Dr Ramadoss and the dynamics of Vanniyar quota in Tamil Nadu polls
Located in the busy and congested marketplace of Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district, Dr Ramadoss Hospital is a local landmark. It was established by S Ramdoss, the founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK)- a small caste-based party that is hoping to consolidate all Vanniyar community votes in the 2021 assembly elections on the back of the recent allocation of 10.5% reservation to the community.
Villupuram is where the doctor-turned-politician was born and politically mobilised his Vanniyar community. Ramadoss is often seen as a weathercock, and his party, as a bellwether, since PMK is often seen aligning with the side perceived to have an edge in the elections in Tamil Nadu, say political observers.
Ramadoss, 81 is barely seen on the campaign trail nowadays but talk of his role in winning 10.5% reservation for Vanniyars from the AIADMK regime abounds in poll conversations. He has been advised by doctors to remain indoors and thus conducts campaigns from inside his car. Vanniyars are dominant in northern and western Tamil Nadu and form the PMK’s core vote bank which the AIADMK wants to win over. But the exclusive reservation is feared to have caused a counter-polarisation among other castes across Tamil Nadu, and even divided opinion among Vanniyars in Villupuram, given the ‘hasty’ passage of the bill.
In Tindivanam, where he lived and worked as a physician, Ramadoss 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 and a traditional AIADMK voter.
Ramadoss continues to be addressed as ‘maruthuvar ayiah’ (doctor sir) even amongst rival politicians. However, many here are unaware of the reservation won for the Vanniyar community and Ramadoss has urged his cadre to spread the word 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 also carrying symbols of the DMK’s rising sun and the AIADMK’s two leaves.
Beyond his hometown, Ramdoss’ support dwindles in the district. “After all these years, it was passed in such a hurry only because of the 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 segments in the district where a close fight between AIADMK heavyweight— sitting MLA and law minister C Ve Shunmugam and DMK’s Dr R Lakshmanan is expected. Both candidates belong to the Vanniyar community. Ramadoss’ movement is seen as a catalyst for more Vanniyar representation in politics.
The reservation is not enough to appease people like Ranganathan and several others in the community. They allege the government hasn’t done enough for farmers and digitising the market, delaying the cash they get in hand. 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 Lakshmanan a chance,” said Ranganathan. “Reservation won’t be an issue in towns, no one even talks about it,” adds hotelier T Sudarshan in Villupuram town. The DMK candidate, an orthopedic surgeon, was an AIADMK MP who switched over and is more familiar amongst the electorate as a physician and a politician. “I’ll be more easily accessible to the candidates,” says Lakshmanan.
Families in villages like that of A Valliamma, 23, staunchly believe that their lives will be better with the 10.5% reservation. She is a CA graduate and her brother A Arun is a BA history graduate and they both don’t have jobs. “What even Aiyah couldn’t do, Anbumani (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 Bill.
An hour before the model code of conduct came into effect on February 26, chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced 10.5% quota for Vanniyars under the existing 20% reservation for Most Backward Castes (MBC) for public jobs and education in the assembly. In gratitude, the following day, PMK reduced its desired number of seats to settle for 23. It is the second largest party in the NDA alliance with BJP contesting on 20 seats.
However, this legislation came after months of negotiations and protests. The PMK had revived their four-decade old demand around November 2020 ahead of the elections and threatened to leave the NDA alliance if it wasn’t implemented. Several rounds of talks between AIADMK ministers and Ramadoss had failed but the latter came down from his original demand of 20% internal reservation.
In December 2020, PMK cadre who were on 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 urged the PMK cadre to work like the RSS (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.
It wasn’t the first time that such protests turned violent. In the late 1970s, Ramadoss forged a coalition of Vanniyar community groups 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, the Sangam was carrying 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 US 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 caste groups that were included. Vanniyars, however, had been claiming that this reservation was only symbolic in nature. Previous chief ministers treaded carefully given Tamil Nadu’s 69% reservation, which is above the 50% cap of the Supreme Court.
Palaniswami too said that the Bill was passed based on recommendations of a committee headed by justice Janarthanan—head of the backward classes commission until 2018. Since the last caste-based census was conducted in 1983, the CM said the reservation slab would be modified after the report filed by justice A Kulasekaran Committee, appointed in December 2020 to collect quantifiable data on caste, communities and tribes. This has led to doubts on the implementation and the intent of the bill.
The move has also upset other castes. For instance, deputy chief minister O Paneersevam who belongs to the Thevar subsect of the Mukkulathor community sought to off-set 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 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 clashes in the past involving the Vanniyars, who are considered above the Schedule Caste Dalits in the caste hierarchy. A decade ago, Ramadoss demanded that Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act of 1989 was diluted, alleging it was misused. He alleged 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 following a Vanniyar woman’s elopement and marriage with a Dalit man. PMK then denied accusations of a hand in caste-clashes. PMK president G K Mani is contesting from the Pennagaram assembly constituency in Dharmapuri district in the ensuing elections.
Curiously though, Ramadoss once carried the corpse of a Dalit man as Vanniyars did not allow Dalits passage through 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 in 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 in 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 despite having faced six assembly and nine parliamentary elections. While the AIADMK has gone out of its way to appease the PMK for the vote bank it enjoys, the DMK under Karunanidhi had cultivated several Vanniyar leaders over the years to challenge Ramadoss’ dominance. For now AIADMK will be hoping that its gamble pays off on April 6.