Political power is essential for a subaltern party: Thol. Thirumavalavan

Published : Mar 02, 2024 16:08 IST - 11 MINS READ

VCK president Thol. Thirumavalavan talks about his alliance with OBC-dominated DMK.

VCK president Thol. Thirumavalavan talks about his alliance with OBC-dominated DMK. | Photo Credit: VEDHAN M

The Dalit leader from Tamil Nadu says extraordinary perseverance is needed to place Dalit ideology and identity within reality of Dravidian politics.

How does one position a Dalit political party within the Dravidian ecosystem dominated by OBCs (Other Backward Classes)? That is the key question Dalit party leaders grapple with in Tamil Nadu. They bear the double disadvantage of shouldering the responsibility of Dalit politics without enjoying access to resources, which forces them to become junior partners in an alliance with one of the two Dravidian players: the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) has striven to break this gridlock and succeeded to a satisfying degree. After 25 years of tenacious presence, the VCK is today a leading aggregator of Dalit votes and a force to reckon with in the Dravidian heartland. Its relevance, politically and ideologically, has made it indispensable to any alliance, especially the DMK, whose social justice ideology is perfectly aligned with the VCK’s core purpose.

The VCK is the sociopolitical face of the Parayars, a dominant Dalit caste group, and has two MPs and four MLAs, no mean achievement for a party that has struggled hard and managed to stay afloat in the State’s difficult politics. It has travelled a long way under the leadership of Thol. Thirumavalavan, who strongly believes in Dalit politicisation. Aware of the criticism from certain quarters for having aligned with the DMK, Thirumavalavan believes that only all-round politicisation and not exclusivism can empower Dalits politically and socially.

In a freewheeling interview to Frontline, the VCK leader emphasised the need to contemporise the party and its organisational set-up without compromising on its core identity and ideology. Strategies are not compromises, he insists. Excerpts:

The VCK’s recent Tiruchi conference on “triumphant democracy” was reportedly a huge success. A few prominent INDIA bloc leaders, including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M.K. Stalin, attended. But it was also said that the VCK was flexing its muscles only to improve its bargaining capacity in the DMK-led alliance.

It was attended by 10 lakh people, all Bahujan. It was spontaneous. They [cadres] spent their hard-earned money to attend it. Unlike the national and leading State parties, we have no material and manpower resources to indulge in any political extravaganza. But the response was electrifying. We take it as an endorsement of our inclusive political and social agenda across social strata.

The conference had no hidden agenda, neither election-related nor bargaining-related. It was originally scheduled for last August but had to be postponed owing to various factors. It was purely concept-based, anti-BJP, anti-Sanatana Dharma, and anti-Sangh Parivar. It was to uphold and safeguard our Constitution and democracy. Even the stage was designed like the new Parliament building, with three entrances named Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The message was conveyed loud and clear to those inimical to the country’s secular democracy and averse to us and who try to confine us to the identity of a “Dalit party”. Whatever their caste or religious identity, the working class and the disadvantaged have trust in us. We have emerged as a party for all oppressed groups in society, not just Dalits.

For almost a decade since its inception, the VCK remained a social organisation and away from electoral politics. It was Tamil Maanila Congress leader G.K. Moopanar who pulled you in, and in alliance with the TMC, the party contested the 1999 Lok Sabha election. In the VCK’s 25th year, do you regret that decision? Has electoral politics helped you in achieving your objective?

Yes, it has been a tortuous journey since 1999, when we first participated in elections. The experience has been both rewarding and frustrating. For a decade or so before that, we had kept away, remaining a social movement fighting atrocities against Dalits and the downtrodden. In fact, we were then sceptical about the efficacy of parliamentary democracy. We were young and angry at the system, which is heavily loaded against Dalits.

But with time, we too evolved. We realised the compulsive necessity of inclusive politics in an electoral democracy. If not, we would have been erased from the public space by now. We have suffered, and sacrificed heavily. Today, electoral politics has given us visibility not only in Tamil Nadu but across India. It has placed us in a position from where we can take a place among power sharers so that we can effectively take up the issues of discrimination and violence our people are facing.

It is not a mean achievement for a party that has emerged from social exclusion to become a force that can no longer be dismissed. Political power is essential for a subaltern party. Sundry outfits that sprang up overnight with high aspirations have been blown away, but the tenacious persistence of the VCK against political heavyweights cannot be ignored.

There is disenchantment among sections of Dalits about your alliance with the DMK, which is an OBC-dominated party. They call it a compromise and a travesty of social justice. They also claim that the alliance in which the VCK is a partner has never named a Dalit as a chief ministerial candidate. What is your stand on this?

Yes, I too am frustrated. A party tagged with a “Dalit identity” that has been in electoral politics for 25 years still does not have Election Commission [EC] recognition nor an exclusive party symbol. To get that, we need to contest a specific number of seats and get a certain percentage of votes. In our electoral system, a symbol for a political party is a unique marker of identity in a crowd. But we have to contest different elections on “free” symbols. How do we make our voters aware of these symbols?

These technical disadvantages wear us down. EC recognition and the allotment of a dedicated symbol will make a vital difference. You must remember that we fought on symbols allotted to us in 2011, 2014 [Lok Sabha election], 2016, and 2021. We contested from two general constituencies in the 2021 Assembly election.

Yes, we too are frustrated that we are short of resources in the electoral field. We do see how a solid mobilisation, excluding Dalits to some extent, takes place behind the two Dravidian parties. We do long to gain political power independently and would love to have a Dalit Chief Minister. We wish for an alliance that would name a Dalit as its chief ministerial candidate. But before that, one must understand the practical difficulty of electoral politics.

