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

The PMK stands to gain nothing while the BJP gains an edge. What could be the reason for an alliance where the PMK only ends up sacrificing itself?

Published : Apr 04, 2024 17:23 IST - 8 MINS READ

PMK founder S. Ramadoss speaking at an election campaign at Muthukadai, Ranipet in March 2024.

PMK founder S. Ramadoss speaking at an election campaign at Muthukadai, Ranipet in March 2024. | Photo Credit: Venkatachalapathy C./The Hindu

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) calls it “mysterious”. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) says it is a “breach of trust”. Political watchers find it baffling. And the rank and file of the party are dismayed. The issue that has got all tongues wagging is the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) partnering with the BJP in Tamil Nadu for the Lok Sabha election.

By all accounts the PMK decided at the last minute to join the BJP’s rag-tag alliance of political sundries in Tamil Nadu even as the AIADMK, the main opposition party in the State now, kept its doors open for its erstwhile partner to join the alliance it leads. The PMK was in the AIADMK alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2021 Assembly election, in which the other partners were the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and the BJP.

Also Read | Tamil Nadu: Post-election curbs

The PMK’s decision, more perplexing than surprising, has generated a lot of speculation and intense debate. The PMK has been known to switch between the two Dravidian majors, and its political opportunism has also found it joining the BJP-led NDA alliance for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, along with the DMDK and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). Jayalalithaa won that election on the “Modi or Lady” slogan, with AIADMK winning 37 of the 39 seats. Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of party founder Dr S. Ramadoss, successfully contested from the Dharmapuri constituency. He lost the seat in 2019, and now his wife Soumiya, is the candidate there.

BJP’s alliances in Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is perceived as anti-Tamil Nadu, anti-Tamil, and anti-minorities. The party’s “one-nation, one language, one culture” agenda makes the Tamil Nadu electorate uneasy. Despite cosying up to the saffron party in the aftermath of its leader Jayalalitha’s death, the reason the AIADMK dropped the BJP from its alliance before the election was a very basic one: it would have meant a heavy erosion of the minority and Dalit votes. It was in the midst of the gloomy prospects that this break entailed for the BJP’s “400 paar” dream, for which winning seats in the South is vital, that the PMK walked in. It spread cheer among BJP supporters as they eyed a bonanza in the northern districts, where the PMK is strong.

So, what occasioned the sudden change of mind of the PMK high command when even the mainstream parties are unwilling to ally with the BJP? Was it more compulsion than choice for the PMK in Tamil Nadu’s caste-centric turf where the party wields considerable electoral clout?

The PMK’s strength has been its caste mobilisation in the northern districts where the Vanniyars, part of the most backward caste (MBC) list, are predominant. This in turn prompts parties like the DMK and the AIADMK to try to keep the party within their fold. On the flip side, the party, which began as a caste-based outfit in the 1970s and then bloomed into a regional player in the 1980s, lacks a pan-Tamil Nadu presence and has to ally with a major party for political relevance. And the PMK’s vote share has been around 5 per cent irrespective of whether the alliance it is in wins or loses. The BJP’s vote share has remained at around 4 per cent. The AIADMK, despite all its internal troubles, has maintained a 35 per cent vote share in all elections.

The BJP today depends on its own social media predictions about its growth in Tamil Nadu. The party’s State unit president K. Annamalai and his team believe that the party will get around 18 per cent of the vote but in the absence of any solid data or analysis, this is just a number built on hope. The question therefore arises about why the PMK leadership should make the gamble of going with a party that is yet to show a credible performance in the State.

To win in Tamil Nadu, any alliance needs to have a vote share of more than 40 per cent. The DMK alliance won the 2021 Assembly election with a vote share of 45.38 per cent against the AIADMK’s 38.17 per cent. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the DMK alliance won 38 of 39 seats with 53.15 per cent of the votes against the AIADMK’s 30.57 per cent. Theni was the lone seat the AIADMK won.

