Union home minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah at a roadshow in Nagercoil, Kanyakumari, earlier this month. (File photo)
Union home minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah at a roadshow in Nagercoil, Kanyakumari, earlier this month. (File photo)

In Tamil Nadu, NDA attempts a new caste coalition

It is, in that sense, a repeat of the BJP’s attempts in north India to play on the heterogeneity within backward and Dalit castes, and create a coalition with the more marginalised segments of society. But the roots of this form of politics go deeper in the state
By Divya Chandrababu
PUBLISHED ON MAR 16, 2021 11:30 AM IST

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was in a dilemma a few weeks ago. It had to choose between two powerful communities — the most backward Vanniyars of the north or the backward Thevars of the south in Tamil Nadu. Which way it would tilt would impact its performance in the April 6 elections.

AIADMK’s ally, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), had revived their age-old demand for 20% internal reservation for their core vote bank — the Vanniyar community. PMK struck in the backdrop of the return from prison of former AIADMK leader VK Sasikala who vowed to lead the party. Sasikala, who wielded power behind-the-scenes when she lived with late J Jayalalithaa for three decades, helped make key appointments from the Mukkulathor sub-sect of the Thevar community that she as well as deputy chief minister O Paneerselvam belong to.

During seat sharing negotiations, Union home minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Amit Shah is also said to have broached the support base of the Thevars towards Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, which would contribute to a win in at least 25 seats. But chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami, who was handpicked by Sasikala and the AIADMK, has stonewalled the family, concerned about being sidelined himself if he accommodated them.

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An hour before the model code of conduct came into effect, Palaniswami passed a legislation for a 10.5% internal reservation for the Vanniyar community within the existing Most Backward Classes (MBC) reservation for public jobs and education, which the PMK celebrated. The following day, PMK reduced its seat demands and settled for 23 seats; it is now the second largest party in the National Democratic Alliance. Sasikala decided to “step away” from politics.

The AIADMK’s compromise with the PMK has deepened the caste divide as it has angered other communities. A faction of the Thevar community in Tenkasi village threatened to boycott the elections unless the quota is revoked.

But the entire episode throws light on both the nature of caste politics in Tamil Nadu, and the NDA’s attempts to capitalise on the support of sub castes within backward communities which feel excluded from the benefits of reservations. It is, in that sense, a repeat of the BJP’s attempts in north India to play on the heterogeneity within backward and Dalit castes, and create a coalition with the more marginalised segments of society. But the roots of this form of politics go deeper in the state.

The history and arithmetic of caste politics

Though the Dravidian movement envisioned an anti-Brahmanical and a caste-free society, the principal parties born of the ideology — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK — became increasingly dependent on caste-based parties for their electoral advantage. Tickets are issued to candidates from influential caste groups with respect to their constituencies. Political analysts say that national parties such as BJP which is trying to make inroads into the state are following a similar formula of drawing support from sub-castes to consolidate votes. The Congress, too, has survived in Tamil Nadu, albeit as a minor force, as caste groups such as the Hindu Nadars emerged as an important support base, making Kanyakumari the latter’s stronghold which was an erstwhile Communist bastion.

Caste-based politics was cemented with the split of the DMK in 1972 when MG Ramachandran (MGR) broke away and emerged as one of the most successful chief ministers of the state, founding the ADMK later renamed AIADMK. “MGR mobilised caste-based- constituencies and he had vociferous support from the Dalits and scheduled castes,” says S Ananthi of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) who researches on Dravidian politics and caste. Besides them, Thevars too moved towards the AIADMK, which was fiercely consolidated by the Jayalalithaa and Sasikala combine.

The DMK, for its part, has a considerable Vanniyar base which the PMK has partially eaten into but not wholly, say analysts. “AIADMK needs PMK’s support which is why they go out of their way to deal with them,” says Ramu Manivannan, head, politics and public administration, University of Madras. “DMK controls the Vanniyar community by polarising them and has a considerable number of Vanniyar leaders. Karunanidhi consciously cultivated that kind of resistance within the community.”

