalalithaa herself was defeated in Bargur), the party has had the Kongu region in its firm grasp.

Such is the AIADMK dominance here that when the DMK won the 2021 Assembly election after 10 years in the opposition, its celebrations in the south, central and northern districts were tempered by its rout in the western belt. The question for the DMK was this: How could one part of the State ignore it when the rest of the State gave it a resounding mandate?

The DMK was baffled: It had lost 27 constituencies in the core districts of Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Pollachi, Salem, Namakkal, Karur and Nilgiris. The AIADMK won 29 seats in this region, which made up almost 50 per cent of the total 66 seats it won. The DMK’s 133 seats mostly came from the north, central and south districts.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, however, the DMK alliance had won all but one (Theni) of the State’s 39 Lok Sabha seats, including the eight in the Kongu belt. This atypical result—in the 2014 election the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa and with no alliance had swept the region with ease—was attributed to anger against the BJP with whom the AIADMK allied in 2019. Analysts believe that voting DMK was the voters’ way of venting their frustration against the BJP at the Centre for demonetisation and high GST rates, which had shut down many micro, small and medium enterprises and other industrial units in this highly industrialised region.

That anger continues to simmer today. To add to their woes, the State’s steep power tariff has also hit hard, although the Tamil Nadu government blames it on the Centre’s Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (Uday), and on the AIADMK for signing it.

The AIADMK’s 2019 defeat here had other causes besides the uneasy partnership with the BJP. The internecine battles stemming from leadership scuffles was one and Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) being projected as chief ministerial candidate was another.

Also Read | PMK’s alliance with the BJP in Tamil Nadu defies logic

Incidentally, before coming under MGR’s influence, the region was once a Congress domain and later a DMK bastion. The Kongu region’s significance in Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian politics centres around the Backward Caste Kongu Vellalar (also called Gounder) community, who are predominant in eight of the 10 core western districts, which have around 60 Assembly seats (total Assembly seats 234), and eight Lok Sabha seats (total 39).

And it was during the chief ministership of M. Karunanidhi in 1971-1976 that the Kongu Vellalar caste, a forward peasant community, was classified as Backward. This triggered an upward mobility among the community members from agriculture to education and employment. The DMK won 45 seats in the region in the 2006 Assembly election, but only seven seats in 2011. Thereafter, it was a steady descent.

A curious contest

The hard fact, unpalatable though it may be to the DMK, is that it has always had to work hard for its victories in the Kongu turf. This is true of the present Lok Sabha election too: the DMK is in a three-cornered contest against two alliances, led by the AIADMK and the BJP, respectively.

The difference this time is that the DMK high command appears confident of reaping rich dividends because of its development policies and welfare schemes not only in the region but across Tamil Nadu. For this region, the party has adopted a two-pronged strategy, adding to the development schemes with a strong social engineering plan.

Unfortunately for the DMK, the leaders of the rival alliances here are “sons of the soil”—the AIADMK’s EPS hails from Salem district while the BJP’s K. Annamalai comes from the Thoppampatti village in Karur district. Also, both leaders belong to the Kongu Vellalars. The DMK has also had to be wary of a few rogue voices, albeit feeble now, behind the demand for a separate “Kongu Nadu”.

Artists dressed up as former Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa DMDK founder Vijayakant during the AIADMKs public meeting in Erode in Tamil Nadu on April 5, 2024.

Artists dressed up as former Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa DMDK founder Vijayakant during the AIADMKs public meeting in Erode in Tamil Nadu on April 5, 2024. | Photo Credit: GOVARTHAN M

The party’s answer to these extra-political issues has been to pamper the region generously. The Kongu belt has been flooded with a slew of welfare and development projects costing more than Rs.2,000 crore.

