In the midst of a busy campaign, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan was optimistic of his party’s chances in the May 16 assembly elections after travelling between three constituencies in one day.
“A one-party government is not a democracy: it is an autocracy,” says Thirumavalavan, his tired voice belying the forceful conviction of his words. “Jayalalithaa is an autocrat.”
Dalit activist, lawyer, and political firebrand, Thirumavalavan is the leader of the Tamil party that emerged from the Dalit Liberation Panthers movement of the 90s.
“Our first foray into politics was in 1999, where we were hampered by the impression that we were a party just for the Dalits,” he continues. “In 2007, we passed the Velachery Resolution - opening up all positions from top to bottom in the party to show that we are inclusive of all minorities.”
The VCK is part of a wider alliance of parties that have chosen to contest the upcoming polls on a novel platform, at least in the context of Tamil politics: Rule of law by form of a coalition government.
The disenchantment with the one-party, one-strongman style of politics in a state that has seen power oscillate from the AIADMK to the DMK for nearly 50 years was the driving force behind the formation of the Third front.
Helmed by the controversial actor-turned-politician Vijayakanth and his DMDK, the front is comprised of six parties.
“We have contested with both the DMK in 2014 and the AIADMK in the past,” the VCK chief says. “But this time, we want to present a new proposal to the people of Tamil Nadu. All of the problems of our current political system - corruption especially - can only be solved with a coalition form of government.”
“Our chances are good,” smiles Thirumavalavan. “There is hope because the people are asking for a change.”
According to historian Karthikeyan Damodaran, the VCK leader’s powerful oratory and erudite political awareness have made him the most “popular Dalit leader in Tamil Nadu who heads the largest Dalit party in the state.” He says that Thirumavalavan’s speeches have instilled a sense of pride and self-respect among Dalits.
“The role of Thirumavalavan and the VCK in providing a militant edge to Dalit assertion cannot be undermined. They hit back whenever there is oppression,” says Damodaran.
For his part, Thirumavalavan has promised to campaign against the problem of mutual transfer of votes which has, in his mind, prevented Dalits across the country from politically mobilising themselves. “Other caste groups are active and aware. The Dalits alone remain scattered,” he says.
One of these other groups is the PMK, an outfit which was formed out of the political ambitions of the influential Vanniyar OBC group in Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. Their chief ministerial candidate, Anbumani Ramadoss, has given up his previous anti-Dalit rhetoric in favour of a Modi-esque mantra of development and jobs. But Thirumavalan is unimpressed.
“They will never change in their lives,” the VCK leader says when asked if the change in rhetoric signifies an abandonment of the uglier aspects of the PMK. “Ramadoss’ change is just a show for the elections. He and his party have gained too much power from the politics of hate to ever abandon it.”
In a state where caste and honour killings have come under the spotlight after the murder of Sankar, a Dalit, earlier this year for marrying a Thevar-caste woman, Thirumavalavan’s indictment speaks volumes.
“I feel he should have taken up Sankar’s murder much more strongly,” says Damodaran. “He failed to address it completely, save for a few protests in Chennai, because he was busy bridging an alliance of the Third front with other players.”
“Barbaric things are being done in the name of honour in our state,” the VCK leader says, anger now inflecting his voice. “And all parties save for our alliance have denied that such honour killings happen in Tamil Nadu.”
But things, he feels, are changing. “We will bring out a separate act to prevent this foolish violence on May 19,” he says. “Kausalya, Sankar’s widow, is determined to ensure that this happens.”
Contesting from the reserved seat of Kattumannarkoil, and unwilling to compromise on his vision of ending caste differences in Tamil Nadu, Thirumavalavan hopes that May 16 will make the Third front the kingmakers after these elections.