Tamil Nadu Election 2021

Tamil Nadu Assembly election: Winds of change

Print edition : April 23, 2021

T. Velmurugan (right), founder of the Thamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi (TVK), with Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a file picture. Photo: Youtube Screengrab

Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Anbumani Ramadoss. Photo: Jothi Ramalingam B.

The DMK-led alliance forges ahead in the last leg of the campaign as the AIADMK government’s decision to give internal reservation for Vanniyars within the MBC quota proves to be counterproductive in southern and northern Tamil Nadu.

Panruti, a small town about 200 kilometres from Chennai, known for its cashewnuts, is an unlikely location for an epic political battle in the upcoming Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly election. Located in the heart of a geography dominated by the Vanniyar community, which has largely pledged its loyalties to the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Panruti is witnessing one of the most interesting contests in this election: T. Velmurugan, a two-time MLA and founder of the Thamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi (TVK), who has set his sights firmly on becoming the leader of the Vanniyars, is facing Sorathur R. Rajendran of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a veteran of many elections.

Rajendran is essentially the PMK’s pick because it wants to defeat Velmurugan at all costs. For the PMK, this is not just a contest confined to a single constituency: this is the biggest challenge it is facing as a party since its emergence in July 1989. No other Vanniyar community leader has taken on the PMK as Velmurugan has, and for a long period. For over a decade now, Velmurugan has concentrated his activities in the Vanniyar belt stretching roughly from Salem in the west to Kancheepuram in the east and from Krishnagiri in the north to Tiruchi in the south, accounting for just over 70 seats, and the results are beginning to show—his support base is growing. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance’s decision to give Velmurugan the Panruti seat and get him to campaign across the Vanniyar belt in northern Tamil Nadu is a reflection of his popularity.

The PMK is fighting this election as part of an alliance with the AIADMK, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a few smaller political parties. The DMK alliance is widely tipped to displace the AIADMK as the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. The DMK’s allies are the Congress, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), and a few other smaller parties, including the TVK.

Also read: In Tamil Nadu it's a two-horse race, still

Velmurugan, who was a joint general secretary of the PMK, was expelled in 2011 for “anti-party activities”. Velmurugan said that this was because he and hundreds of PMK supporters were disgusted at the manner in which the party was being monopolised by PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss’ family members and that his party had to at least protest before the family and the party became indistinguishable.

Velmurugan’s crusade

Velmurugan began a crusade of sorts in 2011 and has been attempting to create a space for himself within the Vanniyar community. He has won the support of a section with his deft blending of caste sentiment and Tamil nationalism, a straight attack on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Sangh Parivar elements, and sharp opposition to what he calls the PMK’s dynastic politics.

Naturally, the fight is both political and personal, as it strikes at the very root of the PMK’s existence. Dr Ramadoss’ son, Anbumani Ramadoss, has succeeded him despite the father’s insistence and open promise in the early years that no one from his family would ever enter politics.

The party’s verbal attack on Velmurugan is crass and uncouth but the Election Commission of India (ECI) has so far not taken cognisance of it.

The PMK leaders have been routinely been making such speeches in Panruti. Although Velmurugan and his supporters were known to have employed the same kind of language and tone in the past, they have not done it in this election. A TVK supporter in Panruti said: “We have to remain focused on the issue at hand. Our leader has to win. They are trying to provoke us. We will not be provoked.”

An unfazed Velmurugan said that his focus was on winning the seat and show up the PMK for what it really is. He roped in many big guns from the alliance to campaign for him. Among them was Thol. Thirumavalavan, VCK leader, whose cadres, members of the Scheduled Castes, have an antagonistic relationship with the Vanniyars. Thirumavalavan and Velmurugan shared a platform and embraced each other on stage during the campaign. This was to drive home the message to Vanniyar voters that they must come out of anti-Dalit politics which has cost many families dear and that the two communities have common issues that need to be tackled together.