The interesting aspect though is that the DMK has put into play a few unconventional experiments to regain relevance in the region. Its first move was to mobilise the now-jailed minister Senthil Balaji, who is a Kongu Vellalar and a “son of the soil” from Karur. Balaji scored a few points. The Erode byelection win endorsed his clout among his caste people; and as election manager, he ensured Annamalai’s defeat at Aravakurichi in the 2021 Assembly election. Ironically, it is to this performance that one can trace his journey to Chennai’s Puzhal prison on charges of corruption during his stint as Transport Minister in the AIADMK government. Expectedly, the Enforcement Directorate’s moves against Balaji in the jobs-for-cash scam effectively neutralised his initiatives in the Kongu belt.

In fact, Annamalai, the BJP candidate for the Coimbatore seat, is still nursing his wounds from the Aravakurichi defeat and is so apprehensive of Balaji that he has even accused the former Minister of pulling strings from inside prison in this election.

The DMK has since turned to pragmatic long-term solutions, which can put to rest caste equations as well as grassroots perceptions against the party (the next Assembly election is not far off) while helping it to ingrain itself in the Kongu soil politically and emotionally.

This plan has two strategic components—first, region-specific development and second, social engineering through caste. The first is a strategy it has employed since it came to power in 2021, using a mix of development activities and welfare schemes. Immediately after assuming power, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin visited a Corona ward in the Coimbatore Government Hospital, when the second wave was at its peak. His “bold initiative endeared him to the people,” a senior DMK spokesperson told Frontline.

Then, before the Election Commission’s announcement in March of the Lok Sabha election, Stalin visited Pollachi and announced a massive Rs.1,200 crore worth of projects and schemes for the region. He took pains to read out each project he was bringing to each district. The party was clearly not masking its brazen pampering of the western districts.

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Meanwhile, the populist schemes, such as Rs.1,000 a month for women, free bus rides for women, and free breakfast scheme for school students, which the DMK alliance is heavily banking on, have gone down well with the people, especially women.

The other leg of its strategy—social engineering through caste—is a more silent affair. This is understandable given that the fulcrum of the party’s Dravidian Model of governance is “social justice”. This leg of its strategy is crucial to ensure political permanency in a region that is still coming to terms with the polarised environment created after the Coimbatore bomb blasts of the late 1990s.

BJP’s plans, caste equations and Valli Kummi

While discussing the DMK’s political manoeuvres, one cannot ignore the BJP’s long-term politics of caste and religion in Coimbatore and its surrounding districts, which have been a worrying factor for not just the DMK but also the other political entities in the fray in Tamil Nadu.

After having engineered religious polarisation, the BJP, which the DMK calls “dangerous to the State,” has tried to consolidate different caste groups. The saffron party has wooed regional outfits such as the Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi, a caste-based party for Kongu Vellalars, which recently merged with the BJP. Other caste outfits that extended support to the BJP in Coimbatore include the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KMDK), Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam, Nadar Makkal Munnetra Sangam, Tamil Nadu Brahmins’ Association, and Tamil Nadu Thevar Munnani.

To oppose this, the DMK wooed KMDK and took it out of the BJP alliance in 2019. It then entrusted it with the sensitive task of reaching out to the Kongu Vellalar community, among whom KMDK is a major political outfit. The DMK already enjoys the support of the Arunthathiyars, a Dalit caste dominant in the region, and also has the support of the religious minorities.

The E.R. Eswaran-led KMDK is now contesting on the DMK symbol in the Namakkal seat. KMDK, part of the BJP alliance from 2014 to 2019, shifted to the DMK camp and won Namakkal with a 55.43 per cent vote share in 2019. It played a vital role in the DMK alliance’s win in the Kongu region in that election. In 2021, Eswaran won the Tiruchengode Assembly seat with 44.23 per cent votes.

Women and children perform “Valli Kummi”, a traditional folk dance, at Sankiri in Salem district in Tamil Nadu on 22 July 2023. This folk art is the cultural and social face of the influential Kongu Vellalar community.

