Three-way battle in Theni as AIADMK fights to survive against former party men

These main candidates share a past with AIADMK, but deep divisions and caste play threaten to rewrite loyalties as the Andipatti region battles a water crisis.

Published : Apr 08, 2024 19:10 IST - 8 MINS READ

Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam candidate T.T.V. Dhinakaran with former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam at a public meeting held in Theni on February 24.

Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam candidate T.T.V. Dhinakaran with former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Pannerselvam at a public meeting held in Theni on February 24. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

“I have to get there in time so that they pay me fully,” said a woman in Theni, as she prepared to attend a political party meeting at a street corner nearby. In what bears a close resemblance to Tamil writer Imayam’s story “Vaazhga Vaazhga”, set around the struggles of women voters herded to rallies as paid audiences by various political parties, Theni too is buzzing with similar scenes ahead of the Lok Sabha election.

Women join street corner meetings and rallies and even canvass for votes. They told Frontline that they get paid according to the scale of the event and every party is the same. They said that far fewer men take on this offer as it is seen as infra dig.

‘Star constituency’

Theni is gearing up for the election at an interesting time in the history of its politics. A scenic district in southwestern Tamil Nadu, it earned the “star constituency” tag after it elected two former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Chief Ministers, M.G. Ramachandran (1984) and Jayalalithaa (2002), from the Andipatti Assembly segment. In 2024, it is among the most closely watched constituencies for a reason: Besides the AIADMK candidate, those representing the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as well as the BJP’s alliance partner Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazhagam (AMMK) both were once AIADMK members.

This was the only seat the AIADMK won in the 2019 Lok Sabha election; the remaining 38 went to the DMK-led alliance. The DMK, therefore, attaches a lot of importance to Theni. Speaking on March 23 at a rally in Usilampatti, in front of a Muthuramalinga Thevar statue, while campaigning for his party candidate Thanga Tamil Selvan, DMK Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin said, “Ensure that Thanga Tamil Selvan wins by a margin of three lakh votes. I will visit Theni twice a month and stay with you people.” After a campaign trail in Aranmanaipudur and Mullai Nagar on April 1, Thanga Tamil Selvan told Frontline: “Theni is prepared for DMK’s victory. The party won the recent panchayat and Assembly elections in this region.”

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Since the last Lok Sabha election, a lot has changed for political leaders in this region. O. Panneerselvam (OPS), three-time AIADMK Chief Minister who has wielded significant influence here for a long time, is now at a point where his political stature is at stake and he is fighting a lone battle. He was expelled from the AIADMK in 2022 after the party’s general council passed a resolution that did away with the AIADMK’s dual leadership structure that had come into effect after Jayalalithaa’s death. Later, Edappadi K. Palaniswami became the party general secretary. Recently, the Madras High Court restrained Panneerselvam from using the party’s “two leaves” symbol, flag, and official letterhead.

This is in contrast to a time when OPS reigned supreme in Theni district, returning to the Assembly as the AIADMK representative in all five elections held between 2001 and 2021, twice from Periyakulam and thrice from Bodinayakkanur. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election too, when Theni was the sole seat won by the AIADMK, it was OPS’ son P. Raveendranath Kumar who won with a margin of 76,693 votes. In July 2023, however, the Madras High Court declared his election null and void on the grounds of corrupt practices; the Supreme Court later stayed the order, and it the matter is sub judice.

Both father and son are out of Theni this time. OPS has signed up with the BJP-led alliance and will contest from Ramanathapuram on a free symbol. Interestingly, he is up against five other candidates also named “O. Panneerselvam”. His son is not contesting at all, instead supporting alliance partner and AMMK founder T.T.V. Dhinakaran. Speaking from a campaign vehicle in Theni on March 25, Raveendranath said: “Dhinakaran contesting here is the need of the hour. He has returned to Theni after 20 years.”

Tamil Nadu Minister and DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin during an election campaign rally on March 24 in support of party candidate Thanga Tamil Selvan ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Tamil Nadu Minister and DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin during an election campaign rally on March 24 in support of party candidate Thanga Tamil Selvan ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha election. | Photo Credit: PTI

Dhinakaran and his aunt Sasikala, once close aides of Jayalalithaa, were expelled from the AIADMK in 2017 after her death. (Both of them had been previously expelled in 2011.)Dhinakaran went on to float the AMMK in 2018. As part of the AIADMK, he was the Periyakulam MP from 1999 to 2004. He lost in 2004 from the same constituency. After the 2009 delimitation, Periyakulam Lok Sabha constituency was absorbed into the Theni Lok Sabha constituency.

