40-yr-old reservation demand conceded in TN: Is it working for PMK?
In the busy and congested marketplace of Tindivanam in Villupuram district is the landmark Dr Ramadoss Hospital, founded by S Ramadoss, the founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK)—a small caste-based party that can influence the 2021 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu after getting 10.5% reservation for the Vanniyar community, its key social base.
Villupuram is where the doctor-turned-politician was born, and where he played a chief role in mobilising and consolidating the votes of his Vanniyar community. Ramadoss is often perceived to have a knack for picking the winning side and his party has, in fact, served as a bellwether—the alliance the 1989-floated PMK has joined has often ended up winning the state assembly polls.
Will it work this time?
The reservation gambit
Ramadoss, 81, is barely seen on the campaign trail now days—he has been advised to remain indoors and campaigns from inside his car—but his successful attempt in getting the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to accede to the demand of allotting 10.5% internal reservation for Vanniyars has been a key talking point in these elections.
Vanniyars are dominant in northern and western Tamil Nadu and form the PMK’s core vote bank. An hour before the model code of conduct came into effect on February 26, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, as a last-minute resort, announced in the assembly the 10.5% quota under the existing 20% reservation for Most Backward Castes (MBC) for public jobs and education. In return, the following day, PMK reduced its settled for 23 seats and is the second-largest party in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), after the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is contesting in 20 seats.
Also Read | Tamil Nadu: An election that is Stalin’s to lose
However, this legislation came after months of negotiations and protests. The PMK revived its four-decade old demand around November 2020 ahead of the elections and threatened to leave the NDA if it wasn’t implemented. Several rounds of talks between AIADMK ministers and Ramadoss had failed; the latter, then, came down from his original demand of 20% internal reservation.
In December 2020, PMK cadre, during a state-wide protest for the reservation, pelted stones on a train, created ruckus and brought traffic to a standstill as the Chennai Police sealed its borders to restrict them from entering the city. Later that month, Ramadoss, in a virtual general council meeting, had urged the PMK cadre to work like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the BJP’s ideological parent. “RSS has ensured the victory for the BJP by reaching out to every nook and corner during elections and highlighting the party’s policies,” he had said.
But the exclusive reservation has caused a counter-polarisation among other castes across Tamil Nadu and has divided opinion even among Vanniyars in Villupuram, given the hasty passage of the Bill. Responses are also driven by perceptions of Ramadoss himself.
In Tindivanam, where Ramadoss lived and worked as a physician, he set up a clinic which has now grown into a go-to hospital for the locals. “Both my children were delivered in his hospital, he (Ramadoss) has that goodwill here for ensuring healthcare,” said Satish Babu, a businessman, a traditional AIADMK voter. Ramadoss continues to be addressed as “maruthuvar ayiah” (doctor sir) even by rival politicians.
However, many remain unaware of the reservation provided to them and Ramadoss is said to have urged his cadre to take this information door-to-door. “I will vote for mambazham (mango- PMK’s symbol)... that’s the symbol I’ve mostly seen here,” said a shopkeeper who sits across the hospital. From Tindivanam up to Mylai along the highway, PMK’s mango symbol is painted on the walls of most houses, with a few houses also bearing the symbols of DMK’s rising sun and AIADMK’s two leaves.
Beyond his hometown, Ramadoss’ support base dwindles in the district. “After all these years, it was passed in such a hurry only because of elections. God knows how long it would take for people to benefit from it,” said a Vanniyar farmer, S Ranganathan, in Villupuram assembly constituency. It is among the six assembly assembly segments in the district where AIADMK heavyweight, sitting MLA and law minister C Ve Shunmugam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)‘s R Lakshmanan engaged in a tough contest. Both candidates belong to the Vanniyar community.
Ramadoss’s movement is seen as a catalyst for more Vanniyar representation in politics. But the reservation announcement hasn’t been enough to win over Ranganathan and several others in the community. They are unhappy with the government not doing enough for farmers, and for digitising the market, which ends up delaying the cash inflow in their hands. They haven’t met Ramadoss though he lives in Thailapuram, a village in Villupuram.
“We don’t know when the AIADMK or PMK will change their mind, we want to give the DMK’s Lakshmanan a chance,” said Ranganathan. “Reservation won’t be an issue in towns, no one even talks about it,” adds a hotelier T Sudarshan in Villupuram town. The DMK candidate, an orthopedic surgeon was an MP from the AIADMK but switched over to the opposition and is more familiar amongst the electorate as a physician and politician. “I’ll be more easily accessible to the candidates,” says Lakshmanan.
