Assembly Elections: Tamil Nadu

Slipping away

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Anbumani Ramadoss, the PMK's chief ministerial candidate, addressing supporters at the party conference in Chennai on February 27. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

Anbumani Ramadoss, PMK president G.K. Mani and party founder S. Ramadoss at the release of the party's election manifesto in Chennai on April 15. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

The Pattali Makkal Katchi in Tamil Nadu seeks to woo young voters for an image makeover as an all-inclusive party, but it may not succeed.

THE Vanniyar heartland in Tamil Nadu, the northern districts, is undergoing a silent transformation as increasing household incomes put pressure on the monopoly of this powerful social group in the region. More and more youths are going for jobs after completing their education, but agriculture remains the mainstay of the region’s economy.

For Velu, 58, it was yet another hot and agonising summer day of work on his three acres of rain-fed land at Vadavanur hamlet in Servalayan village panchayat near Gingee, the famous fort town in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district. His first crop of groundnut had failed without water, but he could raise a second one with the water from his irrigation well. “This time, the floods in December, a rarity in this part of the State, replenished our wells,” he said. But there is water enough to irrigate the crop only once a day. “I have to use the water judiciously as it takes at least 24 hours for the well to get replenished. The water is just enough to keep the crop wet under the ‘single wetting’ method to prevent it from withering,” he smiled. The yield will be less, but “something is better than nothing”, he said.

Many small and medium farmers like Velu in the village, which is a part of the Mayilam Assembly constituency, and in other villages in the interior pockets in Gingee, Ulundurpet and Keelpennathur blocks are “masters” in water management. Their inherited expertise helped them immensely in a crisis.

Vadavanur hamlet has around 1,500 voters, all of whom are Vanniyars who once formed a strong support base for the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Vanniyar-based political party that Dr S. Ramadoss floated in the late 1980s. “We were with him since the days of the Vanniyar Sangam,” said Velu, referring to the social movement of Vanniyars, estimated to constitute between 20 and 40 per cent of the State’s population, that later morphed into the political party. The Vanniyars are a Most Backward Class (MBC) group that is predominant in the northern districts of Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Chengleput, Vellore, Tiruvannamalai, Villupuram and parts of Cuddalore district.

Duraisamy, 42, a Vanniyar in Atoor village in Chengleput district, had also supported “Dr Ayya”, as they respectfully called Ramadoss. The village has about 300 households, all of them Vanniyars, who, Duraisamy says, voted for Dr Ayya, But, of late, the village, which falls under the Maduranthagam Assembly constituency, is divided. “They are disillusioned and confused since there is no clarity about the party’s future plans,” Duraisamy claimed. Many Vanniyars in the village turned to either of the two Dravidian majors, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). “Besides, all other political parties also field Vanniyar candidates here. Hence, the PMK’s campaign of ‘Vanniyan vote anniyanukku illai’ [Vanniyar votes are not for outsiders] has lost its relevance here,” he said. People, he added, preferred parties that stood a chance to form the government because they would continue to receive freebies. “To sustain this [freebie culture], you have to choose either the DMK or the AIADMK,” said this staunch supporter of Dr Ayya.

Raman (name changed on request), 18, studying in the college that belongs to the trust run by Dr Ramadoss near Tindivanam, shares Duraisamy’s view. The boy, a fairly knowledgeable first-time voter who is from the backward Mudaliyar caste, said the majority of Vanniyars and Dalits in his village near Tindivanam had traditionally voted for the Dravidian parties.

Indeed, Vanniyars like Duraisamy, who would back the PMK at all costs, are fast becoming a rarity even in the party’s northern borough. The dominant impression one gets after a tour deep into the Vanniyar heartland is that the PMK will have to work hard to retain its hold over the people in the region.

First and foremost, caste-based mobilisation as a strategy is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The PMK’s caste-consolidation exercise over the last three decades has had the effect of alienating from it not only the Parayars, a subsect of Dalits and the second major caste grouping in the region, but also Other Backward Class (OBC) groups such as Mudaliyars, Udayars and Chettiyars. Today, the PMK faces the prospect of a countermobilisation of all other OBCs in its stronghold.

The PMK’s brush with Tamil nationalism, when it shared platforms with the Dalit group it admonished, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK); its earlier demand of a separate State by carving out the northern districts; and its constant shifting of allegiance between the two Dravidian majors from the 1998 Lok Sabha elections onwards have left Vanniyar voters confused about the real intentions of the party.