Also read: AIADMK concedes PMK demand for 10.5 per cent reservation, gets Bill passed in Tamil Nadu Assembly

Campaigning for Saba Rajendran in the neighbouring Neyveli constituency on March 31, Velmurugan appealed to Vanniyars, stating: “I fought [for the PMK] believing in what the leaders said and I was involved in so many cases. I was always in one court or another. I was a foot soldier who obeyed all their commands. When I refused to do it at one point, and questioned them, I was removed from the party.” He added: “We are done with this. Let us not fight any more. We will always have issues. Let us talk it over and not kill one another.”

Velmurugan’s words have more resonance with the S.Cs than any other caste group. VCK leader Vanni Arasu, who is contesting from the Vanur Assembly constituency, said that this was obviously because of the atrocities heaped on S.Cs by the dominant caste. He added: “The people are now not scared because we [VCK] are there for them.”

Some members of the Vanniyar community and some from other caste groups conceded that Velmurugan had a point, but wondered if society was ready for such a change. The two communities have historically been in an inimical relationship and this could possibly change only with time. They said that the 2021 Assembly election might not be the right time.

It may not ideological issues that will possibly tilt the scales in Velmurugan’s favour. Sathya Panneerselvam of the AIADMK, the sitting MLA from Panruti, was not given the seat and announced her decision to quit politics. Her husband, Panneerselvam, a former chairman of the Panruti municipality, believes that M.C. Sampath, who was Industries Minister in the incumbent government, was responsible for the omission. This negative campaign might work in Velmurugan’s favour.

Winning the Vanniyar vote

At the heart of the Velmurugan-Ramadoss struggle is the issue of controlling the Vanniyar vote in Tamil Nadu’s northern districts, where Vanniyars are numerically in a position to decide the victory of candidates. Although S.Cs constitute 20 per cent of the State population and Vanniyars only over 13 per cent, the concentration of Vanniyars in the northern districts, which send over 70 legislators to the Assembly, makes the community important in electoral politics.

Keeping this in mind, the AIADMK government announced and passed a Bill on February 26 to provide 10.5 per cent internal reservation to Vanniyars within the Most Backward Classes (MBC) quota of 20 per cent, just minutes before the ECI announced the election schedule for five States. The Bill was debated, discussed and passed in under 10 minutes. Governor Banwarilal Purohit, who has been sitting on many major decisions, including the release of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts, gave his assent in a jiffy. From Bill to law, it took less than 72 hours; no Bill has ever become law in Tamil Nadu at such speed.

On February 28, a video of Anbumani Ramadoss in tears, as he spoke to his father, made its way into social media. “Forty years of struggle and we succeeded,” a tearful Anbumani said. This appeared to be the only celebration. Strangely, there was no public function in the heart of the Vanniyar belt to commemorate the achievement.

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

This was because two developments dampened any possible celebration. One was that the other communities in the 20 per cent reservation bracket for MBCs and Denotified Communities (DNCs) are unhappy with the move (story on page 26). A journalist working for a Tamil publication in Villupuram spoke about “negative consolidation”, meaning that all the non-Vanniyars would come together in this election to counter the special status given to Vanniyars. For the first time, the region was also witnessing the strange phenomenon of S.Cs joining hands with the non-Vanniyars, because of the efforts of the VCK in general and Thirumavalavan in particular.

Thirumavalavan, whose influence was confined to the northern pockets of the State, where the Parayars, an S.C. group, are in significant numbers, is today looked up to by all S.Cs, cutting across sub-castes. In fact, Thirumavalavan received requests to campaign in the south, where the Pallars, another S.C. group, are numerically strong.

