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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: TTV Dhinakaran, the X-factor, may upend Tamil Nadu’s bipolar fights

Dhinakaran, a nephew of VK Sasikala, the longtime aide of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, can potentially help the opposition alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with not only a big slice of the 39 Lok Sabha (LS) seats, but also the chance to form a new government in the state.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 14, 2019 08:14 IST
TR Vivek
TR Vivek
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Dhinakaran is a Thevar, one of Tamil Nadu’s most influential backward classes, that is numerically concentrated in the central, eastern (the Cauvery delta) and southern parts of the state.
Dhinakaran is a Thevar, one of Tamil Nadu’s most influential backward classes, that is numerically concentrated in the central, eastern (the Cauvery delta) and southern parts of the state.(HT Photo )
         

Fifty six-year-old TTV Dhinakaran is the big disruptor in Tamil politics that had for long settled into the easy rhythm of a two-party system. Dhinakaran, a nephew of VK Sasikala, the longtime aide of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, can potentially help the opposition alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with not only a big slice of the 39 Lok Sabha (LS) seats, but also the chance to form a new government in the state. In the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) family-feud post Jayalalithaa’s death, Dhinakaran and Sasikala, who is currently serving a jail sentence, were ejected. Court rulings confirmed the Election Commission’s decision to allot the AIADMK’s two leaves symbol to the faction led by chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami (known as EPS) and his deputy, O Panneerselvam (known as OPS). Now, with his new outfit Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK) and his own poll symbol of a “gift box,” the EPS-OPS-led AIADMK government is in Dhinakaran’s crosshairs. If he can restrict the AIADMK to less than eight seats in the 22 assembly bypolls to be held alongside the LS elections on April 18, a change in the state government would be inevitable.

Thevar power

Dhinakaran is a Thevar, one of Tamil Nadu’s most influential backward classes, that is numerically concentrated in the central, eastern (the Cauvery delta) and southern parts of the state. If Dhinakaran can prise away about 10% of AIADMK votes in these parts, it would make life easy for the DMK-led alliance. If he makes a bigger dent across the state, the AIADMK-led National Democratic Alliance could face a rout. The AIADMK under both founder MG Ramachandran and successor Jayalalithaa had assiduously cultivated the Thevar vote bank. Of the 36 assembly seats dominated by Thevars in the southern districts of Madurai, Theni, Dindugal, Sivaganga, Virudhunagar and Ramanathapuram, the AIADMK won 23 in 2016. OPS, also a Thevar, was trusted by Jayalalithaa enough to be appointed chief minister twice when she had to step down on account of court convictions in corruption cases.

Short and doughy, Dhinakaran has made Chinese-collar shirts and rimless glasses his trademark attire. In campaign meetings, he employs the wry Cauvery delta humour he absorbed growing up in the town of Tiruthuraipoondi. Dhinakaran’s unflappable manner in the face of questions about the ongoing cases against him and the many income tax raids has earned him many young admirers. At a roadside rally in Periyakulam in Theni district, where OPS’ son Raveendranath Kumar is the AIADMK LS contestant, Dhinakaran likens the current AIADMK to a party run by evil Duryodhanas.

“Aren’t these leaders, who once prostrated before Amma and Chinnamma [Sasikala] , ashamed to call {Prime Minister Narendra} Modi their daddy?” he asks. Meanwhile, a couple of party workers request him to name their new born girls, a long-standing tradition among Dravidian party workers. “Name them after Amma and Chinnamma,” he declares to even louder cheers.

A bitter harvest

The 2019 election campaign has been wrenching for AIADMK workers. For the older generation, it’s déjà vu. They are reminded of the 1989 mid-term assembly elections in the aftermath of party founder MG Ramachandran’s (MGR) death, when the party had split. His political aide J Jayalalithaa and widow Janaki both staked a claim to MGR’s political legacy. While Jayalalithaa eventually prevailed, the battle was bruising. For the younger lot, primed to fight arch foes DMK, squaring up against members of Dhinakaran’s party, who till recently were colleagues, or happen to be relatives, puts them in a quandary.

