Whatever they say, caste politics is here to stay

Whatever they say, caste politics is here to stay

As the Tamil Nadu elections draw near and political equations and ties are undergoing rapid metamorphosis, political parties and community leaderships are exhibiting an eagerness to build new bonds of friendship. 

Caste remains central to the state politics because the state has a Janus-faced attitude towards caste and each caste seems to be in need of some political protection and identity. The three components involved in TN politics are the power structure of caste, distribution of economic benefits and caste consciousness.

It all began with the DMK approving 18% reservation for the Vanniyars (agricultural labourers, single largest caste in the statea) after they decried humiliation and tried defending their social standing in 1989. The DMK set the stage for emergence of parties affiliated to specific castes.

The self respect or the Dravidian movement benefitted the castes with large populations like the Thevars, Nadars and Gounders. The Dalit parties were born with Thol Thirumavalan, a member of the 15th Lok Sabha, catering to the Parayars among the Scheduled Castes in the state.

Mainstream political parties isolating their Dalit counterparts by terming them as militant groups will not work anymore because they adopt an activist’s approach to Dalit issues.
Thus, the playing field remains unstable for new aspirants.

 After bitter experiences with the DMK and the AIADMK, the People’s Welfare Front took on board DMDK chief Vijayakanth, who will be contesting from 104 seats, while the VCK will fight in 25 seats. The Front has left everyone guessing as Dalits make up 21% of the population and consolidation of votes in their favour is a possibility. Ensuring pluralism in representation is their take.

Are they a viable alternative to the two parties that have dominated TN politics for 49 years is now before for the voters to decide. In order to appease the dominant community in different areas, the DMK and the AIADMK have fielded candidates with respective caste tags.

This time, what was predictable but nonetheless intriguing is the fact that the DMK has joined hands with the Indian Union Muslim League since Muslims dominate the district next to Vanniyars. In such a multi- cornered fight, who will eat into whose votes, is hard to predict.

 With a Vanniyar-only image and a consistent stand against tobacco, alcohol and freebies, the PMK is raring to have a go at their opponents by breaking into the southern districts, too. Closing down 605 Tasmac (liquor) shops is no joke.

 The Dalit parties do have an ideological mobilisation because they emphasise on social justice and equality, but haunting memories of the anti-Dalit riots in  Dharmapuri in November 2012 is still fresh after which the Parayars, Arundatiyars (both Dalits), and Vanniyar villages are irreconcilably alienated. Still, all alone, the PMK is hoping to entrench itself in north TN with its suave leader, Anbumani Ramadoss leading from the front.
Also, we have the fans of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose who have strong ties with the RSS and are called as the Mukkulathors, a caste confederacy of Maravar, Kallar, Agamudayar, titled as Thevars, a cadre once led by Muthuramalinga Thevar.

 Madurai has been an AIADMK citadel though the Mukkulathor’s politics has not been entirely Dravidian because of two reasons: First because Alagiri is equated with money, muscle and violence; second, Sasikala is a Mukkulathor from Mannargudi.

Actor-turned-politician Sarath Kumar, a Nadar and founder of the All India Samathuva Makkal Katchi (AISMK), had been trying his luck by renewing his friendship with every other party and has finally settled with the AIADMK. But whether the Thiruchendur Nadars will allow themselves to be enticed either by the AIADMK-SMK or DMK-Congress alliance remains a political poser.

The community, however, holds sway over a few more adjoining constituencies like Sathankulam, Tuticorin and Nagercoil. Nadars have a visible presence in Sivakasi but Naickers have the advantage of numbers. Vaiko, a Kammavar Naidu, who won the Lok Sabha polls from Sivakasi twice, has given way to Vinayak G Ramesh in Kovilpatti, an area dominated by the Thevars. Since we find a Nadar leader in every party, the Christian Nadar vote bank down south is sure to remain divided.

There are leaders who capture the imagination of different communities but we also have fence-sitters and educated ones with no caste affiliations who could be swayed either way.

(The writer is a freelance journalist)

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