So, are you saying the electoral system and the brutal hold of Dravidian parties over Tamil Nadu’s politics do not ensure a level playing field for Dalits and other small players?

Both the DMK and the AIADMK prevail with the support of the OBCs, who along with the minorities comprise around 70 per cent of the population. The Dalit population is between 19 and 21 per cent. While different BC and MBC [Most Backward Castes] groups could be brought under the OBC banner, Dalits remain fragmented. This matrix, unlike in other States, decides the electoral prospects here.

Extraordinary perseverance is needed to position the Dalit ideology and identity within this reality of Dravidian politics. It has been a struggle for us to even stay afloat in the face of political manoeuvres and stiff challenges, both from outside and from within.

We tried different formulae. We led homogeneous alliances in 2001 and 2004 with some parties. Former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi tried an alliance by roping in major Dalit parties for the 2001 Assembly election. These exercises failed. The Makkal Nala Kootani [People’s Welfare Federation] as a third front in 2016, in which the VCK played a lead role, also bombed. Powerful lobbies with vested interests felt uneasy when we promised a corruption-free, liquor-free, and caste-free coalition government. These trials taught us what politics is all about.

But it must be said that the alliance with the major Dravidian parties has mainstreamed us in politics today. We have been a trusted partner in any alliance, as our votes get transferred en masse to our allies and vice-versa. This buoys up the overall vote share percentage of an alliance. That is why we remain the most sought-after party. But we are seeing a certain amount of flexibility, which leads to healthy mutual understanding in an alliance.

So, you do see visible signs of change in Dravidian parties towards Dalit parties?

There is a distinct change in perception in political parties, including the two major ones. As I said, we see a professional flexibility of approach in an alliance, thus erasing the “small player” tag that has plagued us for long. The partners have realised the advantage of having a dedicated cadre-centric party like the VCK in the alliance.

The VCK is no longer feeling the suffocation it once felt in an alliance. As a leading aggregator of Dalit votes, it has emerged as an indispensable partner. Dalits have emerged as a strong and reasonably organised political entity.

The VCK also commands a significant share of minority votes. It is unfortunate that Dalit political consolidation is not taking place. Dalit leaders are divided over ideologies and perspectives, many are individualistic, a few have even endorsed the Hindutva ideology that rendered them “avarnas”. Politically conscious Dalits need to identify the right party to support.

Despite Tamil Nadu’s robust Dalit population and the VCK’s significant support, the party is still a minor alliance partner. When do you see this changing?

It has taken almost a quarter century to create an election-centric consciousness among Dalits. They have remained divided and hence exploitable. They have a caste-conscious and emotionally sensitive mindset. They need to be organised. Practising unadulterated Dalit politics can lead to exclusivism, which is not a viable option. Any resistance to mainstreaming will only harm or further delay the chance for Dalits to get politically empowered.

At the VCK’s “Triumphant Democracy” conference in Tiruchi on January 26.

At the VCK’s “Triumphant Democracy” conference in Tiruchi on January 26. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The Dravidian parties have been criticised for being anti-Dalit since they refuse to share power. What is your opinion?

We do have our criticism on many issues. But we must understand the reality. In Tamil Nadu, they are strong. Mere ideological strength will not move us ahead in the political arena.

The DMK and the AIADMK are strong, organisationally and numerically. Their core strength lies in their committed mobilisation across the State. Not in selective pockets or among selective castes and communities but across all, including substantially among Dalits.

They have been in power for six decades. They have reached out to every household with welfare schemes designed on the principles of social justice. They have Dalit leaders and cadres on their rolls who are Ministers, MPs, and MLAs. We cannot just generalise and dismiss it as tokenism. Without establishing a robust political structure that can rival the Dravidian parties, competing against them will be political suicide.

Being in an alliance and settling for a few seats is not a setback to Dalits or the VCK. Today, we are indispensable in the alliance. As of today, the VCK is taking this battle on from a national perspective. At a time when the country’s democracy is in peril, the VCK’s role assumes greater significance.

The VCK’s attempt to place Periyar and Ambedkar on the same page has disappointed some activists. They argue that Periyar’s social justice was OBC-centric.

One cannot separate Ambedkar and Periyar from each other. The Dravidian parties will never commit that mistake. They are aware that they need both icons. It is sad to pitch Periyar against Dalits and Ambedkar against OBCs. Throughout his life Periyar tried to convince the OBCs that the Hindu caste structure to which they were wedded had shunned them as “shudras”. He stridently opposed Brahminism and Sanatana Dharma, which protect the caste-based hierarchical order. Ambedkar told Dalits to exit the Hindu religion. He fought for the OBCs too. We need both these warriors of social justice to win political power and achieve our objective of establishing an egalitarian society.

It is alleged that since the VCK is in the DMK-led alliance, it does not take up cases of atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu and has compromised on its ideology.

I am aware of that accusation. Being in an alliance does not mean we have to support everything that the government does. We are in the forefront against the state machinery in all the issues concerned.

We organised a massive agitation in Pudukkottai immediately after the Vengaivayal incident, in which human faecal material was found in a water tank in the Dalit quarters. I presided over it. The VCK organised protests in 30-odd district headquarters on the issue. I personally met the Chief Minister, and it was our pressure that got the case transferred to the CB-CID from the local police. The High Court also intervened.

I led a protest in Tirunelveli against the violence unleashed on Dalits, mostly Pallars. We have been organising agitations and protests against any rights violation in the State. We must blame the bureaucracy too for some of the issues.

We remain the voice of the voiceless, whether in an alliance with the ruling party or not. People trust us.

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