Most Northerners who have heard of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) at all know it as the party to which Dr Anbumani Ramadoss belongs — the union health minister who has been giving smokers a very hard time. But in Tamil Nadu, it is Anbumani’s father, 70-year-old Dr S Ramadoss, who is the party’s face and the man credited with having taken caste politics to a new level.
The Vanniyar vote-puller
Founded in: July 1989. Strength has risen from one Lok Sabha seat in the 1991 general election to six in the 2004 poll.
Founded by: Dr S Ramadoss, 70, a medical practitioner turned caste activist turned politician. Party emerged out of a long drawn agitation he led in the 1980s which demanded – and ultimately got – a 20 per cent sub quota for the ‘Most Backward Castes’ of the state, who he maintained could not compete with the more advanced OBCs.
Power: Comes primarily from his ‘Vanniyar’ caste, the most numerous caste in Tamil Nadu, comprising around 17 per cent of the population and located mainly in the Northern and Northwestern districts.
Prospects: Tantalizing. Broke away from the DMK led front in mid 2008, though it remains part of the UPA at the centre. Not yet decided whether to lend its weight to the DMK’s alliance or the AIADMK’s. Being wooed by both.
The PMK had just six seats in the 14th Lok Sabha, but so crucial is its six per cent-odd vote share that both the DMK and the AIADMK are busy wooing it. Though the PMK and the DMK both support the UPA government and have ministers in Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, in Tamil Nadu they are at daggers drawn. They had contested the last election together, but following major differences with them, chief minister K. Karunanidhi threw them out of the ruling alliance in June 2008.
Both the Ramadosses, father and son, are qualified medical practitioners. Indeed, the elder Ramadoss had an extremely successful practice before he gave it all up to plunge into activism followed by mainstream politics. He is quick to point out that the sprawling farmhouse he lives in at Thailapuram, 140 km south of Chennai, predates his entry into politics. “I bought all this land in the 1970s,” he said, gesturing at the vast fields of vegetable and fruit that surround his home.
The PMK’s strength derives primarily from the Vanniyars, who comprise about 17 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population, and are concentrated in the northern and northwestern districts. Though the Vanniyars were counted among the state’s OBCs — for whom Tamil Nadu reserves a whopping 50 per cent of jobs and seats in educational institutions — they got a very small fraction of the benefits, being unable to compete with the more advanced OBCs like the Chettiars, Mudaliars or Thevars.
It was Ramadoss’ brilliant idea in the 1980s to launch an agitation — a first in the country — under the banner of Vanniyar Sangam demanding that a 20 per cent sub-quota be carved out of that 50 per cent for a new category, the Most Backward Castes (MBC). In 1987 the agitation brought the state to a halt by cutting down hundreds of trees along the highways and thereby blocking them. In 1989, the government conceded the demand, following which the Sangam metamorphosed into the PMK.
The PMK may be a ruthless practitioner of realpolitik, repeatedly switching sides between the DMK and the AIADMK in its two decades of existence, but it has not yet entirely lost its earlier activist zeal. Every fortnight it holds — rare among political parties — a brain storming session at Ramadoss’ home, where major issues of the day are debated, not just political strategy. It also conducts ‘political training’ classes for its cadres, and organizes regular campaigns against drinking, smoking and other social ills. Thus Anbumani’s anti-smoking obsession has a history to it.