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“The stable voters for DMK are men particularly those who grew up along with DMK’s history and agitations. They still think they are guardians of Tamil people,” says political commentator Maalan Narayanan. “The lower-middle class benefited from both DMK and AIADMK in terms of access to jobs and education because of reservation (69%). OBCs are committed to both parties but women within these communities are Jayalalithaa’s vote bank.”

Jayalalithaa had rolled out several schemes for women such as gold for mangalsutra; budget canteens from 2013, which have employed thousands of women from self-help groups; Amma Baby Care Kit, which was launched with a dozen items including a feeding bottle, clothing, toy, sanitary napkins for new mothers; and, from 2016, subsidies on two-wheelers for working women. DMK and AIADMK have introduced a slew of sops for women in their election manifestos as women outnumber the male electorate in Tamil Nadu.

The BJP’s push

While the DMK traditionally enjoys support from the delta and southern districts where the Nadars are present, this community is said to be moving towards the BJP. The state BJP unit’s former chief, Tamilisai Soundararajan, who is presently Governor of Telangana with additional charge as Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, belongs to the Nadar community and the present chief, L Murugan, is a Dalit leader.

“The last BJP Brahmin chief in the state was L Ganesan. Now BJP is appointing OBCs and Dalits as their office bearers with the only idea of expanding their base,” says Maalan. A BJP leader and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, who did not wish to be named, said that few in the old guard are unhappy with new recruits who don’t have an RSS base and jump ship from other parties. “We are not against other castes but what do they know about Hindutva when they suddenly join the party before elections?” Ganesan, however, dismissed it and said, “BJP in Tamil Nadu is finally coming of age.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a government function in Chennai, said that the Centre had accepted a long-standing demand by members of the Devendrakula Velalar community that they should be known by their heritage name, a day after a bill to modify the list of Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order (Amendment) Bill 2021, proposed by the state government, would group together seven castes to be known as the Devendrakula Velalar. “They told me they pleaded and pleaded with governments, but nothing changed,” Modi had said then, and remarked that “Devendra” rhymes with his name “Narendra” and the name change would give them much-awaited justice, dignity and opportunity.

“After that, you don’t see BJP leaders talking about it because other communities (agamudayar, vellalars, kallars) have protested and said that they won’t vote for the BJP,” says Manivannan. “Modi speaks like he does in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP) but it can’t work here. Passing a legislation on Devendrakula Velalars is an example of the UP formula they applied here which is an assimilation of caste identity and the politics of exclusion and inclusion. But if caste lines fell in order, Tamil Nadu would have seen a grand caste coalition rather than a party coalition.”

Narayanan adds that OBCs support for the BJP is growing slowly in the state. Traditionally, the saffron party had the support of only the Brahmins pockets and Saurashtrians who have migrated from Gujarat and predominantly settled in Madurai as weavers. “Post-Ayodhya movement, there was considerable support from Thevars as Muthuramalinga Thevar (a patriarch of the community). But it will take the BJP at least another six years to attract the gamut of OBCs.”

A caste churning is also happening within the AIADMK which was dominated by the Thevars. With Sasikala presently out of the picture, the community is being challenged with the equally powerful Gounders, who enjoy more clout as chief minister Palaniswami and his top Cabinet ministers belong to this community from the western region. “The Thevar caste advantage of the AIADMK will melt through Sasikala and Dhinakaran and DMK will benefit from the fallout of this battle in at least 30 seats,” says Manivannan.

What is clear is that a range of factors — from Sasikala’s exit and its impact on the Thevar vote to AIADMK’s concession to Vanniyars, the BJP’s expansion among newer constituencies and the DMK’s hope to capitalise on those disenchanted with the wooing of newer groups — will lead to a new churn in the caste politics of Tamil Nadu.

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