But there are others with whom the reservation announcement has resonated.
A Valliamma, 23, staunchly believes that the lives of members of the community would be better with the 10.5% reservation. She is a chartered accountant and her brother A Arun is a history graduate and they both don’t have jobs. “What even aiyah couldn’t do, Anumbami (Ramadoss son) has done now,” she says crediting the junior Ramadoss for the quota. “With this reservation we can avail jobs that we haven’t been able to get so far.” Vanniyars in the western belt such as in Salem have also rallied behind the announcement.
The history of the demand
This election season wasn’t the first time that the Vanniyar protests demanding reservations had turned violent.
In the late 1970s, Ramadoss brought a coalition of Vanniyar community groups together, which later came under the umbrella of the Vanniyar Sangam (Federation of Vanniyars). It continues to be the parent body of the PMK. In the 1980s, they carried out protests demanding MBC status for Vanniyars. At the peak of the protests, the state was paralysed for a week when trees were felled, highways were blocked and police under M G Ramchandran (MGR) as chief minister shot down 21 protestors. Locals point to the national highway which has come up where the violence took place decades ago.
MGR, at that time, was hospitalised in the United States and held discussions with the group on his return but he soon passed away in 1987. The agitations were quelled when the DMK came back to power and M Karunanidhi created 20% reservation for MBCs, and Vanniyars were among the 108 other caste groups that were included.
The recent grievance is that Vanniyars hadn’t found benefited adequately within this framework of reservation. Previous chief ministers had treaded on this issue carefully. Tamil Nadu’s 69% reservation, above the 50% cap of the Supreme Court directive, has been protected by both DMK and AIADMK governments to ensure social justice.
Palaniswami too said that the Bill was passed based on the recommendation of the Justice Janarthanan Committee (who was heading the backward classes commission until 2018). Since the last caste-based census was conducted in 1983, the CM said that the reservation slab would be modified after the report filed by Justice A Kulasekaran Committee, which was appointed in December 2020, to collect quantifiable data on caste, communities and tribes. This has led to doubts on the implementation and the effectiveness of the Bill.
The decision to carve out a separate quote for Vanniyars has, however, upset other castes. For instance, deputy chief minister O Paneersevam who belongs to the Thevar subsect of the Mukkulathor community sought to offset the disappointment by saying in his campaign that the reservation is only provisional.
The AIADMK and even the PMK have not frequently mentioned the reservation issue in their campaigns outside Vanniyar dominated areas. Ramadoss, who campaigned in Chennai last week was silent on the aspect and instead focussed on the ruling government’s welfare schemes.
A first time Dalit voter in the assembly segment of Vikravandi in Villupuram, who did not wish to be identified said that the exclusive reservation for Vanniyars has further consolidated their stance against the ruling combine. “Yes, there is anger,” she says. “How can one community be given importance over another. How is it just to sideline the rest?”
Villupuram has been a hotbed of caste tensions and seen violent clashes in the past between the Vanniyars and Dalits. A decade ago, Ramadoss had sought the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 be diluted saying that it was misused against non-Dalits. He stated that Dalit men were wooing upper caste girls which needed to be stopped. In 2012, in Dharmapuri, 20 Dalits died and more than 300 huts were torched after the a Vanniyar woman, Divya who had eloped and married a Dalit man, E Ilavarasan. PMK had denied accusations that it had any role in any caste-clashes.
At one point though, Ramadoss once carried the corpse of a Dalit man as Vanniyars had not allowed access to their area to reach the cremation ground. “Ramadoss will adapt to any scenario and strategy for electoral gains,” says political analyst Ravindran Duraisamy. “Other communities do not believe him but he is true to Vanniyars. He is an indefatigable worker which is how he has maintained PMK’s vote share at 5% for 30 years. This election, I think they will register around 3%.”
Since the 1990s, PMK has oscillated between the DMK and AIADMK for assembly and parliamentary elections. In 2016, for the first time, PMK went alone, projecting former union minister Anbumani Ramadoss as its chief ministerial candidate. He tried to shed their image as a “caste-party” and focussed on development but PMK drew a blank.
Ramadoss was unhappy that the PMK couldn’t establish itself with people, despite having faced six assembly and nine parliamentary elections. While the AIADMK has gone out of its way to appease the PMK to win over its social base, the DMK, under M Karunanidhi, cultivated several Vanniyar leaders over the years to resist Ramadoss’ dominance.
The polls on April 6 will indicate if the AIADMK’s gamble in the Vanniyar reservation pays off and determine the future of the PMK led by its polarising patriarch.