The caste mobilisation that Dr Ramadoss was attempting was mainly to further his political prospects in a situation where the Dravidian parties were wooing the OBCs in a nuanced way. What this meant for the PMK was that in an electoral alliance it positioned itself as an indispensable partner. In fact, this was what prompted the DMK and the AIADMK to accommodate the PMK and the VCK in their alliances.

It did not take long for the PMK to realise that its strategy was not working and to resort to various manoeuvres to keep itself relevant in the political and social arenas. Among the issues it took up was the Natham Colony violence in Dharmapuri, in which Dalits were attacked after the marriage of a Dalit youth, Ilavarasan, to a Vanniyar girl, Divya. It exploited the issue of Dalit youths marrying OBC girls to try to bring the OBCs to its side on the pretext of protecting caste pride.

The PMK calculated that this would prevent a consolidation of OBCs against it. In fact, the party believes that in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Anbumani Ramadoss’ victory in Dharmapuri, the only seat it won, was because of such a consolidation.

Vote share

In the Assembly elections this time, it has surprised everyone by fielding candidates in all 234 constituencies. The move, according to political analysts, defies logic because its past performances have not been significant, and the party has very little presence in the southern and western districts.

Its vote share has generally remained below 6.5 per cent, barring in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections when it got a little more than 8 per cent of the votes as a part of the DMK alliance and won five seats. In 1989, when it made its debut, it contested 26 parliamentary seats, did not win any, and polled 5.82 per cent of the vote. It boycotted the Assembly elections held the same year. In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, it contested 31 seats, lost all and secured a vote share of 5.14 per cent. In the Assembly elections that year, it contested 195 seats, won one and got a vote share of 5.9 per cent. In the 1996 Assembly elections, it bagged four seats and in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, in alliance with the AIADMK, it won four of the five seats it contested and achieved a vote share of 6.05 per cent. In the 2001 Assembly elections, it allied with the AIADMK and won 20 seats and 5.6 per cent of the votes polled. By then, the party, given its propensity to change alliances, earned itself the sobriquet, “obsessive camp changer”.

Today, the party is hopeful of attracting first-time voters, nearly 1.07 crore across the State. All political parties are vying for a share of this pie, and it is not clear why the PMK thinks it can get the largest part. “The PMK, I think, is testing the electoral waters by going it alone this time not only to gauge its electoral strength in the State, but also to assess the fallout of its caste-based mobilisation among the youth, besides garnering the minimum vote share for national recognition,” says Raju, an activist and advocate in Vriddachalam.

To achieve this, the party has projected Anbumani Ramadoss as its chief ministerial candidate. “What else can you think of a party that has a mere 4 per cent vote share now?” asked D. Ravikumar, a senior VCK functionary and a Dalit ideologue. The party’s near-impossible ambition does not deter the cadre and functionaries from marketing Anbumani’s profile in door-to-door campaigns. “It is a desperate attempt to promote a young face to camouflage its separatist image,” said Ravikumar.

That is why the PMK leadership is frantically targeting not only the VCK, which has a 2.4 per cent vote share, but also a Backward Class party such as the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) of actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth. Incidentally, the DMDK is largely responsible for the erosion of the PMK’s vote base in the northern region. This time, the DMDK is contesting about 50 of the 104 seats in the northern region as part of the DMDK-MDMK-VCK-CPI-CPI (M) coalition. Vijaykanth himself has chosen Ulundurpet in the region to contest.

But PMK functionaries put a brave face on the situation. “Please wait and see. Your academic predictions will fall flat. It is going to be history in the making as far as the PMK is concerned in this election,” said A.K. Moorthy, a former Union Minister who had won from Arani. He is in charge of the party’s election work in Chennai, Tiruvallur and Chengleput districts. “Do not hasten to predict. Our performance will prove all your predictions, assumptions and conclusions wrong,” he said.

This confidence also comes from the fact that the party has made several moves over a period of time for the image makeover it wants to achieve. It has been saying for a long time that it will announce total prohibition in the State if it is voted to power. The party has also been releasing “shadow budgets” since 2002-03, in which it outlines the State’s fiscal requirements. Since 2008-09 it has released separate budgets for agriculture and for social and other sectors such as youth welfare, education and industry. It has said that these steps have not got the attention they deserve and alleged that other parties, including the DMK, have “stolen” many of its proposals outlined in its draft manifesto for the 2016 elections.