Interestingly, the DMK’s Thanga Tamil Selvan is Dhinakaran’s protege and former propaganda secretary of the AMMK. He joined the DMK in 2019. Both men belong to the Kallar caste (though Dhinakaran comes from Thiruvarur), which along with Maravar and Agamudayar, is one of the three sub-castes of the dominant Mukkalathor community, which has traditionally been the backbone of the AIADMK in the Theni region. Popularly referred to as Thevars, their leaders have significant political clout in both the DMK and the AIADMK.

The caste factor

“Caste plays a major role in Theni,” said J.M. Aaron Rashid, a former Congress MP from Theni. Rashid is the only leader to have won the Lok Sabha seat twice consecutively, first in 2004, when it was still Periyakulam constituency, and in 2009 when it was Theni. He said caste conflicts between Thevars and Dalits used to be more common then and five new police stations were inaugurated to handle caste and communal issues during his tenure. Rashid said Raveendranath was inaccessible to the public during his term. “He neither understood the constituency nor was he effective in Parliament.”

The Thevar-Dalit conflict has been particularly acute in Periyakulam. Rashid said that during his time the “two-tumbler” system (shops using separate glasses for serving Dalits) was widely practised and that the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi appointed a new district collector and superintendent of police to address this along with other issues. But a couple of recent incidents show that nothing much has changed. In January 2023, Thevars objected to the presence of Dalits at a manjuvirattu (bull chase) in Vadugapatti in Theni, leading to a clash and 26 arrests. In June that year, Tamil Desiya Forward Bloc, representing the Thevar community, protested the film Maamannan because it was the story of a Dalit protagonist taking on a dominant OBC opponent in an election. Around 20 people were detained for protesting and raising slogans in front of the theatre.

Vote splitting possibility

The AIADMK candidate is V.T. Narayanasamy, a fresh face. Speaking to Frontline before starting off to campaign at Periyakulam panchayat union, Narayanasamy said, “I do not take Dhinakaran and Thanga Tamil Selvan seriously. People may think they are still seeking votes for “two leaves” [AIADMK party symbol]. I have worked as the joint secretary of the Theni District MGR Association for more than 20 years. Now I have been given this responsibility by Edappadi Palaniswami.”

V.T. Narayanasamy, AIADMK candidate for the Theni parliament constituency, believes that the people of Theni are still with the party.

V.T. Narayanasamy, AIADMK candidate for the Theni parliament constituency, believes that the people of Theni are still with the party. | Photo Credit: KARTHIKEYAN G

According to Narayanasamy, who is the AIADMK’s Theni East Union secretary, the people of Theni are still with the AIADMK. Asked about the work done by Raveendranath when he was MP, he said: “No comments. The public knows.” Narayanasamy hails from the Nayakar community, listed as Backward Caste, which is concentrated in neighbourhoods like Lakshmipuram and Govindanagaram.

The AIADMK votes could split between Dhinakaran and Narayanasamy, with the votes of people who vote for the “two leaves” symbol going to Narayanasamy. Dhinakaran also stands to lose the Nayakar votes which Narayanasamy can bank on. The other disadvantage for Dhinakaran is that he is an outsider, from Thiruvarur, while Narayanasamy and Thanga Tamil Selvan are natives of Theni. When it comes to popularity, however, Narayanasamy is far behind Thanga Tamil Selvan and Dhinakaran, with no social media presence. In what looks like becoming a largely two-cornered contest, Narayanasamy could potentially damage Dhinakaran’s prospects, thereby putting the DMK’s Thanga Tamil Selvan at an advantage.

The AIADMK began to lose its grip over the region in the last few years, particularly after it lost the Andipatti and Periyakulam Assembly byelections to the DMK in 2019. The AIADMK cadre has a sentimental connection with both constituencies—Andipatti elected MGR in the 1984 Assembly election when he was still confined to hospital. Later, Jayalalithaa contested a byelection from the same constituency in 2002 and won. Thanga Tamil Selvan, who was then holding the seat, resigned to pave the way for her. As for Periyakulam, it is the hometown of OPS.

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Theni, which was separated from Madurai and made into a separate district in 1997, has 11.12 lakh voters, of which 5,67,967 are women, 5,44,339 are men, and 193 are transgender. It has six Assembly constituencies, namely, Andipatti, Periyakulam (SC reserved), Bodinayakanur, Cumbum, Sholavandan (SC reserved), and Usilampatti. The first four are in Theni district while Sholavandan and Usilampatti are in Madurai district.

What could play a role in the upcoming election is the acute water crisis in Andipatti. “People looking at Theni from outside do not know that Andipatti is water-starved,” said Dayalan, a resident. Annamalai, CPI(M) district secretary said, “For around 40-50 years, people have been demanding irrigation tanks and asking for the ponds to be filled with excess water from the Mullaiperiyar. Despite the proximity of Vaigai dam, Andipatti is still completely dry.”

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