Internal reservation

D. Ravikumar, the Member of Parliament from Villupuram, a Vanniyar-dominated district, said that the Vanniyars now realise that the 10.5 per cent reservation will actually do them more harm than help them.. He said: “When they were part of the 20 per cent reservation for MBCs and DNCs, they could occupy almost the entire 20 per cent [in the region’s educational institutions] because they are better placed than the others. Confining Vanniyars to 10.5 per cent will badly affect them. The implementation in reservation can be witnessed in arts and science colleges [where there are more students than in engineering and medical colleges].” He added: “The Vanniyars, who until last year occupied a large chunk of the seats, will now be confined by the 10.5 per cent formula. They will lose out because a student from Villupuram will not enroll in a college in Kanyakumari [the southern-most district]. The remaining reservation seats [out of the 20 per cent], which are not taken, will go back to the general pool. If Vanniyars were part of the 20 per cent reservation and did not have internal reservation, they could have taken the remaining seats too.”

This is because the concept of ‘reservation within reservation’ benefits only those who are in a minority. Ravikumar said: “Those who are numerically insignificant and who cannot fight those who are educationally advanced will benefit from reservation. If a community is dominant, this special reservation will not help them…. The Vanniyars benefited when a separate MBC category reservation was created within the OBC category, because most of the caste groups are in the OBC category. For example, the Vanniyars will not benefit if they had to complete against caste groups such as Mudaliars or Pillais because these communities have been developed in many aspects over 400-500 years.”

DMK and AIADMK leaders in the region pointed out that when former DMK president M. Karunanidhi was Chief Minister, he created 6.5 per cent internal reservation for Christians. But the Christian community urged him to cancel it as it felt that the move would not help them in any manner. An AIADMK leader, who did not want to be named, said: “Christians are educationally well placed. If they take the 6.5 per cent reservation, they will be confined to that quota. Now they are getting more than that percentage.”

Also read: No room for a third front in Tamil Nadu

In the view of the DMK alliance leaders, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami “fixed” the PMK with this move. They believe that the PMK adopted a strategy that backfired, which led to the party being forced to compromise on seats. PMK, which usually bargained for up to 40 seats in Assembly elections, was one of the first to sign a pact in this election. It got a mere 23 seats (PMK has a confirmed vote share of close to six per cent) while the BJP, with a vote share of under three per cent, got 20 seats. Dr Ramadoss said: “We agreed…. because the government implemented the 10.5 per cent internal reservation.” A senior AIADMK leader who had served as a State Minister and was also an MP contended that the DMK and its alliance partners were indulging in negative propaganda that the DNCs would be affected. He said: “We came to know about this recently and we have been reaching out to people. We have assured them that this [10.5 per cent reservation] will not affect the other communities in any manner. The DMK propaganda is being countered in every manner possible.”

On how the alliance was faring on the ground, he said that the AIADMK-PMK combine was strong on the ground because the AIADMK had strengthened its base both in the northern and the western districts and also because the PMK enjoyed a lot of support in about 50 constituencies in the northern belt. In his view, this would make a difference, and that the AIADMK would do very well in the north and the west.

Thevar leaders upset

However, this 10.5 per cent reservation “masterstroke” is giving sleepless nights to AIADMK leaders in the south. Both O. Panneerselvam, Deputy Chief Minister, and Revenue Minister R.B. Udhayakumar, who is contesting from Tirumangalam constituency in Madurai, have been vocal in their opposition to the Vanniyar quota because in the southern districts, the Thevars, who will make the difference between victory and defeat, are miffed.

The displeasure of leaders is usually confined to election meetings and is meant for the consumption of their constituents. But Panneerselvam, who is in a tight contest in the Thevar heartland of Bodinayakkanur, told The Hindu newspaper on March 29 that the Vanniyar reservation was a temporary measure, much to the consternation of the PMK and the Chief Minister himself. In fact, Dr Ramadoss had even called on Panneerselvam to thank him for the Vanniyar quota.