The BJP claims to be stronger this time, based on its past performances in Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, and Ramanathapuram, while the PMK lacks any support outside the northern districts. Thus, while the BJP may get a boost in its vote share because of the PMK, the latter gains no significant benefit or advantage by being in the alliance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting, in Chennai on March 4, 2024. The saffron party’s alliance with the PMK party in TN has taken political observers by surprise.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting, in Chennai on March 4, 2024. The saffron party’s alliance with the PMK party in TN has taken political observers by surprise. | Photo Credit: R. Satish BABU / AFP

Despite being a recognised regional party with a dedicated symbol, the PMK has a lower vote share than the actor-turned-politician Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), which usually musters around 8 per cent vote share across Tamil Nadu in elections. But the PMK’s advantage is its “concentrated presence” in the northern districts, which have nearly 90 of the total 234 seats in the State Assembly. This unique caste-oriented primacy gives it an edge that makes it important for any alliance. The NTK, for reasons best known to it, prefers to fight alone, shunning alliances. In fact, the BJP now covets the space the NTK occupies in Tamil Nadu politics, and eyes the latter’s 8 per cent vote share.

While addressing a recent election meeting in Viluppuram district, the senior leader and former AIADMK Minister C. V. Shanmugam said that the PMK had done “hard bargaining” when he had met the party founder Dr Ramadoss at his residence near Tindivanam town to ask him to continue in the AIADMK alliance. He did not elaborate further. Shanmugam criticised the father-son duo for making promises that they did not keep. He called it a “traitorous act” and said he would be forced to reveal what transpired between the two parties when the alliance talks were on.

Behind PMK-AIADMK split

The PMK leadership has yet to give a credible explanation for its decision to dump the AIADMK. In a press conference, Anbumani and Ramadoss claimed that they had to part with the AIADMK since the party had not heeded their plea for a 10.5 per cent reservation for Vanniyars within the MBC quota. They said that the then Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had passed a law at the last minute. “Now it is entangled in legal issues. Besides, the alliance with the AIADMK in 2019 and 2021 did not benefit the PMK. While our votes got transferred to the AIADMK and other partners, their votes did not get transferred to the PMK. It is treason,” they claimed.

The justification has not cut any ice with the party’s cadre. Suresh, an ardent PMK cadre and a worker in the imitation jewellery industry in Chidambaram, says that many of his party colleagues are unhappy with the leadership’s decision to align with the BJP. “Had the party returned to the AIADMK alliance, the fight against the DMK front would have been close. Now, it is between the VCK and the AIADMK,” he said. (The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan is the DMK alliance candidate in Chidambaram, a reserved constituency.) Many in the PMK echo his views.

A senior functionary from a northern district, requesting anonymity, told Frontline that the decision to go with the BJP had upset the cadre and functionaries. “We have joined an alliance to not get elected,” he said. He also refuted the claims of the party high command that the decision was taken at the high-level district secretaries’ meeting on March 18. “There was no discussion whatsoever. The decision was just announced at the meeting,” he said.

While the BJP likes to believe that it will get an 18 per cent vote share in the State, it has no study or science to back it. Neither does the PMK trust such inflated numbers. It, however, takes comfort in developments elsewhere in the country in favour of the BJP, and hopes the PMK too will benefit from it.

There is another intriguing factor. Anbumani’s Rajya Sabha term, a seat that he got with the support of the AIADMK in 2019, will end in another two years. At this stage, why did the PMK choose to bet on a losing horse?

Also Read | Exclusive reservation for Vanniyar Community in Tamil Nadu: Playing with fire

The BJP has struggled to find candidates to field in this election. It wanted known faces, so made Tamilisai Soundararajan resign as Governor of Telangana and Puducherry and contest from South Chennai. It asked L. Murugan, Minister of State and Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh, to contest from the Nilgiris reserved constituency. It fielded its Tamil Nadu Assembly floor leader and MLA, Nainar Nagendran, in Tirunelveli. State party president Annamalai, who famously insisted that he preferred not to contest but tour the State, was pressed into service in Coimbatore. Yesteryear actor Radhika Sarathkumar, educationist A.C. Shanmugan, and media baron and industrialist Paarivendhar are its other candidates. John Pandian, a Dalit leader and founder of Tamizhaga Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, is also an alliance candidate. The Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP believes these faces can match the might of the Dravidian parties.

The PMK cadre have started work. “We love our doctor ayya. It is he who made our backward caste a force in Tamil Nadu. Though we have differences of opinion, we oblige what he says. If the BJP benefits from us, let it be,” said a senior member campaigning in Vellore and Arakkonam.

While identity politics have certainly helped the party, its decision this time means that all 10 PMK candidates seem like sacrificial lambs offered at the altar of the politics of opportunism.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment