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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: In Tamil Nadu, PMK hopes for NDA boost

In the 2016 assembly polls, Ramadoss decided to go it alone and positioned Anbumani as a young chief ministerial alternative to both Jayalalithaa and DMK’s MK Stalin.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 17, 2019 08:42 IST
TR Vivek
TR Vivek
Hindustan Times, Tamil Nadu
The PMK and its founder S Ramadoss (centre) are betting on the BJP returning to power with a significantly smaller majority.
The PMK and its founder S Ramadoss (centre) are betting on the BJP returning to power with a significantly smaller majority.(PTI File Photo)

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), founded by physician S Ramadoss, has a well-earned reputation as the wind-cock of national and Tamil Nadu politics. It was a part of two successive Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments in 1998 and 1999. In 2004, it switched over the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and was rewarded with the health ministry for Ramadoss’ son Anbumani Ramadoss, 50, also a medical doctor. Similarly, in assembly elections, PMK managed to parachute into winning alliances in 2001, with the All Indian Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2006. But in the past few years, the PMK hasn’t been on top of its game. Despite Anbumani’s Lok Sabha win in Dharmapuri in 2014 as an NDA ally, and in the face of a Jayalalithaa wave that won the AIADMK 37 of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats, he couldn’t wangle a ministerial berth at the BJP-led NDA government at the centre. The alliance too was over soon.

In the 2016 assembly polls, Ramadoss decided to go it alone and positioned Anbumani as a young chief ministerial alternative to both Jayalalithaa and DMK’s MK Stalin. Considered a master practitioner of political calculus, Ramadoss’ new tack had twin objectives. One, to position Anbumani as progressive leader in tune with the aspirations of the young, and two, to demonstrate PMK’s standalone, statewide appeal to prospective suitors. Its nearly 6% vote share in 2016 has certainly helped achieve the latter, even if Anbumani himself could not manage a win from the Pennagaram assembly seat in Dharmapuri.

Vanniyar Caliper

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, being contested overtly on caste lines, PMK is an invaluable ally, and was coveted by both AIADMK and DMK before Ramadoss chose the former. In 1989, Ramadoss turned his caste group championing the cause of the Vanniyars, classified as a most backward caste (MBC), into the PMK political party. The Vanniyars, typically small landholders and farm labourers, are influential in northern Tamil Nadu districts such as Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Viluppuram, Vellore and Cuddalore. In some of these regions, the Vanniyar population can be as high as 18%. For the AIADMK-led NDA, the PMK therefore is the potential silver-bullet that can defeat the DMK in northern districts. If only it was that simple. The Vanniyars aren’t a monolithic vote bank. In fact, several of DMK’s senior leaders such as current party treasurer Durai Murugan, liquor-baron and Arakkonam candidate S Jagathrakshakan and late Salem strongman Veerapandy Arumugam are from the community. The yellow shawl that DMK chief M Karunanidhi favoured in the final two decades of his life, the party claims, was symbolic of his friendship with the Vanniyars.

For Anbumani, contesting again from Dharmapuri, the campaign couldn’t have begun more inauspiciously. At a news conference at the end of February, when the new alliance had been stitched up, Anbumani had tied himself in a knot trying to explain siding with the NDA when he had been a harsh critic of both the AIADMK and BJP. Along with DMK’s MK Stalin, Anbumani not too long ago was a bitter critic of BJP policies such as demonetisation and had even demanded an enquiry. There were also questions about his poor Lok Sabha attendance (45%) and the fact that he had asked a mere 51 questions in the Parliament, when the average for MPs was 291. The conference dissolved into chaos.

Campaigning in Dharmapuri from a beat-up van, Anbumani is eager to present a picture of earnestness to voters. Anbumani has to make several unscheduled stops because supporters are eager to perform aaratis and click selfies. Anbumani lists out the achievements of the central, state governments in urban-accented Tamil. “Soon after the elections, Prime Minister Modi will ensure that Mettur dam will get 200 TMC water from Godavari with the river-linking projects,” he proclaims in the village of Vellar, not far from Mettur, which lies within the Dharmapuri LS constituency. To some it seems a cruel joke, for the Godavari does not even flow close to the state. “Yeah, right. AIADMK and Modi can’t get Karnataka to give us our own share of Cauvery and now they will bring Godavari here,” says Ganapathy, who runs a flour mill in the village. “Don’t pay attention to him,” whispers a PMK worker. “He is a Chettiyar [a relatively prosperous caste of traders to which ex-finance minister P Chidambaram belongs].”

Poll vaults and somersaults

Even if the PMK can manage to consolidate the Vanniyar vote bank, this is the kind of reverse polarisation it risks as a caste-based party. In north Tamil Nadu, clashes between Vanniyars and Dalits are common. A spate of caste killings of Dalit and Vanniyar couples has rocked this region over the last decade. In Ramadoss’ recent speeches, Thol Tirumalavan and his Dalit outfit Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a constituent of the DMK-led UPA, are subject to acid criticism. For long, PMK’s slogan in these parts has been “Vanniyar vote anniyarukku illai” (the Vanniyar vote isn’t for others). While it is not invoked as openly now, it still remains the unmistakable base-note in its campaign.

“Our origins may lie in the Vanniyar Sangam, but today we have a much broader base. Four of our candidates in the seven seats we are contesting are non-Vanniyars. In fact, one [Vadivel Ravanan in Viluppuram] of them is a Dalit,” says Anbumani.

Having parted with a generous seven LS seats and the promise of one Rajya Sabha ticket from its kitty to the PMK, the ruling AIADMK is keen to make the alliance work in a region the DMK can count as its stronghold.

“AIADMK is a natural ally. We did not join the DMK because of its arrogance and its complete lack of credibility. Just look at its candidates. You either have to be a billionaire or the progeny of a DMK leader. If you are a son or daughter of a DMK leader, you’ll anyway be a billionaire,” Anbumani says without a hint of irony. With declared family assets of Rs 33 crore, Anbumani may not be a billionaire yet but is as much a beneficiary of dynastic politics as some DMK leaders.

The PMK and Ramadoss are betting on the BJP returning to power with a significantly smaller majority. Only in a less stable coalition can it drive a 2004-like bargain. And then, with his dexterous brand of politics, Ramadoss could relaunch a bid for Anbumani as a young CM.

First Published: Apr 17, 2019 07:20 IST

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