An AIADMK leader close to Panneerselvam said that the Vanniyar issue was creating trouble for the Deputy Chief Minister while it helped the Chief Minister immensely. He said: “In the Chief Minister’s constituency, his caste [Gounders] and Vanniyars together form a vast majority and this announcement will help him. But the Deputy Chief Minister is forced to answer this question of internal reservation each time, almost every day.”

Also read: Reservation for Vanniyars ‘only a temporary measure’ until caste census report becomes available: Palaniswami

On March 30, countering Panneerselvam’s contention that the Vanniyar reservation was a “provisional arrangement”, Dr Ramadoss asserted that the Vanniyar quota was “permanent”. The war of words was not helping cadre coordination in some areas. Dr Ramadoss also said that once the caste census was completed, the reservation for Vanniyars would be further enhanced.

C.Ve. Shanugham, the sitting AIADMK MLA from Villupuram, whose re-election is at stake if the Vanniyars turn against him, took Dr Ramadoss’ side and said the same day that the 10.5 per cent quota was a permanent feature. Panneerselvam has refused to go back on his assertion or offer an explanation since his first statement. Quick to seize on the opportunity, the DMK alliance leaders have been speaking about the “betrayal” of the Vanniyars by the AIADMK-PMK combine. Speaking to voters in Krishnagiri on March 30, D. Raja, CPI general secretary, said: “How can policy be provisional? If something is provisional, then why this elaborate announcement?”

In short, across the northern districts, where the reservation “masterstroke” should have given the AIADMK alliance the upper hand, the contest is much closer than ever owing to confusion over internal reservation, the decline of the PMK as the most important force in the region, the absence of the actor Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in the front, and the VCK’s presence in the DMK alliance.

AIADMK’s woes

When this situation is superimposed on the other general handicaps of the AIADMK combine, such as job losses, price hike of petroleum products, economic downturn, and the intention to construct an eight-lane highway from Chennai to Salem via fertile lands, the AIADMK’s cup of woes overflows.

Asked how there can be an anti-incumbency mood against a Chief Minister who has been in the chair for just about four years, Velmurugan said: “You should view it in terms of what people have lost. Take the case of NEET [National Eligibility cum Entrance Test] or the eight-lane highway or the increase in prices of commodities…. There’s a wave of anger. I think it’s not merely because of the AIADMK. It is because the AIADMK has joined hands with the BJP, which is responsible for many of the problems in Tamil Nadu. All the rights of the people have been sacrificed by the AIADMK in its desire to please the BJP.”

There are other issues too that will affect the AIADMK. Primary among them is the lack of a charismatic leader after Jayalalithaa’s demise. Palaniswami is not in the same mould, although the image created by his political strategist Sunil Kanugolu has worked to an extent. The AIADMK is losing a vast majority of the minority votes across Tamil Nadu because of its alliance with the BJP. While some individual candidates are able to convince some of the minority voters, it remains a fact that the AIADMK has lost its strong vote base among the minorities.

Also read: AIADMK in crisis ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections

The AIADMK is also likely to suffer because of its failure to keep the the DMDK in its fold and and the antagonism of the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK). The DMDK, which left the AIADMK alliance over seat-sharing issues, has a presence in almost all constituencies, although it does not stand a chance of gaining more than a few thousand votes in any constituency. Its leader Premalatha (Vijayakanth’s wife), who is contesting from the Vriddhachalam constituency, will take away a good number of votes that would otherwise have gone to the AIADMK.

Vijayakanth’s son Vijay Prabhakar has been on a whirlwind tour of the State, attacking both the DMK and the AIADMK in equal measure. In Vriddhachalam he said: “Give us a chance. I am toiling and campaigning all over the State from morning to night. They [the AIADMK and the DMK] will come in the night and give you money. You know where the money came from? It’s corruption money.”