‘Pennagaram formula’

The party’s Salem West candidate R. Arul, one of the deputy general secretaries, told Frontline that the leadership had assigned party cadre the job of “interacting” with villagers immediately after the last Parliament elections. “While all other parties withdrew after the elections, we did not. A team of 20 functionaries in each Assembly constituency had been assigned the job of going to the people, with each one given the target of visiting 50 households a day. We completed the task, which went on for two years,” he said.

The PMK was only repeating its successful “Pennagaram formula”, which is about meeting people at their doorstep in a sustained manner. The exercise worked well for the party in the Pennagaram byelection in 2010, in which it contested alone against the DMK and the AIADMK, besides the DMDK. The ruling party then, the DMK, retained the seat with 77,669 votes, and the PMK finished second with 41,285 votes. The AIADMK polled 26,787 votes, while the DMDK got 11,406 votes. However, party insiders insist that it cannot afford to drop its caste tag. Said A. Marx, a rights activist and a keen political observer: “It is said that this time the party has identified specific constituencies where Vanniyars are dominant and is concentrating on them. The image makeover of Anbumani is a positive sign among young Vanniyar voters, though it is tough for the party to woo all people cutting across caste affiliations. The Dravidian majors remain relevant and will be so since they have evolved a successful strategy of OBC consolidation. It is not a single-caste mobilisation like the PMK’s.”

But PMK functionaries and cadre are optimistic. “We have taken the profile of our “Chinna Ayya” to every household in villages and hamlets and told the people that he alone can solve the issues that have been confronting us for five decades now. It is a great success,” said Arul. In fact, like Arul, most of the PMK cadre and functionaries believe that their gruelling 24x7 round-the-year campaign will help them do well at the hustings, well enough to make Anbumani, who is contesting from Pennagaram, the Chief Minister.

Strange reasoning

But analysts are baffled by the party’s line of reasoning, considering that it has a vote share of only about 6 per cent to take on the might of both the DMK and the AIADMK. “We have done our homework. No household has been left out, especially in constituencies in the northern, central and western regions. We will spring a surprise,” Arul said confidently.

But the situation on the ground suggests an entirely different outcome. Besides, in the absence of a discernible anti-incumbency sentiment, the AIADMK seems to be fairly comfortable even as the DMK struggles to put its house in order. The December floods that ravaged Chennai and Cuddalore districts however came as a boon for the arid districts in the northern region. Farmers in some pockets there were able to raise even two crops of paddy with well irrigation.

Muthu of Mela Kavai village, located some 20 kilometres from Gingee, has raised a second paddy crop on his 1.5 acres. The Dalit farmer said that though the floods in December breached tanks and ponds, they recharged wells. His village, he said, was predominantly populated by Vanniyars. “But we have been voting for the AIADMK for long. Why should we shift now?” he asked.

The second major factor in favour of the AIADMK is the distribution of livestock such as sheep and cows free of cost. “Many of us have benefited from this gesture. In our village, 35 families have received sheep and cows,” said A. Muniamma (65) near Kalasapakkam in Tiruvannamalai district. This Vanniyar woman did not have any specific grievances against AIADMK rule, a point that perhaps bolsters the claim that the party might repeat its 2011 performance at least in rural pockets. Despite being a Vanniyar, she has voted for the AIADMK since the days of its founder, M.G. Ramachandran.

The PMK has not been able to force a migration of women voters, especially Vanniyars and Dalits, from the AIADMK. “Yes, Vanniyars do vote for the PMK and Dalits for the VCK. They do vote for the AIADMK and the DMK as well,” said M. Venkatesan, the CPI (ML) candidate for Ulundurpet constituency. He, however, pointed out that the divide between Vanniyars and Dalits remained deep in this region, particularly after the violence against Dalits in M. Kunnathur village in 2015. “A 4,000-strong mob of Vanniyars damaged 150 houses of Dalits in the hamlet over an issue,” he claimed.

The Vanniyar party stands isolated today in its own heartland and, from the looks of it, has been rendered a “political untouchable” in the multipolar contest in this round of elections.

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