In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, things are getting heated up. Tamil Nadu remains one of the very few states where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found it very hard to gain a foothold. Going by the recent political developments in the southern state, which has a long history of Dravidian politics, it seems the BJP may have breached the last bastion this time. Since the demise of their dynamic leader, former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, the political situation in Tamil Nadu is such that the BJP has been able to flex its muscles to reduce the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to nothing but a puppet in its hands.
As has now been finalised, the AIADMK, with little other choice, has formed an alliance with the BJP. The national party will contest from five Lok Sabha seats this year, more than it has ever received from a Dravidian partner. In a bid to boost its chances, the AIADMK has also successfully incorporated the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which has a formidable presence in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu among the Vanniyars, who fall under the Most Backward Class category. This alliance was finalised on Tuesday, with PMK founder Dr S Ramadoss signing an agreement with the AIADMK following a hard bargain that got him seven Lok Sabha seats and one Rajya Sabha seat.
One is not sure whether AIADMK is at an advantage here, but PMK's highly opportunistic politics has gained much attention in this era of proliferating social media. The PMK has not only been vociferously campaigning against the Dravidian parties, but has also asserted at numerous press meets and meetings that it would never align with any Dravidian party. They had even contested the last Assembly polls on their own, with the party founder's son and former Union minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss having been in the fray as a chief ministerial candidate. After its alliance with AIADMK was announced, PMK's opportunistic politics has been trolled on social media with a lot of popular hashtags critiquing their stance.
While critiquing PMK's opportunistic politics, one should not forget that even the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which will head the other major alliance in Tamil Nadu, had been holding talks with PMK until recently.
Why is PMK the most-sought-after party despite its virulent and staunch criticism of Dravidian politics? The answer lies not in mere electoral arithmetic but in the politics of caste. For more than three decades, PMK has been instrumental in organising a conglomeration of castes, now collectively referred to as Vanniyars. Since its foundation in the late 1980s, PMK has established itself as a key player in the northern districts and has been an important ally of the major Dravidian rivals at different points of time. They have also built a very formidable presence in some of the major constituencies in the northern districts.
Despite their anti-Dalit stance and rivalry with Tamil Nadu's largest Dalit-led political party, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), PMK has always made its presence felt through its politicking and pressure politics. This has been possible purely because of its solid foundation in the northern districts and among Vanniyars, a consolidation that parties like VCK have failed to achieve. VCK, notwithstanding the fact that it was a long-time DMK ally and a sympathiser of Dravidian politics, was kept at bay as both main parties wooed PMK. Now, with an alliance signed between PMK and AIADMK, VCK leader Thirumavalavan can heave a sigh of relief as his party can strike a deal with DMK. However, the takeaway from this lesson for VCK is that it is not the first choice for Dravidian parties because it has failed to create strongholds in terms of its presence in constituencies.
At the moment, the AIADMK-BJP-PMK alliance looks strong and may prove tough competition for the DMK-Congress alliance. Historically, clientelist politics has been key to victory in Tamil Nadu, with both main parties competing to hand out welfare measures and 'freebies' to voters. AIADMK has already set out its stall with cash handouts of Rs 2,000 to 60 lakh households in the state. It remains to be seen how DMK will respond. In the past few elections, extravagant election manifestos have made a significant difference to the outcome.
However, for the first time, both Dravidian parties are competing without their experienced and familiar leaders, which means both parties have to establish their reputations afresh. If AIADMK has the advantage by virtue of being in office, it may be that political ideas play a larger role in these elections. It indeed looks as though secularism will be the key word in this election. If the latter can exploit the former by pointing out the politics of hatred that these parties — BJP and PMK in particular —are engaged in, then DMK and its allies can prevent the saffronisation of Tamil politics.
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Updated Date: Feb 20, 2019 09:10:22 IST