On March 30, the DMDK paraded Vijayakanth (who has been out action owing to ill-health) through some of the southern districts. He barely managed to wave to the crowds and did not speak. T.T.V. Dinakaran, nephew of V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s confidante and founder of the AMMK, is in a do-or-die battle. He too attacks both the DMK and the AIADMK. In speeches across the State, he has started with attacking the DMK, describing the party as an “evil force”, but he concentrates his energies on the “treachery” of the current AIADMK leadership. As he claims to be the “real AIADMK”, his fight and his campaign too are sharply focused on the AIADMK’s various lapses. Dinakaran is likely to spoil the AIADMK’s chances in about 25 seats in southern Tamil Nadu.

Western front

While the AIADMK is fighting with its back to wall in Chennai, and northern, southern and central Tamil Nadu, it is hopeful that the western districts, its traditional bastion, will click in its favour. The region has 57 Assembly constituencies in eight districts (from Coimbatore to Salem). In 2016, the AIADMK won 45 seats, which propelled it to a majority in the Assembly.

The Chief Minister has been at the forefront of managing all constituencies in his home district of Salem, while three other Ministers appear confident of delivering the “Gounder belt” districts of Erode (K.A. Sengottaiyan), Coimbatore (S.P. Velumani) and Tiruppur (Radhakrishnan). K.P. Munusamy, a Rajya Sabha member who is contesting from Veppanapalli, is expected to deliver in the erstwhile Dharmapuri district (now Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts).

But with the DMK playing its cards smartly, there is a contest in the western belt. Its choice of candidates, for example, has been spot on: the Aadhi Thamizhar Peravai, a party of Arunthathiyars, an S.C. group, is contesting as part of the DMK front in Avinashi. The opponent is P. Dhanapal, Speaker of the outgoing Assembly, and a heavyweight in the community. However, it is not easy to dislodge Dhanapal because Jayalalithaa made him Speaker, giving the community the kind of acceptance it was seeking. Similarly, the choice of Kartikeya Sivasenapathy, the DMK’s environment wing secretary who established the Kangayam cattle research foundation, against S.P. Velumani, sometimes described as the Chief Minister of Coimbatore, is interesting. Although a political lightweight and outsider in Thondamuthur, Karthikeya Sivasenapathy has managed to pin down Velumani to the constituency with his incisive campaign and relentless hard work. In fact, Velumani stepped out only twice from the constituency in the recent past.

DMK president M.K. Stalin has made the west a key focus point because of the presence of senior AIADMK Ministers, including the Chief Minister. The other AIADMK heavyweights from the region include P. Thangamani and Deputy Speaker Pollachi V. Jayaraman.

Stalin has already visited the Thondamuthur constituency thrice and has even been doing the work of a local candidate.

“This morning, I was at the Race Course, requesting morning walkers to vote for our candidates,” Stalin told Frontline in Coimbatore on April 1. He added: “Later, I went for breakfast at a local restaurant and talked to people…. I can see that the people want change.”

He has also directed his sister Kanimozhi, who is also the women’s wing secretary of the part, to concentrate on the west in the final phase of campaigning. (Towards the end of the campaign, she had to withdraw from the campaign after she was diaganosed to be COVID-19 positive.)

Also read: Moments of high drama lie in store ahead of 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly election

Stalin is hopeful of a huge victory because the DMK alliance did exceedingly well in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, leading 56 of the 57 Assembly segments in the region. The DMK had replaced its office bearers in the region ahead of that election. The party is also talking about justice to the survivors in the shocking serial rape cases in Pollachi, a town just over 40 km from Coimbatore. This issue has some resonance across the western region.

The DMK has fielded K. Varadarajan, an orthopedic surgeon, who was actively involved in the campaign for justice for victims of the February 2019 sexual assault case (Frontline, April 12, 2019) instead of a party leader. Varadarajan has been getting good responses from voters while his opponent, Pollachi V. Jayaraman has been focusing on development and other issues.

With regional issues and anti-incumbency staring at the AIADMK-PMK-BJP combine, the strategists shifted gears. A comment made by DMK leader A. Raja on March 27 against the Chief Minister provided ammunition for the Chief Minister to turn emotional the next day and for Union Ministers Smriti Irani, Rajnath Singh, and Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn the DMK as ‘anti-women’.