Women and children perform “Valli Kummi”, a traditional folk dance, at Sankiri in Salem district in Tamil Nadu on 22 July 2023. This folk art is the cultural and social face of the influential Kongu Vellalar community. | Photo Credit: LAKSHMI NARAYANAN E

Like the BJP, the KMDK has been mobilising Kongu Vellalars on caste lines for a long time. In fact, it is not the only caste aggregator in the region. Many caste-based outfits are active among the Kongu Vellalar today, but their main agenda is not political. Instead, they play the role of culture custodians and moral police, encouraging their youth in caste pride and discouraging inter-caste marriages, especially with Dalits. For many of these groups, the traditional folk art form of “Valli Kummi,” a song and dance tribute to the Tamil warrior god Murugan and his tribal consort Valli, is the vehicle to drive home messages of caste pride and purity among the youth.

This folk art, which is the cultural and social face of the Kongu Vellalar today, can be performed either by a small group of 100 or by a massive gathering of more than a lakh at one time. The Valli Kummi, also known as the Valli Salangai Kummi, is performed in social gatherings such as weddings, festivities and temple festivals, during political conferences, and even as part of the cultural events of educational institutions.

One such performance last year triggered a serious controversy. A senior KMDK functionary, K.C.C. Balu, at a Valli Kummi performance in Namakkal district, asked the participants, all girls, to swear that they will marry boys only from their Kongu Vellalar caste. Balu told Frontline that he did not force any girl to make the promise. “Neither did I demean any particular caste. We are a peasant community. Educated girls are reluctant to marry our boys who do farming and animal husbandry. Many of our boys, even after the age of 40, remain unmarried. It is a serious social issue for us,” he said.

But the video went viral, forcing him and his party to issue apologetic explanations. In fact, the KMDK was forced to replace its Namakkal candidate S. Sooriyamoorthi when an old video clip of his speech against Dalits marrying Kongu Vellalar girls kicked up a row.

This caste-appropriated ancient art form has seen a sudden spurt in popularity and its spin-offs are seen everywhere. There are many institutes that teach the art and vathiyars or teachers like Balu, a politician-cum-caste mobiliser, are in high demand across the Kongu region. “I recently organised Valli Kummi at Pallipalayam in Namakkal district. People trust us,” said Balu, who is confident that mobilisation through Valli Kummi will benefit their alliance. On February 4 this year, he organised a Valli Kummi at Perundurai town in which 16,000 women performed during a party conference. “It has entered the Guinness Book of World Records,” he said proudly. His party also organised a Kongu Women’s Conference at Senthamangalam recently on “Saving Kongu Women’s honour.”

Mix of caste and regionalism 

Such consolidation of a particular social group benefits major political parties in a tough multi-cornered electoral contest, as the parties show no qualms in allying with caste outfits, as the DMK has done with KMDK and the BJP with the PMK. The AIADMK is not an exception either. One must note, however, that while caste mobilisation helps such outfits promote identity politics it also bares the high prevalence of patriarchy among the groups and their collective fear of alienating family assets.

The BJP is no stranger to mobilising caste and religion for electoral gains. Its government at the Centre chose this election year to confer the Padma Shri on the 87-year-old grand old man of Valli Kummi, M. Badrappan of Mettupalayam. “It was a male-dominated form. I made it gender neutral,” said Badrappan. But he is averse to exploiting the art for ulterior purposes.

The BJP hopes to poll a higher percentage of votes in the Kongu belt this time. The party has a 30 to 35 per cent vote share in Coimbatore and Kanyakumari (where it has fielded veteran Pon Radhakrishnan), and it harbours high hopes in these two constituencies. In other seats, the party is expected to register a marginal vote share increase.

After some meticulous groundwork, the DMK seems to have regained its confidence in the region. After a decade, it has fielded a candidate in Coimbatore. It is also fighting it out in Salem, Erode, Pollachi and Nilgiris, while assigning Namakkal (on the Rising Sun symbol), Karur and Tirupur to its allies. DMK strategists are upbeat about repeating the party’s 2019 performance in this Lok Sabha election and, subsequently, in the 2026 Assembly election.

The Kongu region is a heady cocktail of caste and regionalism that presents a challenge to every political party that steps in. This election too promises to brew into a potent battle.

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