Tamil Selvan, 52, of Thanjavur has been a loyal AIADMK man since the party was formed. Besides running a small legal documentation business near the Thanjavur district court campus, he doubled as the AIADMK-owned Jaya TV’s bureau chief until 2017. “I can’t tell you how painful the split has been. Contestants from both AIADMK and AMMK are my close friends. I can’t bear to see those who were fellow party men till yesterday, trading abuses and helping DMK in the process,” he says. He thinks Dhinakaran’s chances of sinking the mothership, despite his party symbol being relatively new, are rather bright.

Selvakumar, 30, who runs a juice shop next to OPS’ tea shop in Periyakulam, comes from a family of AIADMK workers. He is also a party youth wing head of a ward. His elder brother has defected to the Dhinakaran faction. “Yesterday, seeing the scale of Dhinakaran’s meeting here, I was envious of my brother. I wish we were on the same side. Perhaps, a change will be for the better. Leaders like OPS have fattened themselves but done nothing for the people. When Dhinakaran was the MP from Periyakulam between 1999 and 2004, he was proactive. You can still see his name on the plaques of many of the public works,” he says. Years of poor rainfall and lack of new irrigation projects have hit the local economy, based almost entirely on agriculture. “If I hadn’t quit agriculture, I wouldn’t be leading a happy life,” says SV Rajaram, the head of Theni district Naidu Association. The Naidus form a sizable Telugu-speaking minority in the region. Rajaram is happy to leave his 60-acre holding fallow and says he has made a profitable switch to real estate and money-lending. The dissatisfaction with OPS notwithstanding, Theni district and adjoining regions are traditional AIADMK bastions. Affection for DMK is hard to find. After all, both MGR and Jayalalithaa represented the Andipatti assembly constituency in the district. In Jakkampatti, a weaving hamlet nearby famous for its sarees, women rendered jobless due to power looms closing down, have a new source of income during election season. Given Andipatti’s symbolic significance, all parties are keen to stage a show of might here. The going rate for attending political roadshows that occur every second day is Rs 300. “But we will only vote two-leaves [AIADMK’s symbol],” says shop owner Pandiyan, 48.

Cash and carry

Besides his caste cachet, Dhinakaran’s opponents fear his ability to splash the cash. In the high profile bypoll for the RK Nagar assembly in north Chennai in 2017, after the death of incumbent MLA Jayalalithaa, Dhinakaran won by a huge margin. He defeated his AIADMK rival by over 40,000 votes; the DMK candidate lost his deposit. His opponents attributed the victory to his offering cash and other inducements to RK Nagar voters. In Tamil Nadu, Dhinakaran has become synonymous with the votes-for-cash strategy. That charge makes his supporters prickly. Muthukumar, an AMMK leader in Thanjavur unleashes a volley of invectives at the media, especially English-language outlets. “You only make jokes about our party symbol [gift box] and deliberately erase the huge crowds at his meeting from your photographs. We will soon teach you a lesson,” he rages. According to Dhinakaran loyalists, the many IT raids and Enforcement Directorate investigations into his finances have made it hard for him to deploy money power.

Despite being a direct beneficiary of Dhinakaran’s dissent, the DMK in the Cauvery delta and southern districts seems unnerved by his growing popularity. The party fears he could eat into some of its own votes, especially Muslims whose numbers are significant here — his only ally in the elections is the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a Muslim outfit. Tiruvarur assembly seat, one of the 22 seats seeing bypolls, was vacated by the death of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, and DMK supporters claim that Dhinakaran’s party is PM Narendra Modi’s “sleeper cell”. For Dhinakaran, the best measure of success may not lie in the number of seats he can win but his capacity to give the AIADMK a bloody nose. And then, when the assembly elections arrive in 2021, Chinnamma would be back from the Bengaluru prison.