Raja was booked by the Chennai Police and the ECI barred him from campaigning for 48 hours. However, the ECI is yet to act upon similar comments from the AIADMK combine, including Anbumani Ramdoss.

Neither did the ECI take cognisance of the deliberate attempt to stoke communal violence when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went on a procession in Coimbatore on April 1. In videos, BJP cadres could be seen stoning shops, but the police merely asked them to vacate the area.

Raids and intimidation

Central agencies have also joined the election battle. The Income Tax Department has so far raided several DMK leaders but no one from the BJP. In a raid on April 2 at the residence of Stalin’s daughter Senthamarai, the I-T Department found Rs.1.3 lakh and handed it back since it was accounted for.

A similar raid at the residence of Anna Nagar MLA M.K. Mohan the same day yielded nothing concrete. In late March the department also raided the residence and educational institutions of E.V. Velu, the Tiruvannamalai MLA and DMK district secretary.

Kanagaraj, CPI (M) State executive committee member, said: “The raids disrupt the campaign of a candidate. The candidate is forced to stay with the I-T team. His supporters too stay there. This also gives a chance for the opponents to distribute cash because the main functionaries are waiting outside the candidate’s house.” Moreover, it also gives a chance to spread fake news. Some AIADMK WhatsApp groups circulated pictures of a huge pile of cash claiming Rs.700 crore had been seized from Stalin’s daughter’s house. R.S. Bharathi, a DMK MP, made it clear that only Rs.1.36 lakh was found in the house. He also made available to the media the “inventory of cash found/seized” signed by S.R. Nedumaran, deputy director of Income Tax (Investigation). But the fake WhatApp messages did not stop.

Threats to media

Tamil news television channels are also facing pressure to alter their opinion polls to call the fight for Tamil Nadu a “close one”. Soon after Puthiya Thalaimurai, a popular news television channel, aired its opinion poll giving the DMK a decisive majority, the channel was under intense pressure from the AIADMK to “undo” the damage, according to channel insiders. Reluctantly, its sister channel Puduyugam, which is not very popular, did a survey that gave the AIADMK a majority. Puthiya Thalaimurai was then arm-twisted into carrying the Puduyugam survey during an evening slot in the last week of March.

The fate that awaited Malai Murasu, which put out an opinion poll, was worse. Soon after it aired the first episode on March 25, announcing the situation in 50 seats, the channel was blurred on Arasu Cable (TACTV), a government-owned entity, which is a multi-system operator (MSO).

Also read: A caste variant of love jehad vitiates social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

The channel complained to Sunil Arora, the Chief Election Commissioner, stating: “Ever since we telecast our first opinion poll programme, our channel (at No.146) has been blacklisted by the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation Limited. TACTV is completely owned and operated by the Tamil Nadu government. Our channel’s visuals are blurred and audio scrambled across Tamil Nadu.”

It added: “We allege political interference in TACTV on behalf of the ruling party, to intimidate us from further telecasting the opinion poll. We request the Commission to look into TACTV’s efforts to silence us and investigate the people behind it.” The channel continued to telecast its opinion poll regardless of the blackout.

What followed was a series of opinion polls across pliable media, predicting an AIADMK win. Unfortunately for the AIADMK, Times Now, an English news channel which is in the good books of the Narendra Modi government, refused to play ball. Its C-voter polls gave the DMK alliance 158 seats in February and 177 seats in March.

In short, it appears that no strategy, however strange or bad or in poor taste, is off-limits. Without doubt, this is the most viciously fought election in the past few decades. Although defeat stares Palaniswami in the face, he refuses to give up. Panneerselvam, on the other hand, is content with being the Leader of the Opposition.

The AIADMK’s future will be defined by which desire bears fruit.

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